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  • Sue Devick

The Wisdom of Sauk Chief Keokuk

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

Sauk Chief Keokuk, whose name means "Watchful Fox," showed his wisdom when Sauk war chief Black Hawk and his warriors attempted to persuade Keokuk and his band to join them in a war against the white settlers in 1832. Chronicler P. A. Armstrong tells us that after a war dance, Black Hawk spoke at length about his numerous grievances against the "palefaces" who had slowly but surely driven the Sauks "'toward the setting sun, burning our villages, destroying our growing crops, ravishing our wives and daughters, beating our pappooses with cruel sticks, and brutally murdering our people upon the most flimsy pretenses and trivial causes.'" Black Hawk sought to unite the Native American tribes of the Mississippi Valley in a war against the white settlers to reclaim their land, which was a cause of the Black Hawk War.

Keokuk's response was that although a war would be unsuccessful due to the sheer number of the "Long Guns," he would be willing to join Black Hawk. However, he then spoke of their old and infirm, along with their women and children, who could not join them on the war-path. "'We dare not leave them behind us, doomed to perish of hunger or fall captive to the palefaces, who would murder the old and the young, but reserve our wives and daughters for a fate worse than death itself.'" Then Keokuk appeared to use a psychological ploy; he stated that he would join Black Hawk if "'we first put our wives and children, our aged and infirm, gently to sleep in that slumber which knows no waking'" and gently "'lay their bodies away by the side of our sacred dead, from whence their freed spirits shall depart on the long journey to the happy home in the land of dreams beneath, beyond, the Evening Star.'" This proposition destroyed Black Hawk's hopes of convincing Keokuk's band to join him in a war against the pioneers, as it would have been impossible to meet these conditions.

Armstrong tells us that one white man, Josiah Smart (who knew the Mesquakie-Sauk language), heard Keokuk's speech, and later recited the content. The chronicler writes, "It is a loss to the literature of the world that this speech could not have been preserved as delivered." He states that Smart was "literally buried beneath Indian saddles, blankets, etc., in Keokuk's lodge, where he dare not move, or scarcely breathe, lest he should be discovered by some of Black Hawk's band, and his life taken as the penalty of a spy." Smart was married to a Fox woman whose tribe was allied with the Sauks.

Had Keokuk been willing to join Black Hawk, this confederation would have created a very formidable force against the white settlers. According to Armstrong, whose book The Sauks and the Black Hawk War gives a detailed account of this topic, Keokuk "saved the lives of thousands of white people of all ages, sexes, and conditions." The author compares Keokuk to King Solomon, although Keokuk was raised "a child of the forest, self-made, without hereditary title, position, or fortune, and raised in the wilderness." Black Hawk subsequently sought the assistance of Potawatomi chief Shabbona, an equally dramatic event that is detailed in Armstrong's book, as well. Originally printed in 1887, the work is available on line at:

Sue Devick, M.A.

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