Preliminaries to 2 June 1804
On Friday, 1 June 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition arrived at the mouth of the Osage River, a dozen days after leaving St. Charles, Missouri. Seeing the "best land he had ever seen," a member of the Corps of Discovery wrote in his journal that "the Osage nation of Indians live about two hundred miles up this River" and "are of a large size and well proportioned, and a very warlike people."
Lewis and Clark had little to fear from the Osage, however, because they were the most important fur-trading tribe in Missouri for forty years prior to the Louisiana Purchase. When St. Louis was founded in 1764, the Osage were the original "Gateway to the West," using their talents and knowledge to make the fur trade profitable and western exploration possible.
The Osage leaders met Lewis and Clark long before the Expedition began and gave valuable information about Missouri River tribes. When the Corps of Discovery passed by the Osage River, Lewis and Clark did not meet with the Osage chiefs who were traveling on an official visit to Washington, D.C. President Thomas Jefferson wanted to meet members of this valuable and helpful tribe because he knew they were "the great nation South of the Missouri."
The Osage called themselves Ni-U-Kon-Ska ("Children of the Middle Waters"), but were known as "Wah Sha She" by most whites. They spoke a Dhegihan ("Ta-gee-han") Central-Sioux language, along with the related, neighboring tribes of Kansa, Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw. Long before French explorers found them in 1673, the Osage had moved onto the central prairie-plains with those other tribes from an old homeland in the Ohio Valley.
In Missouri, the Osage were divided into two branches. The "Big" or Grand Osage built hilltop villages along the headwaters of the Osage River near the Kansas-Missouri border. Their large and well-protected capital was at Marais des Cygnes ("Marsh of Swans") near Pleasanton, KS. The "Little" or Petit bands preferred to live along the banks of the Missouri River. One of their village sites can be seen today in Van Meter State Park near Miami, MO.
In 1700 some 8,000 Osage lived in several permanent villages of thatched longhouses. Men and boys hunted a wide variety of abundant animals – deer from the forests, beaver from the streams, buffalo from the plains, and black bears from the Ozark Mountains. Women and girls tanned the furs and planted fields of maize, beans, and squash (the "sacred triad" preferred by many Indians). All the Osage people, young and old, collected water lily roots, persimmons, nuts, and berries to supplement their meat and vegetable diet.
Located midway between the Mississippi River and the Great Plains and between Canada and New Orleans, the Osage became Missouri's greatest Indian traders since the Cahokian Civilization some 500 years before. They sold horses, buffalo meat and hides, and captured Indians from Spanish territories in the West to colonists in Illinois and traded a great variety of furs to French Canadians. Because they were the "best fur producers" south of Canada, the Osage received European metal weapons, wool blankets, and glass beads, tobacco from Virginia or Brazil, and Chinese vermilion (mercury sulphide face-paint).
The supply of flintlock muskets and sharp tomahawks and knives made the Osage the leading military power in Missouri. Some 1,200-1,500 Osage warrior-hunters defeated neighboring tribes to protect their huge and valuable hunting territory of 100,000 square miles. Some Europeans compared Osage warriors to conquering Roman legions or medieval knights. Jefferson called their warriors "gigantic" – averaging well over 6 feet in height. (One Osage chief was 7 feet tall and weighed 300 pounds!) Warriors were very hardy and could travel 60 miles a day – on foot! It must have been a scary sight to see hundreds of these red-painted, nearly-bald warriors riding at full gallop on their decorated war ponies, holding long lances, French muskets, sharp scalping knives, and the famous, strong bows made of Osage Orangewood.
Despite their fierce reputation, however, the Osage were always friendly with the French and later American residents of St. Louis. They were happy to advise Lewis and Clark and never waged war against the United States. Unfortunately, however, the Louisiana Purchase quickly changed the Osage way of life. Because the Corps of Discovery found such a huge number of rich furs in the Far West, Osage lands soon became more valuable to white farmers than Osage pelts were to white merchants.
In 1808, the Osage signed the Treaty of Fort Osage, giving 50,000 square miles of their territory – almost all of Missouri – to the United States. Lewis and Clark originally discovered the site of Fort Osage on the "Fire Prairie" – where the Osage were now forced to live – on 23 June 1804. In 1808, it was Governor Lewis and General Clark who told the Osage to move there if they wanted payment for their furs. (The U.S. trading post and military garrison at Fort Osage was called a fur "factory"—a place where a "factor," or merchant/accountant, bartered with Indians.)
After another treaty in 1825 (signed in Clark's backyard), the Osage left their old Missouri homeland forever. For the next 50 years, they moved to a series of reservations in "Indian Territory" (first in Kansas and later in Oklahoma). As betrayed old friends, the Osage saw American farmers enjoying the fertile, never-plowed lands of their hunting grounds--the source of their fame and fortune when they were the original "Gateway to the West."