Information on the Osage 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 Osage 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. At the time of Lewis and Clark, the Osage were the most powerful tribe in the lower Midwest. They moved from their original home along the Ohio River to western Missouri before the beginning of the French Mississippi and Missouri River fur trade in the 18th century. By 1804 the Osage ruled the region of western Missouri, northern Arkansas and eastern Kansas due to their ties with French fur traders and Spanish government officials in St. Louis. The powerful Chouteau family had a trade monopoly with the Osage for many years, and intermarriages with Osage women were common. The Osage called themselves Ni-U-Ko'n-Ska, or "children of the middle waters." The name Osage comes from the French version of one of the band names within the tribe. The two main bands of the Indians lived on the Osage River (the Great Osage) and the Missouri River (the Petit or Little Osage). According to the artist George Catlin in his book, Letters and Notes, the Osages were the tallest men in North America, and other contemporary observers agreed. "[V]ery few of the men, at their full growth, . . . are less than six feet in stature, and very many of them six and a half, and others seven feet. They are at the same time well-proportioned in their limbs and good-looking; being rather narrow in the shoulders, and, like most very tall people, a little inclined to stoop . . . " Catlin also noted that the Osage, "like all those tribes who shave the head, cut and slit their ears very much, and suspend from them great quantities of wampum and tinsel ornaments. Their necks are generally ornamented also with a profusion of wampum and beads; and as they live in a warm climate where there is not so much necessity for warm clothing, as amongst the more Northern tribes . . . their shoulders, arms, and chests are generally naked, and painted in a great variety of picturesque ways, with silver bands on the wrists, and oftentimes a profusion of rings on the fingers." The Osage lived in established villages in oval or rectangular pole-frame houses covered with woven mats or hides. They farmed and grew vegetables, but their diet was also supplemented by buffalo hunting on the plains to the west. Their principal business was trapping and hunting for furs, including beaver and buffalo, but also including nearly every other fur-bearing forest creature. Trade with the French resulted in a profusion of European goods, including firearms and gunpowder, which made the Osage the most powerful tribe in their region. With government complacence the Osage dominated their neighboring tribes. All this changed with the advent of the Americans, as the Osage found to their chagrin beginning with councils with Pierre Chouteau and Meriwether Lewis at St. Louis in early 1804. Chouteau traveled with tribal leaders to Washington, D.C. to meet President Jefferson in 1804, but the Osage were not impressed with the President or the new policies of trying to treat each tribe equally in matters of trade. After the transfer of the Louisiana Territory, whites moved into Missouri swiftly, and the Osage felt the pressure acutely. In 1808 a fort and "factory" (trading post) was built in the Osage territory at modern Sibley, Missouri on the Missouri River by William Clark. Clark negotiated an adverse treaty with the Osage which was only rectified when it was renegotiated by Pierre Chouteau later that year. The treaty included cessions of huge chunks of Osage land, and was repeated in other treaties of 1818, 1825, 1839 and 1865, until the Osage were forced into what is now Oklahoma. The Osage served as scouts for the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars of the 1860s, and their reservation was established in 1870 in northeast Oklahoma. Discovery of oil on the reservation in 1897 made the Osage one of the richest tribes in North America.
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.
Principal Chief, Osage Tribe of Indians
Tribal Administration Building
Pawhuska, Oklahoma 74056
Saturday April 21st
At three o'clock a cannon was heard up the Missouri. Soon after Mr. Chouteau arrived with 22 Indians. We saluted them and after staying one hour, Capt. Lewis & myself set out with them to St. Louis, where we arrived before night.
[Lewis to Jefferson]
Saint Louis, May 18, 1804.
The following is a list of articles forwarded you by Mr. Peter Chouteau. These were presented me by Mr. Peter Chouteau, who received them from the Osage Indians, they having collected them in some of their war excursions into that country.
No. 1. A specimen of silver ore from Mexico
No. 2. ditto of lead, supposed to contain a considerable quantity of silver, from Mexico.
No. 3. An elegant specimen of rock crystal, also from Mexico.
Presented by Mr. Boilevin and Mr. Peter Chouteau.
Nos. 4 & 5. Specimens of lead oar from the Bed of the Osage River.
Nos. 6, 7-8-9-10-11-12 14-& 15. Specimens of lead oar from the Mine of Berton, situate on the Meramec River, now more extensively wrought than any other lead mine in <Upper> Louisiana.
Presented by Doctr. Anthony Saugrain.
No. 13. Taken from the stomach of a buffalo, which I suppose has been formed by the Animal's licking itself and thus collecting and swallowing the hair of its old coat, which from the motion, warmth and moisture of the stomach has been reduced to the shape and consistency of the sample.
Presented by Mr. Charles Gratiot.
A horned lizard, a native of the Osage plains, on the waters of the Arkansas River, from five to six hundred miles west of Saint Louis, in a small trunk.
Presented by Mr. Auguste Chouteau
A specimen of salt formed by concretion, procured at the great Saline of the Osage Nation, situate on a southern branch of the Arkansas River, about six hundred miles west of St. Louis.
A chart of the Mississippi, from the Mouth of the Missouri to New Orleans, compiled from the observations of Mr. Auguste Chouteau, made with a mariner's compass, distance being computed by his own estimate and that of many other French traders, accustomed to ascend and descend this river, the same being drawn by Mr. Soulard, late Surveyor General of Upper Louisiana.
A map of a part of Upper Louisiana, compiled from the best information that Capt. Clark and myself could collect from the inhabitants of Saint Louis, hastily corrected by the information obtained from the Osage Indians lately arrived at this place. The country claimed by the Osage Nation is designated on this map by lines dotted with red ink. The country lying between those lands claimed by the Osage Nation and the Mississippi, embraces all the settlements at present established in Upper Louisiana, except the settlement near the Mouth of the Arkansas and those below it.
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.
May 31st Thursday 1804
A Caljaux of bear skins and peltries came down from the Grand Osage, one Frenchman, one (half) Indian, and a squaw. They had letters from the man Mr. Chouteau sent to that part of the Osage Nation settled on Arkansas River, mentioning that his letter was committed to the flames, the Indians not believing that the Americans had possession of the country they disregarded St. Louis & their supplies &c.
Friday 1st June, 1804. The Osage Nation of Indians live about two hundred miles up this [Osage] river. They are of a large size and well proportioned, and a very warlike people. Our arms and ammunition were all inspected here and found in good order.