16-year-old Meskwaki Tribe Member
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned
Motive: Sexual Psychopathy
Murder Scene and Date
Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Tracks
West of Tama, Iowa
July 26, 1897
By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2013
The contemporary annual Powwow on the Meskwaki Settlement west of Tama, Iowa, grew out of an ancient festival known as the Green Corn Dance Celebration, which some Native American scholars and firsthand spectators have termed the equivalent of Thanksgiving.
Held in the late summer as the corn or maize began to ripen, the celebration observed and passed on to younger generations the spiritual and cultural customs that bound the tribe together. Traditional games, rituals, dances, and food were central to the festival.
The timing of the Green Corn Dance varied with each year’s crop and how quickly or slowly it matured, but the celebration usually came at the end of July and the beginning of August.
The event lasted days, sometimes with breaks for more harvesting with a renewal of the celebration afterwards. Particular rituals were for tribe members only, but others were open to Whites who wanted to observe.
In his 1897 report to the Department of the Interior, Horace M. Rebok, U. S. Agent for the Sac and Fox Indian Agency, wrote about the festival:
“These festivities include the squaw dance, the gift dance, the corn dance, [and] the feast . . . . I believe they are the most religious and devout people I have ever known and their services seem to have a sacredness about them that the white man little comprehends and can much less relate [to].”
☛ 1897 Green Corn Dance ☚
In 1897, the annual Green Corn Dance was documented in books by visiting observers who would be termed cultural anthropologists in modern parlance — A.D. Bicknell and Mary Alicia Owen, a Missouri writer who specialized in recording and preserving African-American and Native-American folklore and ceremonial rituals. Her description of the Green Corn Dance provides a detailed insight into that year’s celebration.
What Owen and Bicknell did not record — and likely never knew — was that during the celebration on Sunday night, July 27, 1897, danger lurked near the Green Corn Dance festivities and that one of the participants would lose her life.
Sharing in the feast that night was 16-year-old Se-Ton-a-Qua, a young woman who had been placed in the care of her uncle, John Whitefish, after her mother died.
Like the other female tribe members, Se-Ton-a-Qua likely helped prepare the food for the Green Corn Dance and danced with the women while the male members rested, as was the ritual’s tradition.
After the gathering broke up that night, John Whitefish and his family realized Se-Ton-a-Qua was missing and no one could account for her whereabouts. The Waterloo Daily Courier reported that Se-Ton-a-Qua remained at the feast a little later than the other women, but that may have been based on her family’s being unable to find her.
☛ Brutal Murder ☚
At 8:00 a.m. on Monday, July 27, 1897, a young Indian boy found Se-Ton-a-Qua’s body near the Chicago and Northwestern railroad tracks close to the Settlement.
She had been brutally beaten and sexually assaulted. Near her body lay a three-foot long piece of cordwood, spattered with blood and hair.
Most White Iowans lacked even the simplest information about Native American life, partly because of their engrained prejudices and partly because the Indians were a quiet and self-contained entity who treasured their privacy and were reluctant to include outsiders in their tribal business.
Unrestrained by their lack of knowledge about Meskwaki culture, however, White newspapers made rash judgments about Se-Ton-a-Qua’s death.
The Des Moines Daily News wrote that she had reportedly “become unchaste and was beaten to death by the members of her tribe” as a punishment. And the Waterloo Daily Courier reported a theory that “the young squaw had become a loose character and had been beaten to death by [other] Indian squaws, who regard lack of virtue as grounds for death.”
These unsupported assumptions were refuted by the facts obtained in a postmortem exam on the afternoon of July 27 by Dr. William Corns, who attended to the Indians’ medical needs and later became Tama County Coroner.
Dr. Corns determined that Se-Ton-a-Qua was a virgin before she was raped; and that after the sexual assault, she was slashed with a knife and then beaten to death with the cordwood.
Tribe members remained quiet to outsiders about the murder, but that reaction was likely more from a tradition of protecting their privacy from the outside world than from trying to withhold information.
Indian Agent Horace M. Rebok, who lived in the Tama County Seat of Toledo north of the Settlement, oversaw the matter. Rebok told reporters that the Indian community was shocked and anxious for justice and had offered a $300 reward for information leading to Se-Ton-a-Qua’s killer.
Rebok asked the Indian Affairs Commissioner to add to the Meskwakis’ reward and also requested that Iowa Governor Francis Marion Drake contribute to it on behalf of the state.
At least one newspaper wrote that Indians and Whites alike were so disturbed by the horrible crime, that promises to lynch any arrested suspects were widespread.
The photo on the right of the Meskwaki Tribal Council was taken in Toledo, Iowa, where Indian Agent Rebok lived. It was auctioned in 2008 as part of a collection of historic Americana.
A note on the back of the photo refers to Rebok’s 1898 book The Last of the Musquakies [sic] and the Indian Council. The man in the middle of the front row is easily identified from other photos as Pushetonequa, Chief of the Sac-Fox. It is possible that the non-Native American man in the back row is Horace M. Rebok.
Newspapers reported that no murder had occurred at the settlement since 1877, when a visiting Pawnee tried to steal ponies and was shot by Meskwaki tribe member Black Wolf.
☛ Murderer From the Outside ☚
Authorities said circumstances pointed to the murderer as being someone who attended the dance and lured Se-Ton-a-Qua away to rape her.
The Waterloo Evening Courier reported: “Opinion varies as to whether the crime was committed by Indians or some traveling miscreant. The consensus of opinion is that the latter is the guilty party.”
The Des Moines Daily News placed the blame squarely on an outsider to the tribe, calling them:
“White brutes, either of this vicinity or tramps . . . .”
☛ Lasting Injustice ☚
Little is known about Se-Ton-a-Qua, but her murder touched the hearts of citizens across the state, and widespread regret was expressed when no justice was found for her.
The Hull Index wrote about the murdered young woman:
“Se-Ton-A-Qua was a bright, intelligent girl. From the Indians’ point of view she was a beauty, and whites who were acquainted with her acknowledged her grace and comeliness of person.”
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ Annual report of the Department of the Interior, Part 1, 1898.
- ☛ “Brutal Murder At Tama, Iowa State Bystander, July 30, 1897.
- ☛ Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri. George F. Will and George E. Hyde. St. Louis: W.H. Miner Company, 1917.
- ☛ Folk-lore of the Musquakie Indians of North America and catalogue of Musquakie beadwork and other objects in the collection of the Folk-lore Society. Mary Alicia Owen. London: David Nutt, 1904.
- ☛ A History of Tama County, Iowa, Volume 1. Compiled and Edited by J.R. Caldwell. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1910.
- ☛ “Indian Girl Murdered,” Daily Iowa Capital, July 27, 1897.
- ☛ “Indian Maiden Murdered,” Cedar Falls Semi Weekly Gazette. August 3, 1897.
- ☛ “Indian Maiden Murdered,” Hull Index, July 30, 1897.
- ☛ “Iowa In A Nutshell,” Des Moines Daily News, July 27, 1897.
- ☛ Iowa Journal of History, Volume 5, 1907.
- ☛ The Last of the Mus-Qua-Kies and the Indian Congress. Horace M. Rebok, 1898.
- ☛ Meskwaki Anthology. Johnathan L. Buffalo, University of Iowa, 1979.
- ☛ “Musquakie [sic] Squaw Murdered,” Waterloo Daily Courier, July 27, 1897.
- ☛ “No Clue To Murderer,” Waterloo Daily Courier, August 4, 1897.
- ☛ “No Clue to Murderer,” Waterloo Daily Courier, July 28, 1897.
- ☛ “Pretty Indian Girl Murdered,” Spencer Herald, July 28, 1897.
- ☛ “Report of Agent in Iowa.” Horace M. Rebok. Annual Reports of the Department of the Interior 1897.