Chef Keokuk gave the Danville farmer a taste of his own medicine
Race relations were never a strong suit for Burlington’s “founding fathers”. If given half a chance, they would blithely deceive the neighboring Indians and not think about it.
Perhaps these early settlers took as justification the disgraceful conduct of their federal government in acquiring the land then known as the Blackhawk Purchase. This strip of land made up much of eastern Iowa.
The government put an end to this blatant theft of land when a group of elders from the Sac and Fox tribes understandably became concerned that white settlers were illegally squatting on Indian treaty lands.
The tribe sent representatives to St. Louis to complain to the governor of Missouri about the predatory practices of white settlers. But instead of acting on the complaint, government agents made the roaring Indians drunk and then tricked them into selling the eastern Iowa tribal lands.
Although the Indian Tribal Council was later to complain that the representatives they sent to St. Louis had no authority to sell the land and that the representatives were drunk for most of their stay. in St. Louis, and the price given to the tribes was ridiculously low, the government kept the deal.
The arguments failed to change the minds of the government and the white community; it was just another shrewd trade deal.
Many of the settlers who flocked to Burlington in the 1830s continued the practice of shady dealings with the Indians. But on at least one occasion, the practice nearly led to a disastrous outcome.
In 1834, when Burlington was no more than a few crude riverside cabins, a small band of Indians came to Jerry Smith’s trading post to receive the few pieces of silver the government paid as an annual allowance for seized land.
A number of townspeople observed the transaction and felt that there must be some effective way to separate the Indians from their money, other than the usual practice of charging exorbitant prices for trade goods.
These local sharpies approached the Indians and offered a bet that the fastest in their group could outrun the fastest member of the tribe. The Indians accepted the challenge and to compound their mistake they agreed to let the town merchant hold the stakes of the game.
The results of the race were predictable, as was what happened next. The Indian racer easily outdistanced his opponent but the white settlers falsely claimed that he had cheated and the race purse was given to the settlers.
The Indians complained loudly but it was of no use and they were ordered out of town. That night the town gathered at Smith’s store and there was “much merriment” as the story was told of how the Indians had been “conquered”.
This gaiety lasted only a few days because the Indians returned with reinforcements. The running and reaction of the Indians didn’t seem so funny when the settlement was suddenly surrounded by Indian campfires and drums sounded ominously from the hills.
The entire town sought refuge in “Kelly’s Castle” – an unusually strong and large shack under Prospect Hill. But two nights of psychological warfare and incessant drumming led the settlers to seek a peaceful settlement.
A group of highly chastised race organizers met with Indian leaders and the bet was paid to the winners.
This won’t be the only misstep in the settler’s relationship with the native tribes as a year later, two single Danville-area farmers, Azariah Gregg and William Sawtell, accost two young Indians who are loitering around their isolated farmhouse.
The settlers suspected the Indians of doing no good and believed that a preemptive strike would prevent any misconduct. They were able to capture one of the young braves and beat him with a rawhide whip.
After releasing their victim, the two colonists congratulated themselves on their strong measure. But two days later, the men came to regret their action.
Gregg was to write later: “We were having our meal when suddenly a dozen or more warriors, dressed in war blankets, came into our cabin in a state of apparent excitement and displeasure.
“I told Sawtell we had to do whatever we could to assuage their anger and, knowing their fondness for flour, I gave them everything we had and many other gifts and they finally left.”
A few hours later, a second group of Indians burst into the cabin and this time the farmers are forced to give up their entire pantry to buy their safety. But the matter should not end there.
A few days later, Gregg was in Burlington to purchase replacement supplies. Arriving in town, he learned that Chief Keokuk was at Jeremiah Smith’s trading post. Gregg thought it might be interesting to see the legendary Indian, so he stopped at the post.
Smith had generously offered the Indian the stock of whiskey from the trading post, but Keokuk quickly recognized Gregg as the farmer entered the room. Keokuk jumped off the table, yelled at Gregg, then pulled out a knife which he used to stab the startled settler.
Gregg escaped injury due to the heavy vest he was wearing, and the enraged Keokuk was held back from another attack by Smith and the interpreter. Passers-by jostled a surprised Gregg out of town, and on the long drive home, Gregg had plenty of time to reflect on past actions.
“I left the trading post in search of better company,” he recorded. “But I would consider Indian whipping to be a rather unprofitable business to engage in.”