From the earliest historical times the habitat of the Osage was among the hills and valleys of the Ozarks, south of the Missouri, in the present State of Missouri, and here they continued to dwell until their removal during the early part-of the 19th century.
When Père Marquette passed down the Mississippi, late in the month of June 1673, he learned of the Osage, and on his map, prepared soon afterwards, indicated the villages of that tribe near a stream which was evidently the river bearing their tribal name. They continued to occupy rather permanent villages until the beginning of the nineteenth century.
The tribe included three bands, two of which may be rather old; the third more recently created. These are:
- Pahatsi or Great Osage
- Utsehta or Little Osage
- Santsukhdhi or Arkansas band
The latter dates from the year 1802 or thereabouts, when a large part of the Great Osage, under the leadership of the chief Big Track, removed to the vicinity of the Arkansas.
The Osage, unlike certain other members of the Siouan Dhegiha group to which they belong, continued to erect and occupy the mat or bark covered habitations so characteristic of the forest tribes. Their villages which stood among the Ozarks were probably similar in appearance to the ancient settlements of their ancestors which once occupied a part of the upper valley of the Ohio, whence they migrated to the region beyond the Mississippi. But the country which served as their new home was one well suited to the wants and requirements of the tribe. Game was plentiful, the streams teemed with fish, and wild fruits were to be had in vast quantities. Thus food was easily obtained.
The expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark began ascending the Missouri May 14, 1804, and just one month later, on June 15, arrived at the site of an earlier settlement of the Little Osage. In the journal the entry for that day states that: “We passed several islands and one creek on the south side, and encamped on the north opposite a beautiful plain, which extends as far back as the Osage river, and some miles up the Missouri. In front of our encampment are the remains of an old village of the Little Osage, situated at some distance from the river, and at the foot of a small hill. About three miles above them, in view of our camp is the situation of the old village of the Missouri after they fled from the Sauks. The inroads of the same tribe compelled the Little Osage to retire from the Missouri a few years ago, and establish themselves near the Great Osages.” And two days later, at a place about 20 miles above their camp, on the 15th, they reached “the crossing place for the Sauk, Ayauway, and Sioux, in their excursions against the Osage,” 1
The ruined or deserted village of the Little Osage seen by the party stood on the right or south bank of the Missouri, in the western part of the present Saline County, Missouri, not far from the village of Malta. The structures which had stood at this old site were probably similar to those later erected by the people in their new village near the town of the Great Osage, both of which were visited two years later. They were situated far south of the Missouri, in the northern part of the present Vernon County, in the valley of the Little Osage River.
During the latter part of August, 1806, Pike arrived at the two villages of the Osage, having departed from Fort Bellefontain a short time before on his journey to the far west. But, unfortunately, his accounts of the native tribes and their villages which he encountered during his travels are neither full nor clear, and so it is with the description of the habitations of the Osage. To quote from the narrative: “The Osage lodges are generally constructed with upright posts, put firmly in the ground, of about 20 feet in height, with a crotch at the top; they are generally about 12 feet distant from each other; in the crotch of those posts, are put the ridge poles, over which are bent small poles, the ends of which are brought down and fastened to a row of stakes of about 5 feet in height; these stakes are fastened together with three horizontal bars, and form the flank walls of the lodge. The gable ends are generally broad slabs and rounded off to the ridge pole. The whole of the building and sides are covered with matting made of rushes, of two or three feet in length, and four feet in width, which are joined together, and entirely exclude the rain. The doors are in the side of the building, and generally are one on each side. The fires are made in holes in the centre of the lodge; the smoke ascending through apertures left in the roof for the purpose; at one end of the dwelling is a raised platform, about three feet from the ground which is covered with bear skins, and generally holds all the little choice furniture of the master, and on which repose his honorable guests. They vary in length from 36 to 100 feet.” 2
Fort Osage, soon to be named Fort Clark, stood on the right bank of the Missouri, a short distance northeast of Independence, in Jackson County, Missouri. During the early years of the last century it was a gathering place for the Osage and neighboring tribes, and several interesting accounts are preserved of the appearance of the Indian lodges clustered about the post. Both Bradbury and Brackenridge made mention of the fort in their journals. The former wrote on April 8, 1811, and told of his arrival: “About ten o’clock we came in sight of the fort, about six miles distant. We had not been long in sight before we saw the flag was hoisted, and at noon we arrived, saluting with a volley as we passed on to the landing place, where we met Mr. Crooks, who had come clown from the wintering station at the mouth of the river Naduet to meet us. There were also collected at the landing place about 200 Indians, men, women, and children, of the Petit Osage nation, whose village was then about 300 yards from the fort.” And continuing: “At evening Dr. Murray proposed that we should walk into the village, and I found it to consist of about one hundred lodges of an oblong form, the frame of timber, and the covering mats, made of the leaves of flag, or Typha palutris. On our return through the town, we called at the lodge belonging to a chief named Waubuschon, with whom Dr. Murray was particularly acquainted. The floor was covered with mats, on which they sat; but as I was a stranger, I was offered a cushion. A wooden bowl was now handed round, containing square pieces of cake, in taste resembling ginger-bread. On enquiry I found it was made of the pulp of the persimon, mixed with pounded corn. This bread they called staninca.” 3
Less than three weeks elapsed before Brackenridge reached the fort in the company of Manuel Lisa. April 25, 1811, “About eleven, came in sight of Fort Osage, situate on a bluff, three miles off, on a commanding eminence. A number of Indians of the Osage nation, of all ages, and sexes, were scattered along the bank, attracted by curiosity, some with old buffalo robes thrown over their shoulders, others dressed out in the gayest manner. On landing at the fort, on a very rocky shore, a soldier under arms, who waited for us at the water’s side, escorted Mr. Lisa and myself to the fort, where we were politely received by the commanding officer. While Mr. Lisa was transacting some business, accompanied by Mr. Sibley, the factor, and an interpreter, I went to deliver a pipe to Sans Oreille, (a warrior, and head man of this tribe) sent to him by gen. Clark.
“The lodges of the Little Osage, are sixty in number, and within gun shot of the fort; but they are about to remove their village to a prairie, three miles off. Their lodges are of a circular form, not more than ten or fifteen feet in diameter, constructed by placing mats, made of coarse rushes, over forks and poles.
“All three of the Osage bands, together with some Kansas, were lately encamped here for the purpose of trading, to the number of fifteen hundred warriors.” 4
It is more than probable the Little Osage were then returning to their distant villages. Within less than three weeks the group of dwellings in the vicinity of the post had been reduced in number from about 100 to 60, and undoubtedly before the lapse of many days all would have begun their homeward journey. But the structures as described would have resembled the dwellings in their permanent villages, differing from the more temporary lodges discovered by Schoolcraft a few years later.
When Schoolcraft traversed the southern part of the State of Missouri a century ago, crossing the Ozarks and following the deep valleys which separated the ridges, he encountered many deserted camps of the Osages and frames of one or more habitations, the mat or bark covers often having been removed, thus allowing the bare frames to remain. These had been the temporary shelters occupied by small parties hunting away from their home villages. On November 27, 1818, so he wrote, “night overtook us, and we encamped in an Indian bark tent on the bank of the river, which had not been occupied for one or two years.” 5 The river mentioned was the Great North Fork of White River, and the latter was soon reached. Continuing their journey over the rough and rugged hills, through tangled masses of vegetation, often advancing only, a few miles each day, and that with the greatest exertion, they arrived December 30, 1818, in the region a short distance east of James River, possibly in the present Christian County, Missouri. Here they encountered several deserted camps, of which, fortunately, interesting accounts are preserved in the narrative: “In pursuing up the valley of Swan Creek, about nine miles, we fell into the Osage trace, a horse-path beaten by the Osages in their hunting excursions along this river, and passing successively three of their camps, now deserted, all very large, arranged with much order and neatness, and capable of quartering probably 100 men each. Both the method of building camps, and the order of encampment observed by this singular nation of savages, are different from any thing of the kind I have noticed among the various tribes of aboriginal Americans, through whose territories I have had occasion to travel. The form of the tent or camp may be compared to an inverted bird’s nest, or hemisphere, with a small aperture left in the top, for the escape of smoke ; and a similar, but larger one, at one side, for passing in and out. It is formed, by cutting a number of slender flexible green poles of equal length, sharpened at each end, stuck in the ground like a bow, and, crossing at right angles at the top the points of entrance into the ground forming a circle. Small twigs are then wove in, mixed with the leaves of cane, moss, and grass, until it is perfectly tight and warm. These tents are arranged in large circles, one within another, according to the number of men intended to be accommodated. In the centre is a scaffolding for meat, from which all are supplied every morning, under the inspection of a chief, whose tent is conspicuously situated at the head of the encampment, and differs from all the rest, resembling a half cylinder inverted. Their women and children generally accompany them on these excursions, which often occupy three months.” Schoolcraft soon crossed the ridge separating Swan Creek from Findley’s River, the latter “running from the north-east, and tributary to James’ river, the main northwestern branch of White River.” 6
It must be understood that this description applies to a temporary encampment of the Osage, not to a permanent village, although they would probably not have differed greatly in appearance. The structures in a camp were rather smaller than those in the villages, and the latter were covered with mats or sheets of bark instead of the walls ‘being composed of the crude wattlework, as mentioned in the preceding account.
Throughout the region traversed by Schoolcraft are to be found traces of ancient camps, some quite large, others small. The innumerable caves and caverns occurring in the limestone formations through which the many streams have cut deep valleys show evidence of long occupancy by the natives. Great masses of wood ashes, intermingled with broken and lost implements of bone and stone, fragments of pottery vessels, and charred or broken bones of animals which had served as food, are to be found accumulated near the opening, beneath the overhanging strata. The great majority of such material should undoubtedly be attributed to the Osage, whose hunters penetrated all parts of the Ozarks.
A beautiful example of a frame for an Osage habitation is shown in plate 32a, a reproduction of a photograph made near Hominy, Oklahoma, in 1911. This was probably the form of structure seen by the early travelers, which is more clearly described on the following pages. It is interesting, showing as it does the manner in which the uprights were placed in the ground, then bent over and bound in place. As the Osage undoubtedly lived, generations ago, in the Ohio Valley, it is possible the ancient village sites discovered in Ross County, Ohio, belonged either to this or a related tribe, and the ground plan of the structures revealed during the exploration of a certain site would agree with the typical Osage habitation of recent years. A ground plan was prepared by the discoverer of the ancient village site 7 and was reproduced on page 139, Bulletin 71, of this Bureau.
On the plan of the ancient settlement which stood many generations ago are several interesting features in addition to the outline of the oval habitation. North of the space once occupied by the dwelling are many comparatively large caches, with fireplaces between. On the opposite side of the structure were encountered 30 burials, representing children and adults. It would be of the greatest interest at the present time to discover the exact location of one of the Usage villages of a century ago, and to determine the position of the caches and burials, if any exist, in relation to the sites of the habitations.
About the time of Schoolcraft’s journey through the Ozarks another traveler went up the valley of the Arkansas, and when far west of the Mississippi came in contact with the Osage. Nuttall, on July 15, 1819, wrote: “The first village of the Osages lies about 60 miles from the mouth of the Verdigris, and is said to contain 7 or 800 men and their families. About 60 miles further, on the Osage River, is situated the village of the chief called White Hair. The whole of the Osages are now, by governor Clark, enumerated at about 8000 souls. At this time nearly the whole town, men, and women, were engaged in their summer hunt, collecting bison tallow and meat. The principal chief is called by the French Clarmont, although his proper name is the Iron bird, a species of Eagle.” 8 Under date of August 5, 1819, he referred to the women of the tribe, saying: “It is to their industry and ingenuity, that the men owe every manufactured article of their dress, as well as every utensil in their huts. The Osage women appear to excel in these employments. Before the Cherokees burnt down their town on the Verdigris, their houses were chiefly covered with handwove matts of bulrushes. Their baskets and bed matts of this material, were parti-colored and very handsome. This manufacture, I am told, is done with the assistance of three sticks, arranged in some way so as to answer the purpose of a loom, and the strands are inlaid diagonally. They, as well as the Cherokees and others, frequently take the pains to unravel old blankets and cloths, and reweave the yarn into belts and garters.” 9
Evidently it was not the custom of the Osage to entirely abandon their villages when they went on their periodical hunts. Some remained, either through choice or necessity. In the above quotation Nuttall spoke of “nearly the whole town” being absent on their summer hunt, and one very familiar with the habits of the tribe said: “The Osage and Kansas live in villages, which, even during the hunting seasons, are never wholly abandoned, as in the case with several tribes settled on the Missouri.” 10
Regarding the general appearance of the villages : “Their lodges are built promiscuously, in situations to please their respective proprietors: they are arranged to neither streets nor alleys, and are sometimes so crowded, as to render the passage between them difficult.”
That some of the Osage constructed very long structures is told by Morse, but if the dimensions given in his account are accurate they refer to the unusual rather than to the usual form of habitation erected by members of that tribe. He said: “The Osages of the Arkansaw occupy several villages. The principal village contains about three hundred lodges or huts, and about three thousand souls. The lodges are generally from fifty to a hundred feet in length; and irregularly arranged, they cover a surface of about half a mile square. They are constructed of posts, matting, bark and skins. They have neither floors nor chimneys. The fire is built on the ground, in the centre of the lodge, and the family, and the guests, sit around in a circle, upon skins or plats.” 11 These various statements appear grossly exaggerated, and on page 225 of the same work appears the statement that “Their villages are nothing more than what they can remove on the shortest notice, one horse being capable of carrying house, household furniture, and children all at one load.” Morse included in his notes on the Osage several letters written by missionaries then working among the tribe. One communication from Dr. Palmer, dated at Union, March 18, 1820, contained a note on their habitations: “Their houses are made of poles, arched from fifteen to twenty feet, covered by matting made of flags. At the sides they set tip rived planks, lining the inside with neatly made flagg matting. They build several fires in the lodge, according to its size, or the number of wives the owner has. For a fire-place, they dig a hole about as big as a bushel basket, leaving the smoke to ascend through a hole in the roof. Around the fire they spread their mats to sit or eat.” And when visiting the settlement, “Having entered the lodge, and had our horses turned out, we took a humble seat around the fire. Presently there was brought to us a wooden bowl, filled with food made of corn. In a short time we were invited to eat at another lodge, and before we had finished, at another, and another.” And another letter, from Requa, dated February 3, 1822, told of the native dwellings. He wrote at that time: “I live at present among the Osages, at one of their villages about, fifty miles from Union. This unhappy people live in low huts, covered with long grass or flag, but so badly put together that they leak considerably in a storm of rain. They have very little furniture, merely a few pots or kettles in which they boil their provisions. The art of cooking their meat in any other way than boiling is unknown among them, except roasting it on a stick before the fire. They have very little variety in their food. Wild game, corn, dried pumpkins, and beans constitute about all on which they subsist. With this, however, they are contented. They have wooden bowls, out of which they eat, drink, wash themselves.” 12 Union, where the two communications were written, was probably Union Agency, which stood on the right bank of the Arkansas River, just southwest of Fort Gibson, in the present Muskogee County, Oklahoma. The settlement “about fifty miles from Union ” may have been on the Verdigris, near the center of the present Rogers County, Oklahoma.
An interesting description of a deserted camp of the Osage was prepared by Irving, as it appeared, standing near the banks of the Arkansas, October 11, 1832. On that day, so he wrote: “We came in sight of the Arkansas. It presented a broad and rapid stream, bordered by a beach of fine sand, overgrown with willows and cotton-wood trees. Beyond the river, the eye wandered over a beautiful champaign country, of flowery plains and sloping uplands. Not far from the river, on an open eminence, we passed through the recently deserted camping place of an Osage war party. The frames of their tents or wigwams remained, consisting of poles bent into an arch, with each end stuck into the ground; these are intertwined with twigs and branches, and covered with bark and skins. Those experienced in Indian lore, can ascertain the tribe, and whether on a hunting or warlike expedition, by the shape and disposition of the wigwams. Beatte pointed out to us, in the present skeleton camp, the wigwam in which the chiefs had held their consultations round the council fire; and an open area, well trampled down, on which the grand war-dance had been performed.” 13 The frames probably resembled the example shown in plate 32a.
This mention of a dance by Irving suggests the description of a ceremony witnessed at the village of the Little Osage during the same year. The account of a “war-dance ” was prepared July 25, 1832: “Much of the ceremony consisted in a sort of dancing march round the streets of the village between their lodges. In their marching round the settlement, the warriors I were followed by a band of musicians, some drumming on a piece of deer skin, stretched over the head of a keg, and others singing their wild songs. Among the retinue I observed a great many youths, who appeared to be young disciples, catching the spirit of their seniors and fathers. Another group followed, who appeared to be mourners, crying for vengeance on their enemies, to reward them for the death of some relative.” 14
A brief but interesting sketch of the manners and ways of life of the Osage of a century ago is to be found in Morse’s work already quoted. Although the notes were prepared to apply to several neighboring tribes, they referred primarily to the tribe now being discussed. First speaking of their gardens: “They raise annually small crops of corn, beans, and pumpkins, these they cultivate entirely with the hoe, in the simplest manner. Their crops are usually planted in April, and receive one dressing before they leave their villages for the summer hunt, in May. About the first week in August they return to their villages and gather their crops, which have been left unhoed and unfenced all the season. Each family, if lucky, can save from ten to twenty bags of corn and beans, of a bushel and a half each; besides a quantity of dried pumpkins. On this they feast, with the dried meat saved in the summer, till September, when what remains is cashed, and they set out on the fall hunt, from which they return about Christmas. From that time, till some time in February or March, as the season happens to be mild or severe, they stay pretty much in their villages, making only short hunting excursions occasionally, and during that time they consume the greater part of their cashes. In February or March the spring hunt commences; first the bear, and then the beaver hunt. This they pursue till planting time, when they again return to their village, pitch their crops, and in May set out for the summer hunt, taking with them their residue, if any, of their corn, &c. This is the circle of an Osage life, here and there indented with war and trading expeditions; and thus it has been, with very little variation, these twelve years past.” 15
The cornfields were left without watchers and were probably often destroyed by roving parties of the enemy or by wild beasts. On August 18, 1820, a hunter belonging to a division of the Long expedition “returned with the information of his having discovered a small field of maize, occupying a fertile spot at no great distance from the camp, it exhibited proofs of having been lately visited by the cultivators; a circumstance which leads us to believe that an ascending column of smoke seen at a distance this afternoon, proceeded from an encampment of Indians, whom, if not a war party, we should now rejoice to meet. We took the liberty, agreeable to the custom of the Indians, of procuring a mess of corn, and some small but nearly ripe watermelons, that were also found growing there, intending to recompense the Osages for them, to whom we supposed them to belong.” The following morning, August 19, they encountered several small cornfields near a creek along which they were passing, and that day discovered ” an Indian camp, that had a more permanent aspect than any we had before seen near this river. The boweries were more completely covered, and a greater proportion of bark was used in the construction of them. They are between sixty and seventy in number. Well worn traces or paths lead in various directions from this spot, and the vicinity of the cornfields induce the belief that it is occasionally occupied by a tribe of Indians, for the purpose of cultivation as well as of hunting.” 16
The encampment just mentioned may have resembled the one described by Schoolcraft the preceding year, though many miles away in the heart of the Ozarks.
Although it is quite probable that hunting parties of the Osage, during their wanderings, reached all parts of the Ozarks, and occupied camps on banks of many streams in distant regions far away from their more permanent villages, nevertheless all sites do not present the same characteristic features. Thus in the central and eastern sections of the hill country, as in the valleys of the Gasconade and its tributary, the Piney, and along the courses of the streams farther eastward quantities of fragmentary pottery are to be found scattered over the surface of the many village and camp sites, and here it may be remarked that seldom are traces of a settlement not to be discovered at the junction of two streams, however small or large they may be.
A great many caves, some rather large, occur in the limestone formation, often in the cliffs facing or near the streams. As previously mentioned, these show evidence of long or frequent occupancy by the Indians. At the openings are masses of wood ashes and charcoal, filling the space between the sides to a depth of several feet, and in the caves encountered in the vicinity of the Gasconade quantities of broken pottery are found, with bones of animals which served as food, various implements, shells, etc., all intermingled with the accumulated ashes. A short distance from the bank of the Piney, several miles above its junction with they Gasconade, a cave of more than usual interest is met with in the high cliff. This is in Pulaski County. Flowing from the cave is a small stream of clear, very cold water. It enters the main chamber through an opening not more than 4 feet in height and about the same in width, the stream, when the cave was visited some years ago, being 3 or 4 inches in depth. A few yards up the watercourse the channel widens several feet and so continues for a, short distance. This widening was caused by pieces of chart having been removed from the mass, this evidently having been one of the sources whence the Indians secured material for the making of their implements. The bed of the stream was strewn with flakes and roughly formed rejected pieces of stone.
Thus, as has been shown, vessels of earthenware were made and used by the people who occupied or frequented this part of the Ozark country, but conditions appear to have been different in the western sections. Bits of pottery do not occur on the surface of the camp sites, and it is evident it was neither made nor used by the occupants of certain settlements. Fragments of pottery are not encountered on these particular sites, but large stone mortars are often found, objects which do not seem to have been very frequently used farther east.
The valleys of the James and White Rivers, in Stone and Taney Counties, Missouri, were visited some years ago and many interesting sites were discovered. Traces of a comparatively extensive village were encountered on the east ½ of lot 1, southwest ¼ of Sec. 9, T. 22, R. 23, Stone County, on the left bank of White River. Within a radius of a few feet, on a level spot near the center of the once occupied area, were found four large sandstone mortars, the concavity of the largest being about 15 inches in diameter and 6 inches in depth, while the entire block of stone was more than 2 feet in thickness. When discovered, June 11, 1901, the mortars gave the impression of not having been touched since they were last used by some of the inhabitants of the ancient village, and from the surrounding surface, an acre or more in extent, were collected several hundred stone implements, but not a fragment of pottery was encountered. This site, although rather larger and more extensive than the majority, was, nevertheless, typical of the 20 or more which were discovered during that interesting journey through the valleys mentioned. Quantities of stone implements were gathered from the surface of the sites, and many mortars were found, but no pottery.
While the material recovered from the sites in the valley of the Gasconade is similar to that found to the eastward, the finding of mortars and the lack of pottery on the James and White River Valley sites suggests a different culture, and it is possible the latter owe their origin to parties of the Wichita or neighboring tribes who entered the western valleys of the Ozarks from the prairie lands.
- Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., I, p. 15.
- Pike, Z. M., An Account of Expeditions to the Sources of the Mississippi, and Through the Western Parts of Louisiana. Philadelphia, 1810, App., pp. 11-12.
- Bradbury, John, Travels in the Interior of America, in the years 1809, 1810, and 1811. Liverpool, 1817, pp. 35-37.
- Brackenridge, H. M., Views of Louisiana; together with a Journal of a Voyage up the Missouri River, in 1811. Pittsburgh, 1814., pp. 216-217.
- Schoolcraft, Henry R., Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansaw in the years 1818-1819. London, 1821, p. 28.
- Schoolcraft, Henry R., Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansaw in the years 1818-1819. London, 1821, pp. 52-53.
- Mills, William C., Explorations of the Baum Prehistoric Village Site. In Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 1. Columbus, 1906
- Nuttall, Thomas, A Journal of Travels into the Arkansa Territory during the year 1819. Philadelphia, 1821, p. 173.
- A Journal of Travels into the Arkansa Territory during the year 1819. Philadelphia, 1821 pp. 192-193.
- Hunter, John D., Memoirs of a Captivity among the Indians of North America. London, 1823, p. 334.
- Morse, Jedidiah, A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States, on Indian Affairs. New Haven, 1822, p. 219.
- Morse, Jedidiah, A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States, on Indian Affairs. New Haven, 1822, pp. 227-233.
- Irving, Washington, A Tour on the Prairies. New York, 1856, pp. 38-39.
- Colton, C., Tour of the American Lakes . . . in 1830. London. 1833. 2 vols., pp. 299-300.
- Morse, Jedidiah, A Report to the Secretary of War of the United States, on Indian Affairs. New Haven, 1822, pp. 203-205.
- James, Edwin, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the years 1819 and 1820. Philadelphia, 1823. 2 vols., II, pp. 22.0-221.