Information on the Omaha Indians
Recorded by Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 1804
The following excerpts from the journals of Lewis and Clark and their men present a picture of the Omaha people as the Anglo-Americans saw them. The modern reader must be careful to understand that what these white men saw and recorded was not necessarily correct from the Indian perspective. The Omaha, or "Mahar" as Lewis and Clark called them, were related to the Kaw, Osage, Ponca and Quapaw. The Omaha resided in northeastern Nebraska at the time of Lewis and Clark, extending to the Niobrara River which divided them from another closely related tribe, the Poncas. The Omahas originated in the Ohio River Valley and migrated westward. Their name, which means "those going against the current," was used for the largest city in the modern state of Nebraska. The Omahas were villagers and farmers who lived in earth lodges. Just prior to the period of Lewis and Clark the Omahas had been fighting invading Sioux tribes from the northeast, but lost their fight due to a devastating smallpox epidemic in 1802. The Omahas ceded all their lands to the west of the Missouri River in 1854, and were centered on a reservation in Nebraska, where they continue to reside. They raise livestock on the Omaha Tribal Farm and administer a recreational area called Chief Big Elk Park.
The following passages have been freely adapted and excerpted from the original texts, and the spelling has been corrected to make them easier to read. For students wishing to quote these passages, the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary Moulton and published by the University of Nebraska Press, is the recommended source. For those who wish more in-depth information about Lewis and Clark's relations with various Indian tribes, including background from the Indian perspective, the best book is James P. Ronda's Lewis and Clark among the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. The very best way to obtain accurate information from the tribal perspective is to contact tribal councils for individual tribes - in other words, to consult the people themselves.
Chairperson, Omaha Tribal Council
P.O. Box 368
Macy, Nebraska 68039
May 27th Sunday 1804
As we were pushing off this morning two canoes loaded with fur &c. came to from the Mahars [Omaha] nation, [living 730 miles above on the Missouri] which place they had left two months. At about two o'clock Caljaux or rafts loaded with furs and peltries came to, one from the Pawnees, [on the river Platte] the other from Grand Osage. They informed [us of] nothing of consequence.
7th August Tuesday 1804
At 1 o'clock dispatched George Drewyer, R. Field, Wm. Bratton & Labiche back after the Deserter Reed, with orders if he did not give up Peaceably to put him to Death. Also to go to the Ottoes Village & inquire for La Liberty and bring him to the Mahars Village. Also with a Speech on the occasion to the Ottoes & Missouris, and directing a few of their Chiefs to come to the Mahars, & we would make a peace between them & the Mahar and Sioux, a String Of wampum & a Carrot of Tobacco.
Aug. 11th Saturday 1804
We landed at the foot of the hill on which Black Bird I, the late King of the Mahar who Died 4 years ago, & 400 of his nation with the Smallpox was buried, and went up and fixed a white flag bound with Blue, white & red on the Grave, which was about 12 foot Base & circular, on the top of a Pinnacle about 300 foot above the water of the river. From the top of this hill may be Seen the bends or meandering of the river for 60 or 70 miles round & all the County around the base of this high land is a Soft sandstone Bluff of about 140 or 150 foot. Above the Bluff on this Creek the Mahars had the Smallpox & 400 of them Died 4 years ago. A mound of earth about 12 feet Diameter at the base & 6 feet high is raised over him turfed, and a pole 8 feet high in the Center. On this pole we fixed a white flag bound with red, Blue & white. This hill about 300 feet above the water forming a (Cliff) Bluff between that & the Water of Various height, from 40 to 150 feet in height. . . Having passed a Creek in a Deep bend to the L.S. Called by the Mahars Wau can di Peeche (Great Spirit is bad). On this Creek & Hills near it about 400 of the Mahar Died with the smallpox. [Blackbird (wazhi-'gabe) was noted for his friendship with white traders and his strong rule over his own people. Under his leadership the Omahas rose to prominence on the eastern plains. Reports of his war deeds are mixed, but he seems to have had great authority because of his sorcery, especially in the deaths of the enemies who were likely killed by his use of poisons obtained from traders. Legend has it that he was buried seated on the back of his horse, on the hilltop where he used to watch for the coming of his friends the traders].
Saturday August 11th 1804
Proceeded on, passed a high Bluff where the King of the Mahars Died about 4 years ago. The Hill on which he is buried is about 300 feet High. The nation Goes 2 or 3 times a year to Cry over him. Capt. Lewis and Clark went up on the Hill to See the Grave; they hoisted a flag on his Grave as a present [honor] for him which will please the Indians.
This Blackbird was a great king among his people. They carry him provisions at certain times &c. Capt. Lewis & Clark went up to the grave & carried a white flag & put up on the pole which Stood over the grave, which was a round heap, (9 miles by land from below their Nation).
Saturday 11th. His name was Blackbird, king of the Mahars; an absolute monarch while living, and the Indians suppose can exercise the power of one though dead.
12th August Sunday 1804
The Beaver is very plenty, not withstanding we are almost in Sight of the Mahar Town.
12th August Sunday 1804
I prepare Some presents for to give the Indians of the Mahars nation.
Monday August 13th
We arrived at the Mahas village about 2 o'clock P.M. Sent Some of our men to See if men we had Sent after the
We proceeded on to the lower point of another Island N.S. opposite to which we Camped on S. Side Near the Mahar Village. I and 3 more of the party [Cruzatte, George Shannon, and "E. Cann"] went out to the Village or to the place where it formerly Stood. We passed through high Grass in the low prairie & came to the Mahar Creek on our way. Proceeded along Creek till we came to 3 forks which came in near together below the Village. We crossed the North branch and proceeded along the South branch which was very fatiguing, for the high Grass Sunflowers & thistles &c. all of which were above 10 feet high. A great quantity of wild peas among those weeds; we broke our way through them till we came to where there had been a village of about 300 Cabins called the Mahar village. It was burned about 4 years ago immediately after near half the Nation died with the Small pox, which was as I was informed about 400. We found none of the natives about the place, they were out hunting the Buffalo. We ascended the hill above the village on which was all the Graves of the former. I Saw the grave also where the Grand chief of the Poncas was buried about the Same time the Mahars were &c. &c. We Camped on the hill about 5 miles from the Boats. [The Omaha village known as Tonwontonga, or Big Village, Dakota County, Nebraska, about one mile north of Homer].
Monday Aug. 13th
Arrived at the fish camp Near the Mahars Village at 4 o'clock this day. The Commanding Officer Sent a Sergt. & 4 Men with a white flag to the Village to Invite them to Come to a treaty, but they found no Indians at the Village [and] Returned next day after 12 o'clock.
14th of August
At 12 o'clock the Party Sent yesterday to the Towns returned, and informed that they Could not find any Indians, they had not returned from hunting the Buffalo in the Prairies. Our party Sent after the Deserter and to the Oto towns have not Came up as yet. The Situation of this Village, now in ruins Surrounded by innumerable hosts of graves [due to] the ravages of the smallpox (4 years ago). They follow the Buffalo and tend no Corn.
14th August Tuesday 1804
At about 12 o'clock the Party returned and informed us that they Could not find the Indians nor any fresh Sign. Those people have not returned from their Buffalo hunt, those people having no houses no Corn or anything more than the graves of their ancestors to attach them to the old Village, continue in pursuit of the Buffalo longer than others who had greater attachments to their native Village. The ravages of the Small Pox [NB: about 4 years ago] (which swept off 400 men & women & Children in proportion) has reduced this Nation not exceeding 300 men and left them to the insults of their weaker neighbors which before was glad to be on friendly terms with them. I am told when this fatal malady was among them they Carried their frenzy to very extraordinary length, not only of burning their Village, but they put their wives & Children to Death with a view of their all going together to Some better Country. They bury their Dead on the tops of high hills and raise mounds on the top of them. The cause or way those people took the Small Pox is uncertain, the most Probable from Some other Nation by means of a war party.
Tuesday August 14th
Has not lived at the town Since the Smallpox was So bad about 4 years ago. They burnt their town and only live about it in the winter and in the Spring go all of them in the prairies off after the Buffalo and do not Return until the fall to meet the French traders. They Raise no Corn nor any thing except Sometimes Raise Some Corn and then the Otto nation Comes and Cuts it Down while they are in the prairies.
We Set out at light, & walked along down the hills past the Graves. We saw also a number of large holes in the Ground where they used to hide their peltry &c. in, when they went out hunting; and when they returned they would dig it out again.
17th August (Thursday) Friday 1804
At 6 o'clock this evening, Labiche, one of the Party Sent to the Otos joined [us], and informed that the Party was behind with one of the Deserters M B. Reed and the 3 principal Chiefs of the Nation. La Liberty they caught but he deceived them and got away. The object of those Chiefs coming forward is to make a peace with the Mahars through us. As the Mahars are not at home this great object cannot be accomplished at this time. Set the Prairies on fire to bring the Mahars & (Missouris) Sioux if any were near, this being the usual Signal.
21st August Tuesday 1804
The Sioux River is about the Size of Grand River and as Mr. Dorion our Sioux interpreter says, navigable to the falls 70 or 80 Leagues and above these falls Still further. Those falls are 200 feet or thereabouts & has two principal pitches, and heads with the St. Peters passing the head of the Des Moines. On the right below the falls a Creek Comes in which passes through Cliffs of red rock which the Indians make pipes of, and when the different nations Meet at [a Sort of asylum for all nations, no fighting there] those quarries all is peace. Passed a place in a Prairie on the L.S. where the Mahars had a Village formerly.
24th August (Sunday) Friday 1804
Capt. Lewis and myself Concluded to visit a High Hill Situated in an immense Plain three Leagues N. 20' W. from the mouth of White Stone River. This hill appears to be of a Conic form and by all the different Nations in this quarter is Supposed to be a place of Devils or that they are in human form with remarkable large heads and about 18 inches high. That they are very watchful and are armed with Sharp arrows with which they can kill at a great distance. They are said to kill all persons who are so hardy as to attempt to approach the hill. They (have a) state that tradition informs them that mainly Indians have suffered by these little people and among others that three Mahar men fell a sacrifice to their merciless fury not many years since. So much do the Mahars, Sioux, Otos and other neighboring nations believe this fable that no consideration is sufficient to induce them to approach this hill.
24th August Friday 1804
In a northerly direction from the mouth of this Creek in an immense Plain [a] high Hill is Situated, and appears of a Conic form and by the different nations of Indians in this quarter is Supposed to be the residence of Devils. That they are in human form with remarkable large heads and about 18 Inches high, that they are Very watchful, and are armed with Sharp arrows with which they Can Kill at a great distance. They are Said to Kill all persons who are So hardy as to attempt to approach the hill; they State that tradition informs them that many Indians have Suffered by those little people and among others three Mahar men fell a Sacrifice to their merciless fury not many years Since. So much do the Mahar, Sioux, Otos and other neighboring nations believe this fable that no Consideration is Sufficient to induce them to approach the hill.
Aug. 25th Saturday 1804
This morning Capt. Lewis & myself, Sgt. Ordway, Shields, Joseph Field, Colter, Bratton, Cane, Labiche, Corp. Warfington, Fraser & York set out to visit this mountain of evil Spirits. We Set out from the mouth of the White Stone Creek at 8 o'clock. At 4 miles Crossed the Creek in an open plain, at 7 miles the dog gave out & we Sent him back to the Creek. At 12 o'clock we rose the hill. Sometime before we got to the hill we observed great numbers of Birds hovering about the top of this Mound. When I got on the top those Birds flew off. I discovered that they were [catching] a kind of flying ant which were in great numbers about the top of this hill. Those insects lit on our hats & necks. Several of them bit me very [sharp?] on the neck. Near the top of this knoll I observed three holes which I Supposed to be Prairie Wolves or Braroes, which are numerous in those Plains. This hill is about 70 foot high in an immense Prairie or level plain. From the top I could not observe any woods except in the Missouri Points and a few Scattering trees on the three Rivers in view, the Sioux River below, the River Jacque above & the one we have crossed. From the top of this Mound we observed Several large gangs of Buffalo & Elk feeding, upwards of 800 in number.
26th August Sunday 1804
Above the mouth of this Creek a Chief of the Mahar nation, displeased with the Conduct of Blackbird, the main Chief, came to this place and built a Town which was called by his name, Petite Arch (or Little Bow). This Town was at the foot of a Hill in a handsome Plain fronting the river and Contained about 100 huts & 200 men. The remains of this tribe Since the Death of Petite Arch has joined the remaining part of the nation. This Creek is Small.
26th August Sunday 1804
This village was built by an Indian Chief of the Mahar nation by the name of Petite Arc (or little Bow), displeased with the Great Chief of that nation (Black Bird), Separated with 200 men and built a village at this place. After his death the two villages joined.
27th August Monday
Three miles above this Bluff we Set the Prairie on fire, to let the [Yankton] Sioux Know we wished to see them. At two o'clock an Indian Swam to the Pirogue. We landed & two others Came. They were boys, [and] they informed us that the Sioux were Camped near, on the River Jacques. One Mahar boy informed us his nation was gone to make a peace with the Pawnee. We Sent Sgt. Pryor & a Frenchman with the Interpreter Mr. Dorion to the Camp to See & invite their Great Chiefs to Come and Counsel with us at the Calumet Bluffs [blank] Mile above on L.S.
[Clark -describing prisoners taken in battle with the Lakota Sioux]
26th of Sept.
In the evening I walked on shore, and saw several Mahar women & boys in a lodge & was told they were prisoners latterly taken in a battle in which they killed a number & took 48 prisoners. I advised the Chiefs to make peace with that nation and give up the prisoners, if they intended to follow the words of their great father; they promised that they would do so. . . I saw 25 squaws & boys taken 13 days ago in a battle with the Mahars, in which they destroyed 40 lodges, killed 75 men & boys, & took 48 prisoners which they promised us should be delivered to Mr. Dorion now with the Yankton. We gave our Mahar interpreter a few awls &c. to give those wretched prisoners.
Those are a wretched and dejected looking people, the squaws appear low & coarse, but this is an unfavorable time to judge of them. We gave our Mahar interpreter [Cruzatte] some few articles to give those squaws in his name, such as awls, needles &. &c.