State Historical Society, Columbia
The Osage tribe, which covered much of the southern portion of the state, was displaced due to an influx in settlers in the early 1800s.
The growing expansion westward spelled trouble for Missouri's native inhabitants.
By the time of the cattle drives following the Civil War, cowboys in Missouri almost never encountered bands of Indians, hostile or otherwise.
The sad fate of the tribe for whom our state is named helps to explain why. The Missouri were a prosperous band whose earth-covered homes dominated the hills at the confluence of the Republic and Missouri rivers, but by the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, they had been decimated by smallpox and tribal warfare.
“The Missouri Nation resided under the protection of the Osage, after their nation was reduced by the ‘Saukees’ below,” reported William Clark on June 15, 1804. “They built their Village in the same low Prairie and lived there many years. The war was So hot & both nations become So reduced that the Little Osage & a few of the Missouris moved & built a village 5 miles nearer the Grand Osage, the rest of the Missouris went and took protection under the Otteaus [Otos] on Platte river.” The Sac were part of the Sac and Fox nation, two peoples of Algonquian origin that had come together to stave off French attempts to exterminate them in the late 1700s from what is now northern Missouri.
Most famous of the Sac was Makataimeshekiakiak, or Black Sparrow Hawk, a chief now known simply as Black Hawk. Against Black Hawk’s warriors, the smaller, less-well-armed Missouri never had a chance, not even when accompanied by their better-equipped Osage allies.
The Missouri weren’t the only native peoples overwhelmed by the tide of tribal violence and western expansion. The Osage also struggled in this rapidly changing new world.
Early travelers described the Osage as a sophisticated, culturally advanced civilization. But they also noted that, thanks to multiple-front warfare, the Osage appeared to be in decline. Tribes from east of the Mississippi periodically raided Osage villages and took captives, while tribes from the north, armed with guns obtained from fur traders, were even more threatening. Hostile groups from the Plains also took their toll.
It didn’t help that the Osage were divided. The Little Osage, or U-Dse-Tsa, who lived with the Missouri in what is now the northwest part of the state, and the Big Osage, or Pahatsi, who lived along the river that today bears their name, had split years earlier, possibly due to population pressures. The Arkansas Osage had split from the tribe years earlier, migrating south.
Still, for more than a century, the Osage successfully resisted Spanish, French, and American efforts to control them. Such resistance not only involved the physical defense of their lands, but also deft playing of one enemy off another through adroit alliances and treaties.
Unfortunately, the Osage way of life sometimes thwarted even the best-laid plans of its governing elders. A particular problem involved manhood rituals. These rites of passage often involved murderous raids against competing tribes, as well as property crimes against white farmers and ranchers.
Acting territorial governor Frederick Bates wanted punishment for these “outrages.” Militias were mustered, forts constructed, and in 1808, President Thomas Jefferson ordered a get-tough policy. A new treaty forced on the tribe that year essentially removed the Osage from their eastern lands and imposed harsh trade conditions.
The treaty set in motion a chain of calamities from which the Osage never recovered. By the end of the century, the remnants of the Osage had been forced out of the state.
Today, according to the most recent U.S. Census numbers, less than one half of 1 percent of Missourians identify themselves as American Indian. The majority of those who do live in the state’s southwestern region.