Keokuk (circa 1780–June 1848) was a leader of the Sauk tribe in central North America, and for decades was one of the most recognized Native American leaders and noted for his accommodation with the U.S. government. Keokuk moved his tribe several times and always acted as an ardent friend of the Americans. His policies were contrary to fellow Sauk leader Black Hawk, who led part of their band to defeat in the Black Hawk War, was later returned by U.S. forces to Keokuk’s custody, and who died a decade before Keokuk.
Keokuk was born around 1780 on the Rock River in what soon became Illinois Territory to a Sauk warrior of the Fox clan and his wife of mixed lineage. He lived in a village near what became Peoria, Illinois on the Illinois River, and although not of the traditional ruling elite, was elected to the tribal council as a young man. He had a wife, who may be buried in Schuyler County, Missouri.
During the War of 1812, Keokuk convinced fellow tribal members not to leave their principal village, Saukenuk, and also not to fight for the British and war chief Black Hawk. However, many warriors had already left to do so, so Keokuk was also elected a war chief and successfully protected his village through oratory. In 1824, he visited Washington, D.C. with other Native American leaders, including Chief Wapello also of the Meskwaki people (sometimes called the Fox tribe).
Keokuk was noted for his personal bravery as well as oratorical skill. On several occasions, he persuaded tribal assemblies, although before he spoke every member but himself had been firmly determined to the contrary. At one time, in May 1832, Keokuk broke in upon a war dance that his band was holding preparatory to uniting with Black Hawk against the whites, and convinced the warriors in the heat of their fury that such would be suicidal and must not be undertaken. Keokuk moved his tribe across the Mississippi River to a site on the Iowa River by 1828, and the following year Caleb Atwater met him:
Keokuk, the principal warrior of the Sauks, is a shrewd politic man as well as a brave one and he possesses great weight of character in their national councils. He is a high minded, honorable man and never begs of the whites. While ascending the Mississippi to join us at the head of his brave troops, he met, arrested, and brought along with him to Fort Crawford two United States soldiers who were deserting from the garrison when he met them. I informed him that for this act he was entitled to a bounty in money, to which he proudly replied that he acted from motives of friendship towards the United States and would accept no money for it.
In July 1830, Keokuk was one of several native leaders who entered into the Fourth Treaty of Prairie du Chien with Indian Agent William Clark. This ceded territory including Saukenuk (Black Hawk’s home village) to the United States (and white settlers). When Black Hawk returned from a foray (or attempted settlement in Iowa) and found white settlers in his ancestral village, he took up arms, and solicited general co-operation from his tribe. However, Keokuk succeeded in keeping the majority of the band at peace, and he became one of three “money chiefs” who distributed payments under this and other treaties. Keokuk took every opportunity to attempt to persuade Black Hawk to withdraw from his aggressive position before it was too late, but the U.S. Army and Illinois militia soon defeated Black Hawk’s warriors. A four hundred square mile strip surrounding Keokuk’s village in Iowa was exempted from the 1832 Black Hawk Purchase, a treaty which ended the war and which was negotiated at Fort Armstrong, Illinois (near Rock Island) in September 1832,. In August 1833, U. S. authorities formally delivered Black Hawk (who had been taken as a captive to Washington, D.C. and eastern cities), to the custody of Keokuk, who had been officially recognized as the principal chief of the Sauks and Foxes in that treaty.
In 1837, with several of his nation’s village chiefs, Keokuk visited Washington, where a peace was arranged between his people and their old-time adversaries, the Sioux. They also visited New York City, Boston, and Cincinnati, where Keokuk’s speeches attracted attention. Black Hawk was with the party, as Keokuk feared leaving him to scheme during his own absence. Black Hawk died the following year. In August 1842, Keokuk and several tribal members (including wives), visited Nauvoo, Illinois, and he soon negotiated the sale of the tribe’s land across the river in Iowa (his friend Chief Wapello having died in March). Thus, in 1845, despite the land reservation in the 1832 treaty, Keokuk’s band was moved further west into Kansas.