Thomas Loraine McKenney

Keokuk: Chief of the Sacs and Foxes, Painter: Charles Bird King, Washington, 1837
Keokuk: Chief of the Sacs and Foxes
Painter: Charles Bird King, Washington, 1837
Extended description
[xffE77 M13 v.2]
Ma Has Kah: Chief of the Ioways, Painter: Charles Bird King, Washington, 1824
Ma Has Kah: Chief of the Ioways
Painter: Charles Bird King, Washington, 1824
Extended description
[xffE77 M13 v.1 following p. 139]
Waa-Top-E-Not, Painter: Original by James Otto Lewis, Fond du Lac council, 1826, later copied in Washington by Charles Bird King
Painter: Original by James Otto Lewis,
Fond du Lac council, 1826,
later copied in Washington by Charles Bird King
Extended description
[xffE77 M13 v.3 following p. 150]

President James Madison appointed Thomas McKenney Superintendent of Indian Trade in 1816. McKenney developed a growing interest in the culture and artifacts of American Indians. In 1817, he urged that "Indians be looked upon as human beings, having bodies and souls like ours, possessed of sensibilities and capacities as keen and large as ours, that their misery be inspected and held up to the view of our citizens, that their trophies of reform be pointed to. I say, it needs only this to enlist into their favor the whole civilized population of our country."

In 1824 McKenney embarked on a project to amass information about the Indians, "with the view of preserving in the archives of the Government whatever of the aboriginal man can be rescued from the destruction which awaits his race." As the books, pamphlets, and manuscripts continued to accumulate, it was the gallery of Indian portraits that most pleased McKenney. In 1826 McKenney undertook the first of several presidential missions to the western frontier, where he participated in Indian Councils. The entourage to the Fond du Lac council included artist James Otto Lewis, whom McKenney had "sketching from dawn to dusk."

Among the many gifts offered to visiting Indian chiefs, medals were considered the most valuable. Many Indians, including the Seneca chief, Red Jacket, are depicted wearing their medals in the portraits that appear in the McKenney and Hall volumes.

Historian Jared Sparks brought Thomas McKenney and James Hall together in 1835. The process of publishing and promoting the three-volume work reads as a soap opera, with entanglements involving bankers, creditors, friends, and colleagues. The concurrent publication of James Lewis' Aboriginal Portfolio added another complication, and McKenney suffered severe financial problems exacerbated by the Panic of 1837. Even the laudatory words of Jared Sparks, who hailed the work as one of the most famous books in America "with over 200,000 sold" and with profits that would reach $ 500,000, could not save the effort.

With his finances in tatters, and his beloved Portfolio in jeopardy, McKenney attempted to remain solvent through speaking engagements and the publication of his memoirs. He struggled to keep the Portfolio in print, but the struggle took its toll. McKenney continued to champion the cause of the American Indian, however, and allocated a portion of his speaking funds to poverty-stricken tribes. In February 1859, Thomas McKenney died, not knowing that his life's work would eventually stand as one of the major American publications of the nineteenth century.


In the early fall when the prairie's sea of grass and flowers billowed like waves under the crisp wind, the council of the Sauk and Fox nation would send out runners to their neighboring tribes, the Osage, Oto, Omaha, Winnebago, and Iowa, to spread the news that their great chief Keokuk was preparing his annual visit.

Dressed in his finest deerskins and buffalo robes and mounted on a war pony that would arouse the envy of any Comanche horse thief, Keokuk would leave his village to the wailing of the women, the cries of the young boys, the wild barking of the countless dogs, and the mumbled warnings of old men.

His royal bodyguard, fifty of the most devoted and fiercest warriors, would ride on either side of their chief. Each one was dressed in skins the women had worked on during the summer, their Spanish saddles gleamed with silver and dripped with furs and feathers. They moved slowly, a long colorful snake winding through the fading grass, their chanting songs of legends and great deeds filling the morning air.

Runners were sent ahead to their allies, or even enemies, to alert them that Keokuk was approaching. Feasts were always waiting. After the interminable Indian speeches there would be ball games, horseracing, and gambling. At the conclusion of the festivities Keokuk and his royal guard would move out onto the prairie escorted for the first few miles by his shouting, whooping hosts who fired round after round of rifle fire until the greasy smoke hung like a haze long after the last rider had returned to the village.

Only a distinguished warrior, chief, and diplomat like Keokuk could make such a tour. His skill in war, personal courage, and diplomacy were legendary on the plains in the 1820s and 1830s.

Colonel McKenney was particularly impressed with the Sauk and Fox leader when Keokuk led his nation's large delegation to Washington. The chiefs and warriors of the other tribes in the capital at the time strutted up and down Pennsylvania Avenue in the gaudy clothes the government had given them as presents. But not Keokuk's warriors. Instead of top hats, tight yellow shoes, and garish pantaloons, his braves appeared in buckskins and buffalo robes. Colonel McKenny recalled that they possessed "a dignity and good taste which attracted general notice."

The world of the prairie quickly changed in the 1830s as the white man moved westward, claiming more and more Indian land. Whiskey and disease reduced some of the powerful tribes to a handful of beggars, alcoholics, and thieves. The Sauk and Fox nation gradually divided into two camps: those who wanted war with the white man and those who wanted peace. Keokuk bitterly fought Black Hawk who insisted they must make a stand; he warned the restless young warriors that a war with the white man could only result in disaster.

Black Hawk was captured and a large number of his young braves were killed. It was a bitter time for the tribe. In their confusion, dissatisfaction, and frustration they deposed Keokuk and elected a young brave as their leader. Keokuk's followers urged him to start a civil war within the nation, but the aging chief bowed to the young leaders. As McKenny wrote: "He was the first to salute the young chief by the title of 'Father.'" Keokuk also brought his successor to the Indian agent at Rock Island and "introduced him with every demonstration of profound respect as his chief and his father..."

Then Keokuk, wise in the ways of men, sat back. It did not take very long for the young chief to display his ignorance of war, diplomacy, and leadership. The Sauk and Fox council was soon humbly pleading with Keokuk to return as their "father."

The one great occasion for which Keokuk was honored by both Sauk and Fox is his brilliant debate in Washington, 1837, against the representatives of the Sioux and other tribes before government officials to establish the territorial claims of the Sauk and Fox in what is now the state of Iowa. He died in Kansas in 1848 but in 1883 his remains were removed to Keokuk, Iowa.


As the Iowa chief later told Colonel McKenney, he would never forget his visit to Washington. It was not because of his talk with the Great Father, his awe of the white man's city, or the vivid memories he had of the foundry where the cannons were made, but only because of the trouble he had with his wives. He had several, more than any one man could manage — even an Iowa warrior and leader of a great Indian nation.

It started a hundred miles from the Iowa village. Rather than take all his wives, Mahaskah decided he would journey alone to St. Louis where he would meet General William Clark and the rest of the Indian delegation. His family affairs had been hectic since Rantchewaime, or Female Flying Pigeon, had become his latest, youngest, and prettiest wife. The other women resented Flying Pigeon, and there had been so many battles between the women that Mahaskah had to take a club to all of them — including Flying Pigeon.

He had killed and skinned a deer near the Des Moines River and made camp. As he later told Colonel McKenney, he was bending over his cook fire when someone hit him with a branch across the back of the neck. He spun about, drawing his knife, expecting to find himself confronted with a Sioux or an Osage warrior but it was only an indignant Flying Pigeon who berated him for leaving her behind. Mahaskah, who knew what would happen if he only took one wife and left the others, made Flying Pigeon prepare his food, then he pulled her up behind him on the horse, and they returned to the village. The next day the chief again set out for Washington, this time with all his wives.

Mahaskah's fears became a reality; the women fought with fists, clubs, and knives on canal boats, stagecoaches, and on horseback. They finally arrived in Washington in the fall of 1824; as Mahaskah wearily told Indian agent Benjamin O'Fallon, he was sick of all women.

The bar of Tennison's Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue saw a great deal of Mahaskah. One night he finished a jug and went upstairs to his room. A short time later the agent heard screams and the sounds of smashing furniture. He rushed upstairs and broke in the door.

Mahaskah, showing no favoritism, was beating his quarreling wives with the leg of a chair. Rather than be disgraced as a man not able to control his family, he yanked open the window and stepped out as O'Fallon rushed into the room.

There was one thing the Iowa had forgotten; he had lived all his life in a wigwam. He now walked out the second-story window and fell to the courtyard. His broken arm was set and McKenney recalled that "so accustomed had he been to fractures and wounds, that he insisted on riding the next day, over rough roads and pavements, a distance of at least two miles, to see a cannon cast."

The Iowa chief had a satisfying visit with President Monroe and returned home inspired by what he had seen. He built a "double log-house" and cultivated his land. Flying Pigeon became the real love of his life, but the other wives stayed on. She gave him a son, who would be known to frontier history as Mahaskah the Younger. Then suddenly one day their peaceful, serene life was shattered when Flying Pigeon was killed by a fall from her pony. The stunned chief carried her slender body miles across the prairie to his village, his infant son clinging to his back.

After the burial ceremonies Mahaskah slipped into a deep depression. He fasted for long periods and disappeared for weeks on solitary hunts. Time — and perhaps his other wives — dulled his grief and he returned to the administration of his nation.

In 1834, Mahaskah was killed by a warrior he had turned over to General Clark to stand trial in St. Louis for murder.

Thirty years later when Colonel McKenney was gathering material for his portfolio, he found the great Iowa nation "reduced by wars, the smallpox, and by whisky" to a pitiful handful.

The portrait of Mahaskah was painted shortly after the chief had broken his arm. As McKenney pointed out, "a compression of his eyebrows . . . was caused by the pain he was enduring whilst the artist was sketching his likeness."


Colonel McKenney described the Chippewa of the 1820s and 1830s as "wandering savages who inhabit the sterile and inhospitable shores of the northern lakes . . . they are the most miserable and degraded of the native tribes . . . exposed to the greatest extremities of climate, and forced by their situation to spend the greater portion of their lives in obtaining a wretched subsistence . . . they have little ambition and few ideas . . ."

This is typical of some of the partisan and inaccurate observations of Colonel McKenney and his co-author, James Hall, in their 1836 portfolio. However, they were writing over a hundred and thirty years ago, long before research in the ethnology of American Indians made them the best known and the most fully described of all primitive peoples.

McKenney — or Hall — probably was not aware that the Chippewa nation was one of the largest and most vigorous of North American tribes and rather than being indolent they were a fierce, aggressive people who had driven the Sioux, skilled in plains warfare and numerous, from the Great Lakes country to the deep west.

A listing of Indian paintings in the Smithsonian Institution, compiled by William J. Rhees in 1859, has Waatopenot (spelled Wautopenot, The Eagle's Bill), a Fox chief. Lewis also used the Indian portrait in his Aboriginal Portfolio published in 1835.

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