Indian Removal in Iowa

When Europeans began to colonize North America, they had to deal with the native inhabitants. In some cases efforts were made to coexist. In fact, the North American English colonies owed their survival to the Native Americans.

In the 17th century, when European fashion provided a demand for furs, the North American continent became a source for animal pelts. French and English traders exchanged European-made goods for furs brought to the posts by Native Americans. As Native Americans became dependent on these goods, they moved away from their old self-sufficient ways.

Following the American Revolution, the United States government tried to bring some control to the trading situation. The government tried to provide a way to prevent further hostilities. A policy was devised by which treaties were made with Indian tribes. The government bought Native American land and moved the Indians away from the European settlers who purchased land from the government.

This did not solve the conflicts between the two cultures, however. Both continued to hold different views about land use and justice. As European settlers began to move into the Iowa land, Native American tribes were affected. 

American Indians: The Iowa Experience

At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the lands bordering the Mississippi River were used by a number of Native Americans tribes and fur traders. By this time the federal government's policy for Native Americans removal and relocation had become a highly organized operation. 

The government purchased land from the Native American tribes in return for promises of relocation, protection and payment of tribal debts. After the land was purchased from the Native Americans, it was surveyed and divided. Then the government sold the land.

By 1830 the government had relocated a number of tribes within the future Iowa boundaries. The Sioux were assigned to an area around the Upper Iowa River. The Sauk and Mesquakie were placed south of the Upper Iowa River. The Winnebago were squeezed into a 40-mile zone along the Upper Iowa River.

Land for the European Settlers

European settlers were interested in the lands west of the Mississippi and began to pressure the government to purchase the land for settlement. The removal of the Native American tribes from the Iowa territory was fast. The first purchase of land for sale to settlers was the result of the Black Hawk War, an incident that took place in Illinois and Wisconsin. Black Hawk, a Sauk warrior, resisted removal from his land along the eastern side of the Mississippi River. 

The outcome was disastrous for the Native Americans. The government used the incident to obtain lands in Iowa. The peace treaty demanded that the Sauk and the Mesquakie give up land west of the Mississippi. Five years later another land purchase was made, and the Sauk and Mesquakie were moved farther west.

Cheap Land for the Government

In 1841 when the United States government again approached the Sauk and Mesquakie for more land, the tribes recognized the hopelessness of their situation. They tried to sell their land in small parcels, hoping to get more money. The government refused. In the end there was no sale and no money for the already indebted tribes. 

Poverty and debt forced the two tribes to make another treaty in 1842. All their lands in central Iowa were ceded. The Native Americans agreed to leave the area within three years. Debts to the traders were paid and yearly payments promised. The whole arrangement cost the federal government 11 cents an acre. The treaty-making continued. By 1862 Native Americans tribes had given up all the land in what is now Iowa.

The Meskwaki Story

The story of the Meskwaki is unique to both American and Iowa Native Americans history. The tribe migrated to Iowa in the late 18th century. For reasons of defense, they were at that time closely allied to the Sauk. In the years prior to their migration to the Iowa region, the Meskwaki had controlled the fur trade routes along the Fox River near the Green Bay Trading Post. Following a series of defeats by the French, remnants of the tribe moved southward into the land that would become Iowa. The Mesquakie settled along the western side of the Mississippi. The Sauk settled on the eastern side of the river.

After the Louisiana Purchase, the two tribes were treated as one by the new owner of the land— the United States government. Because of this policy, the 1832 treaty following the defeat of Black Hawk penalized the Meskwaki even though they had not been involved in the incident.

In 1846 when the Meskwaki and the Sauk were moved to Kansas, a few Meskwaki secretly remained in Iowa. Those who moved to Kansas were unhappy with the poor conditions there and decided to return to Iowa. In 1856 this group requested and received permission from the Iowa General Assembly to purchase and live on land in the state. With continued support from the state legislature for their right to own property in Iowa, they purchased land in Tama County. 

When the Meskwaki returned to live in Iowa, the federal government withdrew financial support promised in earlier treaties. Years of hardship followed as the tribe worked to make a living on an area of land too small to support so many people. Finally state officials convinced the government to resume the annual payments. The tribe used the money to purchase more land. Today the Meskwaki own over 3,000 acres along the Iowa River in Tama County. The Meskwaki have worked diligently to support themselves and to recover their way of life. 

The Story is the Same Everywhere

Throughout North America the story of the Native Americans is much the same. In most cases the Native Americans peoples were relocated to new lands. European settlers rushed in to purchase the vacated land from the United States government. In Iowa the Sauk, Meskwaki, Sioux and Winnebago were the main tribes affected by the arrival of Europeans. Although they were forced to leave their lands in the Iowa territory, the Mesquakie returned to establish a permanent home in the state of Iowa. They continue to contribute to the story of Iowa and its people.


In Iowa the Sauk, Mesquakie, Sioux and Winnebago were the main tribes affected by the arrival of Europeans.

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