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November 11: The Otoe and Missouria

In 1673, Pere Jacques Marquette and adventurer Louis Jolliet met a tribe of indigenous Siouan people who called themselves the Niutachi, numbering perhaps 10,000 people, and alongside the Osage dominated what would become Missouri. When they asked their Peoria guides the names of this people, the guides supposedly replied “Wehmehsoori,” or “the people of the wooden canoes.” The Frenchmen wrote the name “Ouemessourit” on the map, and then put it on the river where they lived too, which later was applied to the entire state.

Like the Osage, it is believed that the Missouri had once dwelled between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River with their kinsmen the Otoe, the Iowa, and the Ho-Chunks. On the movement west, the groups splintered, and the Otoe and Iowa ended up heading north toward Iowa, while the Missouri ventured slightly further toward the Missouri River itself, not far t the west of Kirksville. As they gained access to horses and guns, hunting and warfare became simultaneously more potentially successful and more deadly. For a while, they were second only to the Osage in the estimation of the Europeans. However, over the 18th century, their numbers eroded to around 1,000 due to disease when disaster struck in 1798: their longtime enemies, the Sauk and Fox tribes, ambushed a main body of the Missouria and slaughtered more than half of them. The remnants struggled to live among the Kaw, Osage, and Otoe. Smallpox broke out among them in 1805—just in time to meet the Corps of Discovery under Lewis and Clark.

The 400 or so survivors then affiliated with their kin, the Otoe people, who had once lived along the northern border of our diocese. Together, the combined Otoe and Missouri were confined to the Blue River reservation in Nebraska in 1855, a place of abject misery. In 1881 the Otoe-Missouri were removed again to a small reserve in now-Oklahoma, just across the Arkansas River from where the Osage bought their reservation. But the Missouri name lives on in the name of the river, the state—and two Episcopal dioceses.

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