Meskwaki Sites along the Upper South Skunk River

Post Date: 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

by Cynthia L. Peterson, University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist
originally published in the Newsletter of the Iowa Archeological Society, Summer 2013, Issue 226, Vol. 63, No. 2

Arlen Twedt, a historian and retired educator, has an avid interest in the Norwegian settlement of central Iowa. While researching that topic, Twedt discovered many references to 1856–1930s Meskwaki camps near and visits to communities in central Iowa’s Hamilton, Story, Polk, and Boone counties. His sources included letters, oral histories, newspaper accounts, and county and other history books. Twedt (2012) compiled the Meskwaki data into a 59-page manuscript. The Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) linked Twedt’s research to a Geographic Information System (GIS) shapefile, to better understand potential Meskwaki site locations (Peterson 2013).
Twedt’s study area is a 50 x 35 km (30 x 21 mile) rectangular parcel that extends mostly along the Upper South Skunk River from the City of Jewell southward to Cambridge. Tributaries here include portions of Ballard, Bear, and Squaw creeks. Larger-sized cities within this area are Ames, Nevada, and Story City (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Extent of Twedt's Study Area.

Figure 1. Extent of Twedt's Study Area.
Twedt compiled data that mentions places the Meskwaki frequented near the Upper South Skunk River and its tributaries. For example, the descendant of an early Norwegian settler may recall a story her grandfather told about Indians visiting their farm or camping nearby, or a newspaper account may mention Meskwaki hunting and trapping grounds. Given the many primary source references to the people along the Upper South Skunk River as “from Tama,” or Sac and Fox, or the various spellings of Meskwaki, it is presumed that most of the Indians mentioned in this area were Meskwaki. Pottawattamie were sometimes mentioned encamped with the Meskwaki.
Many of Twedt’s historical references can be mapped and each mapped location is considered a potential archaeological site. A GIS shapefile was created, incorporating 32 separate locations—someday, an archaeologist may use the GIS data to verify site whereabouts.
Site Types
Twedt’s potential sites fit into several categories, listed here by order of frequency in the GIS shapefile: camp (n=13 polygons), trading for food (n=10), two polygons each in the categories of reed gathering, hunt/trap grounds, performance, and seek assistance; and one categorized as factory work. 
In no instances were Meskwaki habitations called “villages” in Twedt’s consulted references. Instead these were short-term camps, reported in association with every season. In one case, 300 Meskwaki were encamped. The smallest reported number was six people. Only once were wickiups (called wigwams and sheds) mentioned. Sometimes, tents were discussed in association with the Meskwaki. Until the mid-to-late 1930s, many families seasonally migrated from their home base on the Meskwaki Settlement, returning year-after-year to the same area, usually a sheltered place near a waterway in eastern or central Iowa.
“Trading for food” was any instance where a non-Meskwaki mentioned that a tribal member visited a house or farm seeking food items (typically, flour or chickens; less frequently, corn, potatoes, other vegetables, sugar, or tobacco) or where there was a general mention that tribal members visited a community seeking food. This act was often referred to as “begging.”
Generally, begging is not the appropriate term, since the Meskwaki frequently offered exchanges for foodstuffs. Twedt identified several mentions that food was “traded,” in one case, for Meskwaki handmade goods of an unspecified nature. One story told how an Indian woman in Ames provided a Euro-American settler with “some steamed herbs for my asthma;” in this instance, there was no mention of what (if anything) the (presumably) Meskwaki woman received in exchange. Another Ames resident visited a nearby camp to “get a pony and went into a tepee to get beads;” again, there is no mention of what the Meskwaki received in payment (Meads 1955:118).
"The Indians who have been camping on the river near town this past month report they have sold furs taken from the animals captured since coming here amounting to over $150."
--The Story City Herald, April 5, 1906

Reed gathering—to obtain the raw material to manufacture mats—was mentioned along the shores of Little Wall and Goose lakes. There were also camps near these lakes. There were two mentioned hunting, trapping, and fishing grounds, both along an 18-mile stretch of river between Little Wall Lake in the north, downstream to Ames.

Performances were likely an important source of tribal or family revenue. The performance category included singing and dancing (powwows) and bow-and-arrow demonstrations. “Seek assistance” is a catch-all category. In one situation, some Meskwaki men sharpened their knives at a farmstead’s outdoor grinding stone. The second category involved Meskwaki women finding refuge at a nearby farm. Finally, the “factory work” category occurred at the Cambridge Canning Company, where Meskwaki families assisted in seasonal corn husking in 1918.
Site Potential
There are no previously recorded archaeological sites in or adjacent to Twedt’s study area that have a known association with the Meskwaki. Some recorded historic scatters could be related to the tribe, although that association is presently unrecognized.
Some of these potential site locations are certainly destroyed—for example, an 1893 Meskwaki camp at what is now one of the largest residence halls at Iowa State University (Friley Hall). Certainly, many of the farmsteads that once traded with tribal members still exist, either as standing buildings or as archaeological sites. It is unlikely that any of these Euro-American house sites contain archaeological evidence of Meskwaki visits. However, there are cases where landowners mention Meskwaki camps on their land. The actual camps hold great promise for archaeological traces, particularly where farming is the only post-encampment land impact.
Four camps hold great potential to contain preserved Meskwaki-related archaeological sites that may be straightforward to find, because the descriptions are very location-specific. Three other camps have less specific information, but might be located with volunteer-assisted field effort.
The Meskwaki seasonally utilized river valleys, especially the Skunk, Iowa, and Cedar rivers until most families ceased seasonal rounds in the 1930s or earlier. Arlen Twedt compiled written and oral historical data pertaining to the Upper South Skunk River to identify possible Meskwaki sites, including camps, reed gathering places, and hunting, trapping, and fishing grounds.

There must have been as many as 100 Indians, men women, and children, in the band. We watched them make camp, watched them as they roasted their skunk-sirloin over the fire, saw them feed their babies and put them to sleep papoose fashion, heard the little ones cry... We looked till we couldn't look any more, and the Indians did not mind us any."
--Nehemias Tjernagle, (1931) recalling a Meskwaki encampment, probably in the 1870s or 1880s, not far from Story City

Twedt’s information reminds us that seemingly inconsequential historic scatters along Iowa’s eastern and central waterways may actually represent Meskwaki site remnants. Elsewhere in the state, the same could be said of ephemeral historic scatters, which may relate to possible Sauk (southern Iowa), Ho-Chunk (Winnebago; northeast), Pottawattamie (southwest), Báxoje (Ioway; all across the state, but especially, south central), and Dakota Sioux (northwest) sites. But only the Meskwaki created camps and associated sites into modern times, until the 1930s.
Seasonal, historic camps may yield the unexpected—for example, a metal detector survey at a site along the Iowa River in Tama County revealed iron wire, a copper pen nib, a nail, a can fragment, a clock or watch gear, a finely made brass buckle, red-pasted ceramic, and fire-cracked rock (Peterson, Hedden, and Nagel 2008:176–177). Such a site could easily be written off as insignificant, if not for primary source documentation of a Meskwaki winter camp there. Instead, site 13TM549 is highly significant as the only verified Meskwaki winter camp archaeological site in the state. Only ten Meskwaki-related sites have been archaeologically verified in Iowa (Peterson, Hedden and Nagel 2008; six trading posts, two villages, and one each of a mortuary site, maple sugaring camp, and winter camp). 
When conducting archaeological surveys along the Cedar, Iowa, and Skunk rivers, archaeologists should be mindful that sites normally classified as insignificant historic scatters could represent ephemeral Meskwaki-related sites.
The author thanks Arlen Twedt for his dedication to Iowa history and his meticulous documentation of otherwise “buried” archival sources. 
Also, thank you to Johnathan Buffalo, Director of the Meskwaki Nation’s (Sac and Fox of the Mississippi in Iowa) Historic Preservation Department, for his support of Meskwaki-related archaeological endeavors and his guidance interpreting archaeological findings.
Twedt’s manuscript is a wonderful starting point toward understanding post-statehood Meskwaki sites along the Upper South Skunk River. Even more references to potential sites exist, as was pointed out to the author by Dan Higginbottom of the Iowa State Historical Society.
Henderson, A. M.
1940 A Medley of Ye Olde Days. In The Story City Herald 1940 Anniversary Number pp. 35. The Story City Herald, Story City, Iowa.
Meads, Gladys Hultz
1955 At the Squaw and the Skunk. Greenwood, Ames, Iowa.
Nevada Evening Journal
1953 Arrasmith Family on One Story County Farm since 1852. Nevada Evening Journal. June 13.
Peterson, Cynthia L.
2013 Potential Meskwaki-Related Archaeological Sites along the Upper South Skunk River in Hamilton, Story, Polk and Boone Counties, Based on the Research of Arlen Twedt. Contract Completion Report 2011. Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Iowa, Iowa City.
Peterson, Cynthia L., John G. Hedden, and Cindy L. Nagel
2008 Archaeology of the Meskwaki Fur Trade in Iowa, 1835–1845. Wisconsin Archeologist 89(1–2):162–181.
Prior, Jean C.
1991 Landforms of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
Tjernagle, Nehemias
1931 The Sheldahl School. The Palimpsest 12:359–369.
Twedt, Arlen
2012 Meskwaki along the Upper South Skunk River: Pioneer References of their Presence in Hamilton, Story, and Polk Counties. Self-published, Ankeny, Iowa. Copy on file, Office of the State
Archaeologist, the University of Iowa, Iowa City.