“Belle of the Tribe”: Murder of Ma-Sha-Che 1905

Murder Victim

Ma-Sha-Che
“Nelly Davenport”
16-year-old Meskwaki Tribe Member
1889-1905
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned
Motive: Sexual Psychopathy

Murder Scene and Date

Montour, Iowa
Tama County
April 4, 1905

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By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2011

location of Montour, Iowa

location of Montour, Iowa

In 1905, Ma-Sha-Che — whose English name was Nellie Davenport — was 16-years-old. Newspapers later described her as “pretty,” “a tribe beauty,” and “the belle of the tribe.”

She lived on the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County in the home of her grandmother Notowashequa and her grandfather Pushetonequa, Chief of the Sac-Fox and the community’s most important man.

At 13, Ma-Sha-Che became the wife of George Soldier, who then left or “divorced” her to marry the daughter of Indian policeman James Poweshiek.

Because his divorce and remarriage had more to do with tribal politics than lack of love, George was still smitten with Ma-Sha-Che and hoped to reconcile. She, however, did not want him to return.

☛ Strange Disappearance ☚

Notowashequa, Ma-Cha-Chee’s grandmother

Ma-Sha-Che was last seen alive on the night of April 4, 1905 walking near Montour with George Soldier and another young Indian man, Poweshiek.

When the two men came home and Ma-Sha-Che wasn’t with them, there was great concern. At first, it was hoped she was with a party of spring trappers; but, when they returned from their hunt without her, concern grew into anxiety.

The tribe searched the countryside and dragged the river, but Ma-Sha-Che could not be found.

The Sioux Valley News — in the stereotypical racist language of the times — reported:

 “For a time after the maiden had disappeared it was the plan of the Indians to keep the matter a secret and the edict went forth over the reservation: ‘Don’t tell pale face Ma-Sha-Che gone’ . . . . Pushetonequa, the chieftain of the tribe, arose sullenly from his place around the camp fire and with an impressive wave of his hand bidding silence and attention, commanded that the disappearance of the pretty maiden be kept a secret.”

Some tribe members felt Federal law enforcement should be notified but were too reticent to push the matter.

Pushetonequa may have had political reasons for keeping his granddaughter’s disappearance undisclosed.

By keeping Ma-Sha-Che’s disappearance a secret within the tribe, the Chief appealed to what newspapers termed “racial patriotism” — an us against the outside, white world approach — to ingratiate himself with his people and maintain a strong hold on his position as Chief.

But the outside world did find out.

☛ Ma-Sha-Che is Found ☚

from the Roland Record

from the Roland Record

On April 14 — 10 days after Ma-Sha-Che went missing — farmhand George Corely was walking the farm of his employer Levi Armant and discovered her nude and battered body, which had been dragged to a ravine and dumped there.

Earlier, Ma-Sha-Che’s brightly-colored shawl was found in a nearby straw stack — rolled into a ball and flung from a distance — although at the time of its discovery, it was not known to be hers.

While removing the body, Coroner Allen found a “knotted fagot of wood,” which presumably was used to beat Ma-Sha-Che to death.

☛ Investigation and Motives ☚

Deputy United States Marshal M.L. Healy was summoned to the reservation for an April 15 inquest. The verdict was “murder with [a] blunt instrument in the hands of George Soldier.”

Pushetonequa, Chief of the Sac-Fox

Soldier was arrested by Federal authorities and taken to Cedar Rapids.

Newspaper speculated the murder was political, part of a plot to depose Pushetonequa by killing his granddaughter and lessening the chances of an heir being born to inherit the chieftainship.

Most tribal members had a different theory, however. Off the record, they told reporters that “jealousy and whiskey” were responsible for the crime, that Ma-Sha-Che and Solider were drinking on April 4 and he persuaded her to take a walk with him. Once alone, he attacked and murdered her.

The 25-year-old Soldier had a poor reputation — his own father, Civil War veteran Peter Soldier, reported George and his brother John for possessing whiskey a few years before and testified against them.

George Soldier was known to be extremely brutal when he drank, although when sober he was, according to the Waterloo Reporter, “one of the most enlightened Indians of the tribe.”

☛ Legal Proceedings ☚

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Citizens outside the Settlement felt it was important for the government to be involved in the trial and for outsiders to testify about the facts.

They remembered that justice was stymied in 1903 when Frank Earl went free after killing Indian policeman John Seepo (George Soldier’s brother See-Po-Wa-Sa-Moah) because a young Indian woman involved in a love triangle with the two men was unwilling to testify.

The Waterloo Daily Reporter declared that Soldier’s “guilt [was] clear” and wrote:

“Indian evidence, upon which Soldier hopes to thwart justice is as changeable as a weather vane, as was shown in the trial last year of Frank Earl, the slayer of Soldier’s brother, John Seepo, an Indian policeman. Federal authorities will depend almost entirely upon white evidence, that of farmers and business people, to send Soldier to the gallows or the penitentiary. Soldier figured prominently in the prosecution of Frank Earl, and recognized the fact that the latter escaped punishment for the crime by the questionable testimony of Indian witnesses. He now hopes to escape through the same loophole, not realizing that the federal authorities have it blocked.”

However, despite the Government’s intervention, things did not go as planned.

On May 10, 1905, at the end of a hearing before United States Commissioner J.O. Stewart at the Federal Building in Cedar Rapids, the U.S. District Attorney asked that charges against George Soldier be dismissed for lack of sufficient evidence.

No one else was arrested and charged with Ma-Sha-Che’s murder and she never received justice.
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Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.

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References

  • ☛ “An Indian Murder,” Waterloo Daily Reporter,” April 20, 1905.
  • ☛ Augustana University Special Collections.
  • ☛ “Body Of Girl Is Found,” Palo Alto Reporter, April 20, 1905.
  • ☛ “Indian Maiden Murdered,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, April 15, 1905.
  • ☛ “Indians Block Search For Slayer,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 19, 1905.
  • ☛ “Indians Would Keep It Secret,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, April 19, 1905.
  • ☛ “Iowa State News,” State Center Enterprise, May 11, 1905.
  • ☛ “Murder of Ma-Sha-Che,” Waterloo Daily Reporter, April 18, 1905.
  • ☛ “Murder Suspect In Web,” Sioux Valley News, April 5, 1905.
  • ☛ “Soldier Set Free; Mystery Deepens,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, May 3, 1905.
  • ☛ Upper Mississippi Valley Digital Image Archive.
  • ☛ U.S. Indian Census Schedules, 1885-1940.

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