At a time when the nations of Europe were competing for global control of trade and land, the New World offered the ideal opportunity to fill European coffers and expand their empires. The only problem was that someone already lived here. With the coming of the Europeans, and eventually the Anglo-Americans, the tribal groups that for centuries had made the region of present-day Missouri their home would find themselves displaced, despised, and disregarded. Over time, the bearded interlopers would exert a dominion over them that would threaten—and in some cases, bring about—their cultural annihilation.

Marquette Descending the Mississippi River, from The Lance, Cross and Canoe, 1892.

The First Contact Debate

The timing of the region’s first native encounter with white civilization has been debated by historians and archaeologists for years. While some scholars adhere to the theory of early Spanish exposure to the Missouri tribes, others insist that none of Spain’s explorers came into direct contact with the Osage or the Missouria, the predominant tribal groups in the region.

Michael Dickey, author and Missouri state historic site administrator in Arrow Rock, believes that no conquistadors came anywhere near the state.‰“It was always the French,” he maintains, “up until 1763, when Louisiana was ceded to Spain.”

Conversely, Jim Duncan, archaeologist and former director of the Missouri State Museum, maintains that first contact might well have occurred as early as 1541. “There is a good chance that a division of the Osage met some early Spaniards,” he says. “The de Soto expedition sent a small detachment of Spaniards and some local Indians … bringing for trade everything from pearls and deer skins to a helmet filled with glass beads and other baubles to trade for salt.” As evidence, Duncan points to recent archaeological discoveries in Missouri—early Spanish glass beads, enameled brass book furniture, and part of a steel knife blade.

In either case, tribes in the Spaniards’ path would have been well advised to avoid the armored invaders. Hernando de Soto’s 700 conquistadors were on a journey of discovery, but also a mission of conquest. In their quest for land and precious metals, they enslaved and butchered indigenous groups, mostly in the Southwest, leaving a trail of devastation.

The first documented and historically agreed-upon instance of Europeans entering the lands of present-day Missouri occurred in 1673, when a small party of Frenchmen, led by French Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet and Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette, paddled down the Mississippi River from the priest’s remote Ottawa mission on the Straits of Mackinac. They became the first whites to look upon the mouth of the Pekitanoui, the river that they and others would rename the Missouri. The two immediately claimed the area for France.

Nine years later, another Frenchman— René-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle— traveled from Canada to the Missouri’s mouth and claimed the entire Mississippi River valley for King Louis XIV. He named it “Louisiana,” after his monarch, and proceeded to meet its inhabitants.

Duncan says that La Salle knew of the Osage and, according to historian Francis Parkman, held councils with them. “French records tell us that they had taken a census of the number of Osage and Missouria households in 1702,” he says.

There is an Osage tribal memory of the first encounter with Europeans, and according to Michael Dickey, it was not propitious:

“Two white men came up the river with two Missouria warriors. The men wore buckskin shirts … and the leggings and moccasins of the Missouria. The Osages thought these white men were hairy like bears. Their eyes and mouths were almost hidden by hair, and they even had hair on the backs of their hands. In contrast, the Missouria and Osage had very little body hair. Dried sweat and armpit odor trapped in heavy clothing were new and strange, and it sickened them.”

While the Osage remained aloof, the Missouria apparently welcomed the influx of white traders, trappers, and random travelers— the “Hairy Eyebrows,” as the Osage disdainfully referred to the French—into their camps. The results were disastrous. Osage oral tradition hints at a modern understanding of germs. It tells of the “little mystery people”—the weluschka—that lived inside these newcomers and that soon sickened their hosts unto death.

De Soto’s Discovery of the Mississippi, from the same book.

The Killing Sicknesses

The spread of disease among the indigenous tribal groups didn’t begin with the French; it had come to the New World with the Spanish more than a century earlier. Pandemics of smallpox, measles, cholera, and influenza began spreading inland immediately upon their arrival, coursing up and down the rivers and trade routes, infecting tribal groups that hadn’t actually met the Spaniards.

The indigenous peoples had no immunity to, or experience with, this type of illness. They perished in droves. The quartet of fatal diseases was passed along by fur trappers, traders, soldiers, priests, feral animals, and eventually other tribal groups.

Shortly after his arrival, de Soto himself came upon two deserted villages, one of which contained some 500 lodges, whose inhabitants had fallen victim to pestilence.

Smallpox was the greatest culprit. In 1699, a French missionary observed the Quapaw, writing that “smallpox had carried ožff most of them. In one village [it took] all the children and a great many of the women. Not a hundred men were left.”

Nearly a century later, a Scottish trader working for the Spanish wrote of the devastation wreaked by “the small pox,” adding, “Many tribes … who were numerous when the first settlements were made on the Mississippi are now extinct.”

For the Osage especially, death by pestilence connoted a shameful end. In this warrior culture, the most honorable conclusion to a man’s life was to die in battle, after which the warrior would live eternally in an ideal village rich with game and horses. Any other death doomed him to eternity in a low, miserable village, with none of the amenities. “It is not bravery,” an Osage chief later said, “to die when one is sick, but it is to die fighting.”

Auguste Chouteau, fur trader and a founder of St. Louis, noted that the population of the Missouria, Otoe, and Kansa tribes had been halved, and the numbers continued to fall.

By the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed through the Missouri region in 1804, the signs of devastation were everywhere. A smallpox epidemic had struck three years before, after which Clark reported that only two of the Arikara tribe’s original 11 villages remained.

For centuries, native healers had been well versed in natural treatments for the ailments that affˆected their people. Treatment for new diseases, however, was beyond their knowledge. Worse, they often died of the illnesses, taking with them oral traditions—medicine, culture, religion—that would have been passed on to younger generations. Healers who survived had no course but to watch their people suˆer terrible deaths.

Over time, the Europeans from whose countries these diseases came had developed at least partial immunity. And while they suffˆered fatalities, they were exempted from the wholesale devastation that their blights visited upon the native tribes.

Under the French

Shortly after the French established themselves, the Missouria and the Big Osage went to war. Intratribal warfare was common; however, the French, who had been establishing fur-trade relationships with the various tribes—and for whom war was economically counterproductive— arranged a peace that lasted nearly a century. “They made it clear,” Dickey writes, “that only through peace would they be able to get the guns, knives, hatchets, blankets, and beads they now valued.”

Trade was one of the three main pursuits of the French, along with the acquisition of territory and the conversion of the natives.

The French arrival initiated a different kind of relationship than that imposed on tribes by the Spaniards. As Parkman wrote, “Spanish civilization crushed the Indian. … French civilization embraced and cherished him.” Even allowing for hyperbole, the French presence was benign compared to that of the Spaniards.

The French embarked on trading excursions almost at once. According to Kristie Wolferman, author of The Osage in Missouri, by 1700 they were making trading trips up the Missouri River, and within four years, more than 100 traders—seven or eight to a party—were paddling in bark and dugout canoes to tribal settlements, where they traded European goods for furs.

From the beginning, the French fur trade in the Mississippi River valley was a well-organized enterprise, franchised and overseen by the regional government. A handful of congés were given their own territories, in which they could grant licenses to voyageurs, who purchased the trade goods and boats. They, in turn, hired engagés, men who actually paddled to the settlements and traded with the tribes. Theirs was perhaps the most demanding job, requiring not only a knowledge of the right seasons for—and value of—the various furs, but also the specific wants and needs of each tribe.

The items they bartered would alter the tribal way of life forever. While some of the trade goods—blankets, knives, as well as iron scraping, chopping, and digging tools—enhanced and eased the Indians’ lives, they also propelled them out of the Stone Age almost overnight. Suddenly, the warriors were fashioning arrowheads from brass and iron, rather than chipping them from flint, and the women were using brass kettles rather than molding and firing them out of clay, as their ancestors had done.

In 1713, the French explorer, trader and adventurer Étienne de Veniard, sieur de Bourgmont, wrote descriptions of the Missouria and the Osage, calling the latter “a splendid race,” adding that “they hunt almost entirely with the arrow.” Bourgmont didn’t mention the growing demand for the most sought-after trade item of all: the gun.

Warriors of every tribal group wanted firearms, and each tribe wanted to ensure that their hereditary enemies didn’t get any. In 1719, when Claude-Charles Du Tisné embarked on a trading expedition among the various tribes, the Big Osage—who had welcomed him to their lodges and initially treated him well—refused to let him proceed to the camps of the Pawnee and Apache, enemies of the Osage, for fear that he would trade guns to them.

When Du Tisné insisted on continuing his journey, his Osage hosts finally allowed him to leave—without his trade goods. They then surreptitiously sent word to the Pawnee that the Frenchman would soon arrive at their settlement, with the intention of enslaving them. Du Tisné was met with hostility upon his arrival at the Pawnee camp. Only by adopting a bold stance—the Pawnee admired his courage—was he able not only to save his life, but to make a trade pact with them.

By this time, the Indian trade was burgeoning, and in 1723, Bourgmont built Fort Orleans, the first Missouri post. It was a frontier fort, constructed near present-day Brunswick, across the Missouri River from the Missourias’ town. Within a short time, Bourgmont did the impossible, getting some of the tribes that were sworn enemies to ally with the French and to live peacefully in the interest of trade. When he returned to France shortly thereafter, he took with him chiefs of the Missouria, Illinois, Otoe, Chicago, and Osage tribes, as well as a young Missouria woman. The Indians were an instant hit among the French, and the woman went on to marry a French o‹fficer.

Within a few years, aŒairs at Fort Orleans took a dark turn, as various tribes— primarily the Missouria and the Osage— grew restive. Apparently, several traders and voyageurs, in addition to fighting among themselves, had been cheating the Indians, and in 1740, the Osage responded by killing some Frenchmen. The French then built a fort to the west, in an eŒffort to protect far-ranging employees from attack. The situation improved somewhat, but a new threat soon loomed on the horizon with the appearance of the British.

Ostensibly, France and England, which had colonized most of the East Coast, were vying for the frontier west of the Appalachians known as the Ohio Territory. But at the heart of the dispute lay a larger issue: total control of North America.

In 1754, the two great powers became enmeshed in what Americans refer to as the French and Indian War. Many of the tribal alliances that the French had gone to great lengths to establish and had assumed were secure were broken by English traders, as some of the tribes were turning increasingly hostile toward their former partners.

The Osage were among the biggest offenders. French hunters and traders caught on Osage land ran the possibility of losing their goods, furs, and their hair. Meanwhile, with the French focused on the war e…ffort, the fur trade su…ffered badly. In an attempt to buoy their business, the French built a city several miles to the south of the Missouri’s mouth, on the west bank of the Mississippi. They named it St. Louis. It soon became the cultural and financial hub of the region.

Spanish Rule

The French and Indian War ended with a British victory in 1763. The French gave up their claim to the vast Louisiana Territory, of which present-day Missouri was a part. The Spanish, whose domain lay to the southwest, claimed the lands on the west side of the Mississippi, while the British took possession of the east bank north of the Ohio River. In the face of these large-scale machinations and power shifts, the various tribes were thoroughly befuddled.

Although the Spanish initially wanted the Louisiana Territory as a bu…er to protect their holdings in the Southwest, they were challenged militarily and economically to govern it. They determined to replicate the French system of trade with the Indians, and the majority of their traders were, in fact, French. However, along with acquiring a large part of France’s New World claims, the Spanish inherited tensions—the most troublesome were with the Osage, who followed their own code of behavior, swearing allegiance to the prevailing powers while robbing and murdering them.

Frustrated, Spanish governor Luis de Unzaga y Amézaga placed a bounty on Osage scalps and armed the Quapaw with powder and shot. The Osage, however, had apparently devised a system to regain the trust of the whites: they would weep and promise to behave. Writes Wolferman, “Contrition usually helped them regain the trade they had lost.”

The Quapaws warned the Spanish not to forgive the Osage; they should have listened.

In 1775 and 1776, the Osage killed three whites, raided along the Arkansas River and robbed several hunters. The Missouria were aggressive as well, albeit not on a scale with the Osage.

The next governor, Bernardo de Gálvez y Madrid, also failed to mollify or control the Osage, Wolferman maintains. “He did not understand that the Osage were raised to be warriors and that bravery in battle was a source of great pride,” she writes. At the same time they were deviling the whites, the Osage were at war with the Otoe, Peoria, Quapaw, and Pawnee, as well as all the Missouri River nations.

By this time, the Americans were engaged in a war of survival with Britain. When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 and America began adding territory, the Spanish were still struggling to hold on to Louisiana. The Osage were a nuisance, jeopardizing trade and raining havoc on settlers, rival tribes, and traders. Neither the Spanish nor their French business partners could establish a prolonged peace with them.

Finally, in 1793, the lieutenant governor, Zénon Trudeau, announced that several tribes and the Spanish citizens of Louisiana Territory were declaring war on the Osage. This time, in addition to the Quapaw, the territorial government enlisted bands from other tribes—including the Ioway, Delaware, Shawnee, Cherokee, Caddo, Chickasaw, Ottawa, Miami, Abnaki, Piankeshaw and Sac and Fox—in the hope of driving the Osage from the territory. Even this effort failed.

Enter the Americans

In 1800, the Spanish finally acknowledged that their acquisition of the Louisiana Territory had been a costly mistake, and they ceded it back to the French. They had hoped that the French would again occupy the region, providing a barrier between Spain’s southwestern holdings and the increasingly land-hungry Americans.

They were destined for disappointment. In December 1803, France sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States, virtually doubling the size of the fledgling country. The territory beckoned, and would-be settlers from towns and settlements along the entire length of the Eastern seaboard poured into St. Louis. The fact that there were native tribes living between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi mattered not. They were an obstacle to be dealt with.

Meanwhile, shortly after the US flag was raised over St. Louis on March 9, 1804, President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their historic expedition in search of the fabled water route to the Pacific. The first tribes the explorers met were the Missouria and Otoe, whom they informed of the recent change in government. When the Indians complained of the vicissitudes recently suffered at the hands of the Omaha and Pawnee, they were simply advised to make peace with their enemies. The Americans delivered a speech telling the Indians how the new government expected them to conduct themselves. Lewis and Clark and their men departed after giving their less-than-satisfied listeners a few gifts. It was an inauspicious beginning to what would be a disastrous century for the tribes of Missouri.

Two years later, in an address to chiefs of the Osage, Missouria, Kansa, Otoe, Pawnee, Sioux, and Ioway, President Je­erson said, “The French, the English, the Spaniards have now agreed with us to retire from all the country which you and we hold between Canada and Mexico.” He assured them, “We are now your fathers; and you shall not lose by the change.” As Dickey writes, the tribes knew this wasn’t entirely true.

As the hordes of settlers scrambled to claim land in what would soon be designated Missouri Territory, the resident tribes faced not only conflict with whites, but battles with the growing number of displaced eastern tribes being driven farther west.

Treaties became the order of the day, each resulting in the cession of more Indian land to the federal government. In 1808, the Osage signed their first treaty with the new government, ceding much of their homeland. The deal was made in Fort Osage, a new trading post and factory at present-day Sibley, Missouri. The question remains whether the Osage—or other tribes—fully understood the terms.

Over the next 17 years, the Osage would be forced to give up their traditional hunting grounds—practically every piece of land they had held in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The final treaty in 1825 left them with only a narrow strip running across what is now southern Kansas. The former territorial governor of Missouri, explorer William Clark, was instrumental in the treaty’s execution as superintendent of Indian aff­airs. He had earlier promised, “Our government, founded in justice, will e­ffectually extend its protection to the native inhabitants within its limits.” He later expressed regret, according to historian Wolferman, who writes that Clark said he “feared he might be damned in the hereafter for his part in the agreement.”

The Osage had finally been contained. Now, whenever warriors sought to demonstrate their valor by stealing horses or causing other mayhem, the US government would deduct the damages from the trade goods upon which the tribe had come to rely. The white man had finally figured out how to deal with the Osage “problem.”

A similar fate befell Missouri’s other indigenous tribal groups. At the same time the federal government was promising the Otoe and Missouria “the friendship and protection of the United States [and] benefits and acts of kindness,” it was cutting up their tribal land and doling it out to the crush of settlers now inundating the region. By 1815, some 53 treaties had been signed with the various tribes. As one historian understated, “The settlement of the Louisiana Territory was sudden, chaotic, and very overwhelming to Missouri tribes.”

Things would only get worse for the Kansa, Otoe, Missouria, Ioway, Osage, and other tribes that had ranged freely over the region. It began with the 1828 election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency. Jackson had successfully fought Creeks and Seminoles, earning the epithet “Indian Killer,” and had taken tens of millions of their acres. He had long been a proponent of—and an active participant in—confiscating Indian lands to accommodate the tides of white citizens looking to expand west.

Jackson pushed a law through Congress that allowed the government to negotiate the relocation of tribes living east of the Mississippi, through “removal treaties.” The act called for the exchange of Indian homelands for land in and around what is now Oklahoma, stipulating that tribes wishing to remain could do so. Despite assurances of “voluntary and peaceful” migration, tribes refusing to sign the treaties were forcibly driven from their homes.

The tribal groups most directly aff„ected were those whom the government referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes,” for their e„fforts in adapting to “white ways”: the Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek. The law aff„ected other southeastern and northern tribes as well; the federal government did little to impede the tens of thousands of white Americans who rushed to settle on land the Indians still occupied.

Trail of Tears

Within a short time, wholesale expulsion became government policy. By 1837, more than 46,000 Indians had been removed from their homes, with treaties a„ffecting thousands more. Some 25 million acres had been cleared for white settlement and, incidentally, for the introduction of slavery.

The most infamous event spawned by the Indian Removal Act involved a tribe not indigenous to Missouri. The Cherokee lived in the Southeast, on land coveted by white settlers. After a handful of Cherokee signed a removal treaty in 1833, more than 15,000 tribal members formally protested to the federal government. In 1836, the Supreme Court ignored their petition, ratified the treaty, and gave the tribe two years to leave or be driven out by force.

By late 1838, about 2,000 Cherokee had complied; more than 16,000 chose to remain. Thousands of soldiers descended, denying them time to gather their possessions and driving them at bayonet point into stockades, where they were crammed together for weeks. With winter coming and with a scarcity of horses, wagons, food, blankets, shoes, and warm clothing, with neither the tools nor the money to start life anew, they were put upon the path to what is now Oklahoma. The Cherokee traveled in 13 groups on a 1,000-mile journey that history has designated the “Trail of Tears.” It would take four months and kill some 4,000 Cherokee men, women, and children.

“Often I have been compelled to ask myself, ‘Who is the civilized and who is the savage?'” —the Rev. William H. Goode, Methodist missionary, 1843

The trek crossed five states, including Missouri. It entailed crossing the Mississippi River by ferry at the worst possible time of year. A settler recalled, “Winter came early that year … without warning, a blast of frigid air from the north swept the river area and overnight froze the surface … when only half of the Cherokee nation had crossed. …

The ice prevented both boat and horses from moving.” Physically unprepared for the weather, the Cherokee died of pneumonia on both sides of the river.

The spot where they landed is commemorated at Trail of Tears State Park, about 12 miles north of Cape Girardeau.

One group elected to build a settlement on the blu‚s below St. Mary, but the others continued on. Every day, more people succumbed. As they traveled through Crawford County, a white doctor with them wrote, “I found the increasing number of cases rendered it absolutely necessary for the detachment to discontinue its march in order that I might have some chance to combat the … overwhelming disease that seemed to threaten the party with destruction.”

Individual groups took diff‚erent routes across the state; yet, all were met with the same brutal conditions—poor roads, ceaseless winds, freezing rain, and persistent snow. Those who lived survived on grit, desperation, and anger. A white newspaperman who went to one of the camps wrote that “it seemed as though their hearts were full of hate toward the white race.”

In addition to cold, hunger, exhaustion, and despair, the Cherokee died of typhoid, measles, scarlet fever, influenza, cholera, tuberculosis, and pneumonia. When possible, they buried their dead in graveyards along the way–at Howell Cemetery, Mount Hermon Cemetery, and others. Some were buried along the trail, including the family of a young man who lost his father, mother, and five siblings.

The exact routes of the Cherokee across Missouri have yet to be definitively traced. Historians say, though, that the trail touched or transected the modern-day counties of Cape Girardeau, Perry, Bollinger, Madison, St. Francois, Washington, Crawford, Dent, Phelps, Pulaski, Laclede, Webster, Greene, Christian, Stone, and Barry.

Many Missouri settlers showed kindness. A modern-day Cherokee recalls family accounts of farmers slaughtering livestock for the travelers, and of churches opening their doors and larders. As Joan Gilbert, author of The Trail of Tears across Missouri, writes, “The Trail of Tears … has not been forgotten by descendants of those who witnessed it.”

An End to Old Ways

Some tribes resisted relocation, and a number of Missouri’s white citizens were ever on hand to subdue them. In 1832, when white settlers began to flood his Illinois homeland, Sac chief Black Hawk resisted, giving rise to the short, bloody Black Hawk War. Immediately, Missouri Governor John Miller sent 2,000 mounted volunteers.

Five years later, the Seminoles refused to leave Florida and began the first of three wars over 21 years with the United States. Senator Thomas Hart Benton responded by o‚ffering 600 troops. President Martin Van Buren, with the support of Governor Lilburn Boggs, ordered a cavalry regiment of Missouri militiamen to Florida. When the few Osage remaining in Missouri resisted expulsion to the west, state militia units drove them, along with parties of Delaware and Shawnee, into Kansas and Arkansas.

There would be sporadic resistance over the years, but the long struggle was over. The Indians had lost. The land that had been a home for Missouri’s tribal groups was now only a memory.

Coming in October: The Tribes of Missouri, Part 3

With their homes taken from them and their way of life shattered, Missouri’s indigenous people struggled to survive in a hostile place. They endured government e„fforts to convert them to farming and to Christianity, as well as a forced education with the philosophy of “Kill the Indian to Save the Man.” Today, the tribes are reclaiming their languages and their heritage, preserving traditions and values for future generations even as they honor the suff„ering of the past.

If you missed Part 1 in the August issue, read it here.