Hidden History: Proud chief forever claims home in final resting place

The year 1869 marked the removal of the Sauk (Sac) and Fox tribes from Osage County to Oklahoma, all resigned to their fate except those under the leadership of a man named Mokohoko. This chief among the tribes had come to love this land that he had been forced into and adopted as his own. His fight to preserve his people’s rights to their land became one of the last stands of the American Indian in Kansas against Euro-American expansion.

Mokohoko, whose name means “He who floats visible near the surface of the water”, was the principal chief of the Sauk tribe. He belonged to the Sturgeon Clan, a clan designated for leaders of the Sauk. Mokohoko was a key supporter in the Black Hawk War, a brief conflict in 1832 that took place when the Sauk leader Black Hawk tried to reclaim tribal lands in Illinois that had been ceded in a previous treaty. Mokohoko was stubbornly traditional, holding tight to the culture of his people. This often put him at odds with another Sauk and Fox leader, Keokuk, who tended to be more lenient towards the white man’s ways.

In the winter of 1845-46, the Sauk and Fox tribes were removed to a reservation in Franklin and Osage counties consisting of 435,200 acres located at the upper reaches of the Osage River. The first Sauk and Fox agency was in Franklin County, and later, in 1859, moved near Quenemo.

Mokohoko and his band settled on the banks of the Marais des Cygnes River, stretching for 10 miles upstream and downstream of the area that would become the town of Melvern. This land contained 500 acres of rich farm ground used by the Sauk and Fox for farming. This prime ground produced so much corn that the tribe was able to sell the surplus to the government and early settlers of the area.

Reservation lands were unavailable for early settlement by Euro-Americans, and the only individuals allowed within the reservation were those who had an association with the Sac and Fox agency or dealings with the tribe.

The Sauk and Fox lived peacefully in their adopted land until the Treaty of 1868, a deal which would remove the tribes to Oklahoma. At this time, Mokohoko was absent due to a delayed return from a hunting trip along the Arkansas River. Speaking for the clan, Mokohoko’s close follower Mut-Tut-Tah signed the treaty along with Keokuk and other tribal leaders, all who had been reportedly plied with alcohol to make them more accepting to the terms of the treaty.

Those responsible for establishing the treaty insisted that Mokohoko did not reject it, but the leader’s subsequent actions could leave no doubt of what he thought of the agreement. Mokohoko knew that leaving Kansas “would be like putting our heads in the mouth(s) of the great Bear’s to be eaten off”.

Despite the signing of the treaty in 1868, the Sauk and Fox were not moved from the area until 1869. The groups were led to Oklahoma Territory in December and arrived after the 19 days journey in the middle of a snowstorm. Mokohoko’s band of about 200 turned right around and headed back to their adopted homeland. The teamsters who had ferried the tribes south said that the individuals who returned moved so quickly that they beat them back to the land they all called home.

Mokohoko’s desire was that his “own people who follow me shall live here in peace with these good paleface people so long as the moon and stars shine by night and the sun illumes the day.” But once the land set aside for the reservation became opened up for Euro-American settlement, peace with the Indians who had held prime farm ground was not on the mind of all the settlers. Because of their return, the band was not only stripped of their reservation land holdings but was financially devastated since members no longer received annuities. Some of the tribe members found work as field hands with settlers sympathetic to their plight, but starvation in the band was rampant. Tribe members would search the countryside, foraging for food, at times resorting to harvesting meat from already dead animals.

The pressure was still on for the Sauk and Fox to move from the area. White settlers, unhappy about their presence, stripped the houses provided for the tribe of their materials, broke down the fences into tribal lands, and would nightly throw stones at the doors of tribe members to coerce them to move. A Sauk and Fox agent wrote that “there are enough infernal scoundrels to make this the hottest place in which to do his duty an agent was ever placed.”

In 1874, Mokohoko requested $1,000 from the government to finance a trip to Washington, D.C., and visit with President Grant. Mokohoko could not accept that the band would have to move unless he heard from “their Father” that there was no other alternative than to move. Mokohoko’s requests were unsuccessful and in 1876 the band was removed again, this time under military guard.

The band again returned, determined to stay in the homeland of their fathers, and encouraged by other Sauk and Fox that had managed to remain in Iowa. Not long after this return trip, in 1878, Mokohoko died. He gave specific instructions that his burial place would be unknown so he could remain in the land that he had claimed as his own.

Mokohoko’s followers came to believe that “their Father”, the President, had given Mokohoko permission to stay in the area. The government, however, denounced this as a rumor. Protections for the remaining band were no longer there. Former Indian agents were stripped of their authority to help the tribe, and government protection essentially did not exist in the absence of an agency. Former agents had to helplessly watch as conditions further deteriorated for those that previously had been under their care.

In 1886, some Sauk and Fox returned to Kansas from Oklahoma Territory to persuade Mokohoko’s band to come back with them. They were unsuccessful. The band was finally removed again that year, and “their crying and weeping could be heard by many neighbors whose sympathy they had won.”

To prevent another attempt at leaving their designated new land, they were put under military guard for a year. Individual allotments were made to the members of the band, which removed their common land base that held the band firmly together. Without their faithful leader as their strong support, Mokohoko’s band finally acquiesced and remained in Oklahoma.

Mokohoko’s fight to remain in his adopted land became an example one of the last resistances to enculturation in Indian Kansas.

Photo of Mokohoko from Kansas Historical Society, Topeka, Kan.; published with permission.


wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.


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