Keokuk is a fascinating place. Once an important river town and bustling community, Keokuk today is striding the line between obscurity and irrelevance. What happened?
The first European to move into the area was apparently Dr. Samuel C. Muir who built a cabin here in 1820. Muir had been a surgeon in the US Army at Fort Edwards (Warsaw, Illinois), but when the government ordered soldiers to leave their Indian wives, he left the Army instead. Muir moved away after a few years and leased his claim to St. Louisans Otis Reynolds and John Culver, who sent Moses Stillwell upriver in 1828 to set up a trading post. Muir came back in 1830 and took over, setting up a post of his own, but he died of cholera in 1832. Stillwell’s stone warehouse was wiped away by Great Ice Gorge of 1832.
For the first several years of its life, the little settlement at foot of the Des Moines Rapids had many identities, going by names like Point, Foot of the Rapids, and Puck-e-she-tuck (which probably means “where the water runs still” but some early Europeans and Americans interpreted it as “the foot of the rapids”).
There are a few versions of how the name Keokuk became permanently attached to the place. In one account, a group of rivermen (that included Colonel George Davenport from upriver) decided on the name shortly after the end of the Black Hawk War, presumably to honor the Sauk leader.
My personal favorite, though, is the version that says a group of nine men met at John Gains’ bar (Gains was also the first postmaster) in September 1834 to settle the matter. Someone proposed the name Keokuk and all those in favor were instructed to walk up to the bar and drink a shot of whiskey. The vote carried 8 to 1. The lone dissenter was J.B. Patterson, who had only been in town for a couple of weeks and apparently wasn’t too fond of the Sauk leader, or whiskey.
The City’s Namesake
Who was Keokuk, you ask? Born around 1780 at Saukenuk, near present-day Rock Island, Keokuk was rather tall and fat, liked his whiskey, loved the Mississippi River, and loved women; he had several wives. He was well-respected for his skills as a negotiator and peacemaker and is widely credited with convincing most of the Sauk warriors to stay out of the Black Hawk War. When that war ended in 1832, Keokuk and those who stayed out of the battles were still forced to sign a treaty surrendering their land, just like Black Hawk and those who fought.
After their removal, Keokuk traveled a lot on his beloved horse, making regular visits to Osage,