11-26 August 1804
One of the main goals of Lewis and Clark in their meetings with the Oto-Missouria at Council Bluffs was to make peace between that tribe and their nearby enemies, the Maha (the name that tribe today prefers to Omaha). Living just north of the Oto on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River, these "Upstream People" were allies of the Pawnee but spoke Dhegian Sioux like the Osage, Kansa, Quapaw, and Ponca, with whom they had migrated from the Ohio Valley.
The Maha built large earth lodges and farmed like the Pawnee but used tipis in their long summer travels in search of buffalo herds. Their homeland contained the mysterious "Spirit Mound" that Lewis and Clark climbed on Saturday, 25 August. The Indians believed that evil demons or "little people," only 18 inches tall but with very large heads, lived there and would kill any trespassers. Adding to that scary belief were the huge flocks of birds that flew above the mound and the smoldering, volcano-like "burning hills" nearby.
Until 1800 the Maha were "the terror of their neighbors," with 700 warriors and a great war chief, Black Bird, to lead them. He died of smallpox in 1800, along with most of the tribe, and the history of the Maha took a tragic turn. On 11 August Lewis and Clark took time to pay their respects and leave a banner atop Black Bird's burial mound high above the west bank of the Missouri River, south of Sioux City, Iowa.
The captains now understood why the Maha had not attended the Council Bluff parley with the Oto – they were no longer in the area. The "fatal malady" of smallpox caused them to burn their village and "become a wandering nation." With too few warriors to defend the tribe, even more Maha died in raids by the Teton Lakota and Oto. In fact, Lewis and Clark saw 25 Maha prisoners at a Teton camp on 26 September that the Sioux had taken on a recent raid that also killed 75 Maha warriors.
The Maha and the Ponca tribe of the Niobrara River (Nebraska) – which also suffered greatly from smallpox – survived to the present day by grouping together for mutual protection. They would not be the first or the last Indians along the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to adapt creatively to a rapidly changing, and often terrifying, West.