Thursday, February 25, 2016

Lucas County, Johnny Green and the Potawatomi

Find A Grave photo by "Thoran"

I'm always intrigued by reports of encounters between Lucas County's first land-hungry white settlers and groups of native Americans who still camped and hunted here during the early days --- from the late 1840s through the Civil War.

Most of these were Prairie Band Potawatomi, some of whom returned from Kansas to hunt long after they had been evicted officially, others who had never left and never would. Johnny Green, or Che-Meuse, was perhaps the most widely known leader of one of these bands, numbering at times a couple of hundred people.

Joseph Braden, who arrived in Chariton during 1853 to work in the land office that had just been moved west from Fairfield, provided one of the most detailed descriptions of encounters with the Potawatomi  during an address before members of the Lucas County Old Settlers Association on Sept. 7, 1897. Here it is, as published in The Patriot of Sept. 9:

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"Among the early settlers of this county --- I take that back. Among the early inhabitants of this county, for those I speak of seldom settle anywhere unless permanently located by some of Uncle Sam's sharp shooters.

"Some of you remember them: Mr. 'Lo,' the poor Indian and his family. A tribe of Pottawattamie Indians, with their chiefs, Johnny Green and Wes-haw-we, frequently made their camp on the banks of the Chariton river and whilst their wives, for some of them were very much married, would be busy attending to the culinary department and their numerous household duties in their wigwams, the braves would pay us frequent visits in Chariton during their leisure moments.

"It was nothing uncommon in the dusk of the evening for ladies sitting at their ease alone in their homes, to see a dark shadow obscure the light from the window, looking to discover the cause, would find one, two or three of these stalwart, dusky Indians, hideously painted, peering through the window with their noses flattened against the glass --- not a very pretty picture in a glass frame. They, however, were always peaceable and would soon leave ....

"One of our citizens commenting on this rather disagreeable habit they had of peering through windows, said, 'What were windows made for anyway? One would be foolish to knock at the door unless he had first seen that there was someone in the house to answer the knock.'

"The young braves, boys, frequently gave us exhibitions of their skill with the bow and arrows. My knowledge of Indians had been derived from reading Cooper's novels, and from them I had gathered that they were extremely taciturn, their facial muscles being so formed that it was impossible for them to smile, therefore were never known to laugh. But one of the heartiest laughs I ever heard emanated from some six or seven Indian boys, ranging from 15 to 20 years old, who marching around the square in the customary Indian file, stopped in front of a store gazing in astonishment at a large pet squirrel in a cage. They no doubt had seen many squirrels as large and fat as this one, but this squirrel was in a revolving cage, and to see a squirrel running with all his might and not make any progress, was too much for their risibilities and they, looking at the squirrel and then at one another, broke out with roars of laughter regardless of the bystanders, as they stood watching its motions I should judge for ten or fifteen minutes.

"The full grown braves frequently edified us by giving a regular war dance on the public square, attired in their full regalia, war paint and feathers, simply this and nothing more.

"These two chiefs whom I have named bought of the United States eighty acres of land in Decatur county, paying therefor one hundred dollars in gold, in the year 1855. After this purchase their visits became more infrequent and finally they left this part of the state for the Northwest. All the petty stealing and all the cattle that strayed away from home within a radius of thirty miles of this eighty-acre tract, was laid to their charge, and these noble red men left rather ignobly."

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Braden would have been working in the land office in Chariton when that purchase was made and most likely remembered it, but stories from other areas of southern Iowa locate the 80-acre tract in Ringgold County rather than Decatur.

According to local lore there, the Potawatomi band's departure was related only indirectly to relations with white neighbors. Green may have looked upon to the newly purchased land as something of a home base, but these were not settled people and soon after the purchase he moved to camp elsewhere. 

Upon returning to Ringgold County after perhaps three years, Green was puzzled to discover others living on his property. No one had told him about property taxes --- and during his absence, the land had been sold for back-taxes. Rather than make a fuss, Green and his group moved on.

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There are a number of other accounts of Green and his people elsewhere in southwest and central Iowa, most notably in Marshall County, where he is considered something of a hero for coming to the aid of white settlers when they felt threatened by more aggressive Sioux. Another favored camp site reportedly was in Union County, between the current sites of Creston and Afton.

There was an affinity, too, between the Green band of Potawatomi and the Meskwaki, some of whom had never left Iowa and who during 1857 purchased the land in Tama County that forms the nucleus of the current Meskwaki Settlement. 

Green himself died during December of 1868 in the vicinity of Marshalltown and was buried on a bluff overlooking the Iowa River on what now are the grounds of the Iowa Veterans Home. I swiped the Find A Grave photo of the marker erected there early in the 20th century to mark the approximate site.

The remnants of the Green band reportedly were integrated into the Meskwaki settlement --- and many believe that family members removed Johnny Green's remains from their original place of burial at Marshalltown to the Meskwaki Settlement cemetery.

Green's tribal affiliation is a little vague, too. Although his band was described as Potawatomi, Lance Foster in his recent "The Indians of Iowa," describes him as Ojibwa by birth. Other suggest that one of his parents may have been Meskwaki.

Whatever the case, there is no doubt that a number of Potawatomi groups interacted with Lucas County's early white settlers and there are other less detailed stories set along White Breast, English and Cedar creeks. Maybe one day I'll pull these together.

1 comment:

Martha Popson said...

We are enjoying your posts. My husband grew up in the Weller area, living very close to the Lucas County line. Martha Popson