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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Kee-shes-wa, painted by Charles Bird King

MESKWAKIES. The word meaning "red-earth" people was corrupted by the French who called them Renards, or "Foxes." The Meskwaki are of Algonquin origin from the Eastern Woodland Culture and are closely related to the Cree, Sac, Chippewa, Menominee, Shawnee, and Kickapoo. Members of the Woodland groups speak similar languages and share a common pattern in their religious customs, arts, crafts, and general way of living. (1)

Meskwakies originally lived in the lower peninsula of Michigan. In 1667, when the French first met the tribe, they were living in villages along the Fox and Wolf rivers in east-central Wisconsin. Hunting parties ranged into northern Illinois, however, and by 1700 Meskwaki hunters frequently hunted bison on the prairies of northern Illinois.

Painting by Karl Bodmer

War between the Meskwakies and French began in 1712. Fighting continued for over a decade. Meskwaki war parties so disrupted the French FUR TRADE in northern Illinois and Wisconsin that the French sent several expeditions against the Meskwaki villages.

Native American tribes were experts in obtaining dyes for their clothing from native plants. Photo courtesy: Hubbell Trading Post, National Historic Site, Ganado, Arizona

During the summer of 1730 some of the Meskwakies attempted to abandon their villages in Wisconsin. In October 1732, led by the war chief Kiala, the Meskwakies successfully defended themselves against a large war party of French-allied Indians, but during the following spring they abandoned the village and returned to Wisconsin. They sought sanctuary among the Sauk at Green Bay. After 1733 the Meskwakies and Sauk lived together, first in Wisconsin, then in the lower Rock River Valley of northwestern Illinois, and finally in Iowa. They arrived in the tri-state region around 1735 and were the last tribal group in the area. (2)

Following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763 all lands west of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER were ceded by France to Spain t avoid them being lost to the English. Rock Island became the center of the Meskwakie lands with principal villages at Davenport and Rock Island. Permanent villages were established at Dubuque and Prairie du Chien. Mining LEAD around Dubuque became important as Native Americans traded it to English and French traders for items they wanted. Julien DUBUQUE arrived in the area in 1785. (3)

Treaties affecting the Fox.

The Sauk and Fox were involved in many treaties with the United States government. Beginning with the Treaty of 1804 – the first one commissioned by the newly formed United States of America – the tribe gradually lost land to the advancing American “frontier.” The Meskwaki were pushed westward, leaving behind Illinois-side MISSISSIPPI RIVER village sites in 1829 such as Galena, Savanna, and Prairie Du Chien. In 1832 a treaty forced the Meskwaki out of their Iowa-side Mississippi River villages such as Dubuque, Bellevue, Clinton, Davenport, and Burlington. In 1836, the Meskwaki were also forced to leave their eastern Iowa villages of present-day Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. (4)

By order of Article III of the 1842 Treaty, the Sauk and Fox were to leave Iowa by October 11, 1845 to lands in Kansas assigned to them. The treaty terms allowed for a gradual relocation process of two steps taking place over a period of three years. (5)

The first move in 1843 was to be to the western part of the ceded land past a boundary called “Painted Rocks” or “Red Rocks” and the second move was to be across the Iowa border into Kansas by the 1845 deadline. However, the actual removal process was not a smooth transition due to repeated treaty violations by the Meskwaki, who kept returning to old village sites in the eastern part of the state. Government Agent John Beach threatened the Meskwaki with full military action, indicating that one way or another the tribe would be “gone” by October 11th. After antagonizing Agent Beach with delays, the Meskwaki march began on October 8th, but not in the same orderly manner as the Sauks. The Meskwaki rapidly left in very small groups fifteen minutes apart. This made it very difficult for the military to keep track of who had left, which direction they headed, and how intact the groups stayed during the course of the journey. Agent Beach discovered that by early winter of that same year, only one-fifth of the Meskwaki population was reported at the Kansas “Osage River” reservation. (6)

Members of the tribe played an important role during WORLD WAR II. The "Code Talkers" spoke in their own language over open channels since the Germans had no one capable of interpreting them. Nearly 70 years after eight Meskwaki men were trained to use their native language to provide secure battlefield communication, members of the Tama-based community accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of their ancestors. (7) Today, people from the Meskwaki settlement near Tama, Iowa, form part of the modern Native American community.



1. "Meskwaki History," Online: http://www.msswarriors.org/history/MeskinteractiveCD1/Pages/Culture/HistoryHomePage.htm

2. Hogstrom, Erik, "The Indigenous Years," Telegraph Herald, August 29, 2021, p. 9A

3. Ibid.

4. Buffalo, Johnathan L. "Meskwaki Anthology," Online: http://www.msswarriors.org/history/MeskinteractiveCD1/Pages/Culture/Anthology/BuffaloTreatyof1842.htm

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Lynch, James Q. "Meskwaki ‘Code Talkers’ Receive Congressional Gold Medal," Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 28 2014, Online: http://thegazette.com/2013/11/20/meskwaki-code-talkers-receive-congressional-gold-medal