Information on the Osage Indians
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.
[Lewis to Jefferson]
Presented by Mr. Boilevin and Mr. Peter Chouteau.
Last updated: April 10, 2015