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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark FORT OSAGE

Location: Jackson County, northern edge of Sibley.

Fort Osage, primarily of significance in the fur trade, was also among the first military outposts in the trans-Mississippi West. It was founded in 1808 by Gen. William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs at St. Louis and later Governor of Missouri Territory, at a site he and Meriwether Lewis had noted in 1804 on their continent-spanning expedition. On the south bank of the Missouri River overlooking a river bend, it allowed an excellent view of river traffic.

One of the most successful of the 28 Indian trading posts, or Government "factories," in operation between 1795 and 1822, the fort was one of few to show a profit. It was one of three in the trans-Mississippi West; the other two were at Arkansas Post, Ark., and Natchitoches, La., but these were unsuccessful.

The idea of winning the good will of the Indians by supplying them with goods from official trading posts originated in the colonial period, when Pennsylvania and Massachusetts experimented with the idea. In 1793 Congress acted on President George Washington's recommendation that the Government establish a series of trading posts where Indians could secure goods at cost by barter. These posts were intended to strengthen military policy, promote peace on the frontier, prevent the exploitation of the Indians by private traders, and offset the influence of the British and Spanish over the former.

In 1795 the system was initiated. The Government appointed a superintendent of Indian trade, who shipped goods, obtained in open market or by bids, to factors at the trading posts. The factors bartered the goods to the Indians for furs, skins, or other items. These were shipped back East to the superintendent who disposed of them at auction or in foreign markets. Complicated and idealistic, the system proved to be a failure. It suffered from poor administration, the extension of too much credit to the Indians, inferior trade goods and Indian products, and high freight costs. Congressional antagonism toward the system, whetted by the opposition of fur companies, grew throughout the years and, although the Army and Indian Bureau supported the program, led in 1822 to its abolition.

officers' quarters
Restored officers' quarters, Fort Osage. (photo by Gerald Massie, Missouri Commerce and Industrial Development Department)

Between 1808 and 1822 Fort Osage, sometimes called Fort Clark, was the principal outpost of civilization on the Missouri River and in western Missouri. At the fort in 1808 U.S. Government officials signed a treaty with the Osages, who ceded most of their lands in present Missouri and the northern part of Arkansas. That same year George C. Sibley was appointed factor. The fort became a rendezvous for Indians and traders alike. During the trading season, as many as 5,000 Indians camped nearby. Well-known fur traders who lived at or visited the fort included Jim Bridger and Manuel Lisa. In 1811 the Astorians stopped there on their journey to the Pacific, where they helped build Fort Astoria. At the beginning of the War of 1812 the Army abandoned the post and the following year Sibley moved the trading post to the site of Arrow Rock, Mo., where he built a small fort. After the war, in 1815 or 1816, both the factor and the garrison returned to Fort Osage. The latter remained until 1819, when it moved upriver with the Army's first Yellowstone Expedition to found Fort Atkinson, Nebr.

In 1821, the same year Capt. William Becknell stopped at the fort on the pioneering expedition that marked the beginning of the Santa Fe trade, Fort Osage became the terminus of the Boone's Lick Trail, first east-west highway to extend through the newly created State of Missouri from St. Charles, Mo. After 1822, when Congress abolished the factory system, the abandoned fort served as a Government storehouse and stopping point for traders on the Santa Fe Trail. In 1825 Sibley was one of the members of a U.S. commission that began a survey of the Santa Fe Trail at the gates of Fort Osage, its eastern terminus until about 1827.

No remains of the original log fort are extant. In 1941 the County Court of Jackson County, Mo., acquired the site. Between 1948 and 1961, based on extensive archeological excavation and historical research, the Jackson County Park Department, with the technical assistance of the Native Sons of Kansas City (Mo.), completed the restoration. It includes five blockhouses, the main one containing original cannon and exhibits; officers' quarters; barracks; the factory, which is furnished with period pieces and has a museum on the second floor featuring exhibits on the factory system and military artifacts; an interpreter's house; blacksmith shop; well; and the Little Osage Village.

NHL Designation: 11/05/61

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005