Osage Indians

"The Osages are so tall and robust as almost to warrant the application of the term gigantic: few of them appear to be under six feet, and many are above it. Their shoulders and visages are broad, which tend to strengthen the idea of their being giants." – John Bradbury1

"Osage Warrior"

Osage Warrior
Watercolor2 by
Charles Balthazar Julien Févrét de Saint-Mémin,

based on a physiognotraced likeness by the same artist.
Washington, D.C., 1807

Actual size: 7½ x 6¾

The man's eyelids, cheeks, and torso are painted orange-red. His eyebrows and facial hair have not been shaved but plucked, as has the hair on his head, except for the crest, or roach, which has also been dyed with vermilion (powdered cinnabar mineral), while the queue down his back retains its natural color. His headdress, colored blue-green with verdigris (ver-dih-gree), features the head of a small raptor and several waterfowl beaks, as well as hummingbird skins. At his ear is a tuft of swan's down dyed with powdered cinnabar. The black scarf and breast-band may be intended to suggest his respect for Anglo formality. His metal armband, perhaps a gift from his hosts, is engraved with the figure of an eagle holding the seal of the United States.

Soldierly and Serious

Meriwether Lewis had no personal contacts with any Osage Indians until he returned to St. Louis after the expedition. Consequently, detailed descriptions of the Osages' appearance like those he wrote of the Mandans, Shoshones, Nez Perce, and Clatsops had to await the visit of Victor Tixier (1815-1885), a French physician who spent a year in America more than 30 years later. The description of the Osage men in his Voyage aux prairies osages, Louisiane et Missouri, 1839-40 were fully as thorough as Lewis's would have been, and they show that the Osage nation still was as strong and viable as when Jefferson had entertained their leaders.

The men are tall and perfectly proportioned. They have at the same time all the physical qualities which denote skill and strength combined with graceful movements. . . .

. . . Their ear[lobe]s, slit by knives, grow to be enormous, and they hang low under the weight of the ornaments with which they are laden. There is a complete lack of beard and eyebrows on their faces, for they carefully pull out the little hair which happens to grow there.

Their calm, dignified faces show great shrewdness; there is something soldierly and serious about the expression. Their hair is black and thick. The Osage shave their heads, except for the top, from which two strands of hair branch off and grow straight back to the occiput, where they form a tuft which falls to the lower part of the neck; between these strands grow two braids, the beauty of which consists in their length. . . .

The [Osage Indians] seldom go out without painting themselves; the colors they use are, first, vermillion, then verdigris [greenish-blue], and then yellow, which they buy from the trader; lacking these, they use ochre, chalk, or even mud. . . . The Osage always paint red that part of their head around their hair, the eye-sockets, and their ears; these are the national colors, the war-time paint. The other colors, indifferently put on the other parts of their bodies, depend upon their individual fancy.3


First Delegation

They were "certainly the most gigantic men we have ever seen," Jefferson wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin on 12 July 1804. A dozen Osage men and two boys, the first of three Indian delegations to visit Mr. Jefferson during his two administrations, had arrived in Washington City the previous day, escorted by Peter Chouteau, a prominent St. Louis fur trader and the government's first agent to the Osages. On the 13th the President wrote to Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith, "They are the finest men we have ever seen. They have not yet learnt the use of spiritous liquors."4 Pursuant to Jefferson's explicit orders, Lewis had arranged their trip to Washington City through Chouteau before leaving St. Louis. Upon their arrival in Washington City, the President addressed them with earnest expressions of friendship and cooperation: "We are all now of one family, born in the same land, & bound to live as brothers." Stressing the motives of "commerce & useful intercourse," he announced, "You have furs and peltries which we want, and we have clothes and other useful things which you want. Let us employ ourselves then in mutually accommodating each other."5 In October, after touring Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia, the Osages returned to their homes at the Place-of-the-Many-Swans beyond the Ozarks in the valley of the Osage River.

It must have been a satisfying experience for Jefferson; he seemed to be achieving the goal he had set for his administration. "The truth is," he had written to Secretary of the Navy Smith on 13 July 1804, "they are the great nation South of the Missouri, . . . as the Sioux are great North of that river. With these two powerful nations we must stand well, because in their quarter we are miserably weak."6

Straight Talk

The second Indian delegation, with Captain Amos Stoddard in charge, consisted of chiefs from twelve tribes living along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, left St. Louis in October of 1805 and returned the following summer.7 Among this group, much to the distress of their hosts, were a few who were excessively fond of whiskey; one chief died, apparently from an overdose. Moreover, Stoddard's budget was wrecked by the Indians' appetites for beef – up to 12 pounds per man per day. On the other hand, in Boston the Osage Chief Tatschaga delivered an ardent testimonial with profound effect before the Massachusetts Senate: "Our complexions differ from yours, but our hearts are the same colour, and you ought to love us for we are the original and true Americans."8

Victor Tixier left a description in his journal that helps us imagine the sound of the visitors' oratory.

The Osage language is poor in nouns but rich in endings which modify or change their meanings. Therefore, according to what the traders say, it is very difficult to speak it well. One of the interpreters has assured me that Mr. Ed. Chouteau was the only white man who spoke it like an Osage. It is...sung, so to speak, and the slow delivery of each syllable will give the word a great force of expression. An adjective is put to the superlative by lengthening its last syllable. . . . The pronunciation is soft, and guttural sounds are made almost harmonious.9

Jefferson, in his speech to the second Indian delegation, on 4 January 1806, told the assemblage he had sent "our beloved man Capt. Lewis one of my own family" to talk with all the Indian nations along the Missouri. Upon his return Lewis would ultimately "inform us in what way we could be useful to them." The new "factory" system of trading, he assured the Osage chiefs, would not be profit-driven. They would buy American goods at cost, and receive for their furs and pelts "whatever we can get for them again."

"My children,"10 Jefferson continued in a firmer tone, "we are strong, we are numerous as the stars in the heavens, & we are all gun-men. Yet we live in peace with all nations; and all nations esteem & honour us because we are peaceable & just."11 The Osage chief who delivered the delegation's response did not mince any words:

Fathers: Meditate what you say, you tell us that your children of this side of the Mississippi hear your Word, you are Mistaken, Since every day they Rise their tomahawks Over our heads, but we believe it be Contrary to your orders & inclination, & that, before long, should they be deaf to your voice, you will chastise them. . . .

You say that you are as numerous as the stars in the skies, & as strong as numerous. So much the better, fathers, tho', if you are so, we will see you ere long punishing all the wicked Red skins that you'll find amongst us, & you may tell to your white Children on our lands, to follow your orders, & to do not as they please, for they do not keep your word. Our Brothers who Came here before told us you had ordered good things to be done & sent to our villages, but we have not seen nothing. . . .

We are Conscious that we must speak the truth, truth must be spoken to the ears of our fathers, & our fathers must open their ears to truth to get in.12

All too soon, American justice would prove to be simply racist, and its peaceableness a hollow promise. The Osages could see it coming.

Third Try

The third group of Indian representatives to visit the President consisted of the Mandan chief, Sheheke, and his family, who accompanied Lewis and Clark from their Knife River village to St. Louis, on to Virginia and thence to Washington City. At the same time, Pierre Chouteau led six Osage chiefs direct from St. Louis to Washington, and later conducted all the Indians back to St. Louis. In the summer of 1807, belligerent Arikara warriors on the middle Missouri blocked the first attempt, to return Sheheke to his home. The second effort, in 1809, required a major military force to fulfill the obligation.13

Since early colonial times Indian visitors and tribal emissaries had been welcomed formally in the Eastern seats of government and culture. By 1800 the purposes and protocols for such events were essentially formalized, while the objectives – beyond satisfying public curiosity about the "savages" – the official intention to impress them with the white man's numbers, wealth, military power, and organized urbanity had begun to backfire among the native nations. To the extent that Indian visitors were impressed by what they saw, they were reviled in equal measure by their own people when they returned home. Finally, Jefferson's determination to keep government spending to a minimum compelled him, following the fiasco of the third delegation's visit, to suspend the practice for the duration of his administration.

Cross-purposes

Meanwhile, in August of 1808 General Clark oversaw the establishment of Fort Osage, the first trading post in his western plan, near today's Sibly, Missouri. Principally, it would facilitate trade between the U.S.and the Osages, Otos, and their friends, and also ensure them of the protection of the U.S. Army from the tribes that the government had encouraged to move west of the Mississippi, as well as from the truculent Sioux. At virtually the same moment, however, the persistence of internecine warfare between the Osages and their neighbors had led Governor Lewis to announce that the Osage nation was no longer under the protection of the United States, and that the Shawnees, Delawares, Kickapoos, Sioux, Sauks, and others were free to settle their differences with the Osages in their own way, provided they would do so "with sufficient force to destroy or drive them from our neighborhood."14 The governor's ire heated to a full boil. He declared to Secretary of War Dearborn that the Osages had "cast off all allegiance to the United States," and that war appeared inevitable. "I have taken the last measures for peace," he declared. Dearborn was out of town when the letter arrived at the War Department, so it was forwarded to the President, who immediately reminded Lewis that "commerce is the great engine by which we are to coerce them, & not war."15 Might the President not have sensed that his "beloved man," who was to die by his own hand within another three months, was already feeling mortal hopelessness eating at his heart and soul?

Worse yet, Jefferson's plan to reserve Louisiana for the Indian nations had already begun to dissolve in frustration, despair, and racial antagonism on the part of all parties concerned. By 1819 the Osages were refusing to make the hundred-plus-mile trip from the Marais des Cygnes ("Marsh of the Swans") to the trading center Clark had built for them on the Missouri. A military presence was no longer needed to protect the Osages, so the army was permanently withdrawn from the Fort. By 1822 the trading house was closed. In 1825 the factor, George Sibley, was reassigned to lay out a road from Fort Osage to New Mexico--the Santa Fe Trail--and Americans' ambitions followed a different road for a while.

Osages Today

When the first Europeans landed in New England the tribe lived in the Ohio River valley. It consisted of two bands, the Wazhazhe or meat-eaters, and the Tsishu or vegetarians. When the first delegation of Osage chiefs met with Jefferson in 1804, their homes were near the forks of the Osage River. Their homeland extended from the Missouri River on the north to the Arkansas River on the south, and from the Mississippi to the Great Plains. Lewis, in fact, sent a map of it to Jefferson from Fort Mandan in the spring of 1805.

Clark witnessed the signing of a treaty with the Osages on November 10, 1808. Among other things, the treaty substantially diminished the size of their homeland by ceding some 30 million acres of what Clark termed "excellent country": "beginning at fort Clark, on the Missouri, five miles above Fire Prairie, and running thence a due south course to the river Arkansas, and down the same to the Mississippi; hereby ceding and relinquishing forever to the United States, all the lands which lie east of the said line, and north of the southwardly bank of the said river Arkansas, and all lands situated northwardly of the River Missouri."16

Subsequently, treaties signed in 1818, 1822, 1825, 1839, and 1865 removed the Osage tribe permanently to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) reducing their land to a reservation of 2,296 square miles. Today 4,000 of the tribe's 18,000 citizens live on the Osage Reservation there, along with about 6,500 Indians from other tribes. The Osages presently consist of three bands, the Pasueli or Great Osage; Wahakolin or Little Osage; and Sansueli or Arkansas Band. The reservation headquarters are in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. A short history of the tribe is on the official website of the Osage Nation, www.osagetribe.com.


1. John Bradbury, Travels in the Interior of America, in the Years 1809, 1810, and 1811, 2nd ed. (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819), 50.

2. Believed to be one of at least five small watercolors commissioned from Saint-Mémin by a British diplomat, Sir Augustus John Foster, who was in Washington from 1804 to 1807. All were copies of portraits Saint-Mémin had previously drawn with the aid of a physiognotrace. William E. Foley and Charles David Rice, "Visiting the President: An Exercise in Jeffersonian Indian Diplomacy," The American West, Vol. 16, No. 6 (November-December 1979), 6.

3. John Francis McDermott, editor, and Albert J. Salvan, translator, Tixier's Travels on the Osage Prairies, 1844 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1940), 136-37.

4. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854, 2d ed., 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:199-200. The celebration of their arrival was overshadowed by the news of Alexander Hamilton's death that morning in a duel with Aaron Burr at Weehawken, New Jersey.

5. Ibid., 1:201.

6. Ibid., 1:200n.

7. Captain Stoddard had accepted the transfer of Louisiana Territory at St. Louis on behalf of the United States, then served as the interim military and civil commandant in charge of the Louisiana Territory for six months until the civil administration was established. Previously he had commanded a company of artillerists at Fort Kaskaskia in the Illinois country opposite St. Louis, from which Lewis and Clark recruited several volunteers, including Alexander Willard.

8. Foley and Rice, 12.

9. McDermott and Salvan, 148.

10. That salutation, which is apt to strike the twenty-first-century reader as belittling and insulting, was merely a counterpart of contemporary Anglo-American forms of address: The comparatively bland and to this day still acceptable opening salutation "Dear Sir," or simply "Sir," and the often elaborate closings such as Lewis's to Clark, "With sincere and affectionate regard Your friend & Humble Se[r]v[an]t." The father-child convention had its origin in the rigid Roman Catholic and Anglican Church hierarchy, but became more directly a legacy of the Enlightenment's empirical logic. It seemed obvious that native peoples worldwide were primitive and childlike, having none of the amenities that civilized people considered necessities – written languages, tools of iron and steel, wheels, compasses, gunpowder, clocks, printing presses, paper (which the Indians' commissions were printed on), finely woven fabrics of cotton, linen and wool. From a Christian perspective, their religions consisted of childish superstitions, as Clark himself observed more than once. Above all, EuroAmericans regarded as immature the Indians' reliance on warfare to validate their chiefs' qualifications for leadership. Except for that, Indians at their best were innocents–in Rousseau's metaphor, "noble savages"–who were as yet unspoiled by the faults of civilization; at their worst, merely "imps of Satan."

11. Jackson, Letters, 281-82.

12. Ibid., 1:285-87.

13. See "Taking Sheheke Home" and "Lewis Takes Over."

14. Lewis to William Henry Harrison, July 1808, cited in Jackson, Letters, 2:626n. In the captains' "Estimate of the Eastern Indians"–meaning east of the Rockies–Lewis wrote, "I think two villages on the Osage river, might be prevailed on to remove to the Arkansas [River], and the Kansas [River}, higher up the Missouri, and thus leave a sufficient scope of country for the Shawnees, Dillewars, Miames, and Kickapoos." That would have been consistent with Jefferson's original aim of moving all the eastern tribes west of the Mississippi. By 1808 several bands from those tribes had already moved onto land the Osages claimed. Another thirty years passed before the policy culminated in the forced, untimely, and tragic odyssey of the Cherokees' exile from Georgia to Indian Territory on the infamous "Trail of Tears."

15. Meriwether Lewis to Henry Dearborn, 1 July 1808, and Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, 21 August 1808, both in Territorial Papers, 14:196-98, 220. Cited in Landon Y. Jones, William Clark and the Shaping of the West (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), 165.

16. Article 6, Treaty with the Osage, "concluded . . . on the tenth day of November, in the year of our Lord [1808] between Peter Chouteau, esquire, agent for the Osage, and specially commissioned and instructed to enter into the same by his excellency Meriwether Lewis, governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for the territory aforesaid, in behalf of the United States of America." Ratified by the United States Congress on April 28, 1810.

Funded in part by a grant from the NPS Challenge-Cost Share Program.