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November 10: The Osage: The People of the Middle Waters

The Wazhazhe People call themselves “The Children of the Middle Waters.” French trappers and traders who encountered them mispronounced that as “Osage.” Their language is Siouan, related to the Kaw (Kansa), Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw who probably originated near the Ohio River but had migrated to the mouth of the Ohio by 500 CE. The forerunners of the Osage settled near Cahokia for a time, but by the time of its decline around 1350 they moved west along the Missouri River. By the late 17th and throughout the 18th centuries, aided by the arrival of horses descended from those brought by the Spanish from Europe, the Osage had moved to the eastern half of the Great Plains, from Missouri and Arkansas to Nebraska and Kansas.

Osage village life was patriarchal, divided among two main divisions, 24 clans, and numerous more sub-clans. The men headed west to hunt bison on horseback, as well as other game, from March to May, and also from July through August. In between the women planted, and then tended and harvested crops.

European Americans who encountered them remarked on the tall stature and physical strength. The Osage became sought-after allies by the rival European powers invading North America in the 18th century. In 1723 the French established Fort Orleans among the Osage near Brunswick, Charlton County, just to the west of our current diocesan boundaries, and about 125 miles due west of Calvary parish in Louisiana, the first European fort west of the Mississippi.

The resulting proximity to Europeans not only caused exposure to disease but also caused enormous competition among tribal groups to gain trade goods, especially guns. This simultaneously increased inter-tribal warfare and made it far more deadly as European settlement compressed dozens of tribes into ever smaller areas seeking game pelts to trade.

The Louisiana Purchase and subsequent encounters with the Corps of Discovery also marked the Osage’s first treaty giving up land to the Americans in 1808. When William Clark was territorial governor in 1814, he negotiated what ended up being a partial Osage removal to Kansas and now-Oklahoma. More treaties followed in 1818, and in 1824 after Missouri statehood, yet some Osage remained within state boundaries, often to hunt. Finally, in 1837, 500 Missouri militiamen expelled the remaining Shawnee, Delaware, and Osage from Missouri in the so-called “Osage War.”

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