Severe Winter Negotiations
The 1880 History of Washington County speaks of the winter of 1836-1837 as severe. Although the county boundaries were not fully established until 1845, says the Burrell county history of 1909, and the county was, at first, called Slaughter and not Washington, settlers had claimed territory in the prospective county before the winter of 1836 began.
One such person was a Mr. Moore who was acquainted with Meskwaki Chief Wapello. In fact, Wapello was what the U.S. government called a money chief, that is, he was designated as an official recipient of annuities promised to the Meskwaki (that the government called the Fox, after the French) and the Sauk (that the government spelled Sac). In a series of land concessions (treaties) in 1832, 1836, 1837, ending in 1845, the Sauk and the Meskwaki lost much of their revered woodland along the Iowa River and nearby. In the course of this removal, the government promised annuities, that is, annual payments.
In 1836-37, white settlers being new to the territory and the Meskwaki finding their own habits of hunting and farming disrupted by the loss of their land, the severe winter was a threat to all. Near its end, in April of 1837, Wapello came to Moore’s house and engaged him in an over-night conversation about the difficulties faced by the Meskwaki and the Sauk. Not only was the weather a challenge but also the government had not paid the promised annuities. In addition, a man named Baker had established himself so close to Meskwaki and Sauk land that “his stock was a source of great trouble.” Wapello and his people determined Baker must leave. They removed him from his house without violence but burned the structure to the ground. Wapello assured Moore that he would not be disturbed. But the next week, when Thaddeus and William Moore were hauling rails on the road, they were stopped by a Meskwaki or Sauk man and told they had to leave. Though Moore was reluctant to concede the land on which he and his family had begun to establish a homestead, he did. With his family, he moved to Henry County.
If Wapello and Moore were political rivals but friends grappling with fairness and survival on that night in late winter in 1837 in what would become Washington County, their balanced negotiations were soon knocked off kilter. Wapello’s friends and acquaintances among white military men and settlers like Moore made him suspect among his own people. His apparent inclination to drunkenness left him open to accusations of corruption in the signing of agreements that conceded Meskwaki and Sauk lands and in his role as money chief. Though white negotiators themselves repeatedly warned that white-provided alcohol was corrupting and its removal would go far to reestablish the stability of Meskwaki and other native communities, the destabilizing influence remained.
The U.S. government pushed for repeated land concessions such that by 1839, Moore could return to Washington County, not to be removed by the Meskwaki again. By 1841 Wapello was pleading with the government not to force the Meskwaki off their limited, remaining lands.
His plea was rejected. All Meskwaki and Sauk lands in Iowa had been lost by 1845. The government removed many of the Meskwaki to Kansas, but a few stayed behind. In 1857 they made the first of a series of land purchases along the Iowa, further up-river in Tama County. An unusual strategy, their purchase of lands, supported for decades by the government of Iowa, continues to challenge the federal government’s relationship with displaced native people.
Sources: SHSI: Howard A. Burrell, History of Washington County, Iowa, Chicago, 1909; The History of Washington County, Iowa, Des Moines, 1880; on-line: Meskwaki Nation; “Wapello,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, University of Iowa Press Digital Editions; Iowa Research On-line.