Osage People

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Armies >> Native American Peoples >> Osage People

Origin and History

The Osage nation are Siouan speaking people who, prior to 1775, comprised two groups: the northernmost, the Little Osage. lived between Malta Bend and Glasgow in present-day Missouri; and the mother group along the Osage River in Missouri, mostly near the junction of the Little Osage and Osage Rivers. In the 18th century they expanded south into present-day Oklahoma and Louisiana and as far west as the Front Range in present-day Colorado and south-west to the Texas Panhandle.

It is possible that Coronado and de Soto met the Osage in the early 1540s. They are mentioned by Radisson in 1659 and by Marquette in 1670.

By 1700, the Osage had made the present-day Kansas part of the Neosho-Grand Valley their own in the ‘Bluff War.’ Most conflict was with the Caddo People using ‘bluff paint’ – the upper half of the face painted red or black and lower half yellow, baiting the enemy to come and fight. They gained a large part of Caddo territory for little loss of life.

Territory of the Osage People - Copyright: Kronoskaf

In 1712, a party of Osage arrived in Détroit accompanying some Peoria Illinois who had come to reinforce the Odawa and Potawatomi in an attack on a Mascouten camp. After three days the Mascouten retreated and joined their Sauk and Meskwaki allies at Détroit. After the latter’s defeat a young French officer, Estienne Veniard Bourgmont went with the Osage, lived with a woman of the Elk clan and had several children.

In August 1717, John Law in developing a Louisiana trade monopoly caused French explorations. Whilst this irritated the Osage, his efforts to stop the trade to southeastern nations of the Caddo People captured by the Osage more than antagonised them. The Osage were too strong for the French to do anything about it.

In 1719 the French decided to send Bernard La Harpe up the Red River guided by Caddo scouts. This was stopped by the Osage. Even so, in the spring of the same year Charles Claude de Tisné managed to proceed west despite Osage objections. They were not willing to lose the profitable French trade but restricted the goods he took with him instead of killing him.

In September 1719 the French built a stockaded trading post at a cluster of Pawnee villages near Newkirk, Oklahoma and named it Ferdinandina. This presented a barrier to Osage expansion and breeched the Osage blockade of trade goods to the Plains. Not wanting to destroy it as it would cut the supply of guns and trade goods from the French, the Osage concentrated on their southern expansion. Bourgmont returned to France as was appointed by the King as commandant of the Missouri and instructed to build a fort. Fort Orléans was built in the Bend of the Missouri in 1723. In 1724 he explored with Osage and Missouria guides as far west as present-day Salina and Junction City in Kansas. In 1725 Bourgmont took a group of Little Osage to Paris, France, where their principles of government were described by Montesquieu.

In 1739 the Mallet brothers slipped through the Osage blockade and reached Santa Fe. The Osage stiffened their resistance and in the winter of 1741-1742. Fabry de la Bruyére only reached 150 miles up the Canadian River from its mouth not being able to obtain horses due to harassment by the Osage. Where there were irritations between the Osage and French, the Osage tempered their attacks and the French overlooked most of the incidents. Intermarriage between the Osage and French required Osage consent and was usually a third daughter unless the Frenchman was held in great esteem. Children were accepted as Osage if they lived by Osage customs and laws, otherwise they were considered nobodies.

Role during the War

On July 9, 1755 Little Osage warriors, mostly of the Mottled Eagle clan, were part of the 600 strong Native American force that defeated General Braddock’s army at an Ambush on the Monongahela. The Osage were supplied with powder and ball by the French at Fort Des Chartres (on the east bank of the Mississippi River in present-day Illinois). It is said that the Osage were not used to fighting in the style of Woodland Indians but in that of the Plains, which consisted of riding toward each other, stopping just out of range, challenged each other and, following a skirmish, retiring. One of the Osage leaders became bored with the fighting from behind cover, from not showing himself, and arose, arranged his red shield, placed his medicine bundle on his back, and danced like a bull elk (wapiti) and sung. He was the only Osage seen by the British and was shot down. The Osage returned home with many scalps after an absence of seven months.

In mid-July 1759 a joint provincial and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) force undertook the Siege of Fort Niagara. On July 24, a relief force of Troupes de la Marine and woodland Indians, including a few Osage warriors, encountered a force sent by Sir William Johnson to meet the relief column and was defeated at La Belle-Famille, south of the fort. Following this the Osage along with a few Peoria Illinois and Ojibwe pledged to carry on the fight, whilst the Potawatomi and their allies agreed with the Iroquois that they did not have a quarrel with each other, and escaped by retreating along the shores of Lake Erie.

Dress

At the time of writing, there is no specific written description of Osage dress for the Seven Years’ War period known to the author. In 1725 on arrival in Paris they were described as being, ‘... utterly nude but with all of their body daubed with different colours and with a feather head-piece, and to cover their nakedness, a red loin cloth attached to a belt. In their hands they carried bows and arrows and the first in the procession carried a long pipe, which they call a ‘Calumet’, from which hung an ornament of coloured feathers resembling the pennants on trumpets.’

Chief of the Little Osages - Source: Artwork by Charles B.J. de Saint-Memin, ca. 1807. American Indian Select List number 137. Library of Congress LC-USZ62-126407, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Unidentified Osage Warrior Wearing Bird Headdress - Source:, Painting by Charles-Balthazar-Julien Fevret de Saint-Memin, (1770 - 1852), New-York Historical Society, 1860.91. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Two Osage Warrior and a White Man in a Canoe - Source: Illustration from Svinin’s book “A Picturesque Voyage in North America”(1815). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The following is surmised:

Hair

Nineteenth-century illustrations show Osage men with their heads shaved except for a short ridge on the crown terminating in a long braid behind. This is likely to have been the style worn during the 1750s.

Headdress

It is likely that eagle feathers and other items were worn in the scalplock according to the man’s spiritual experiences.

Illustrations from the early 19th century show Osage men wearing a roach of deer hair and porcupine guard hair. It is likely that this headdress was used in the mid-18th century too.

Tattoo and Paint

Osage men may have tattooed their chest with linear patterns from the shoulders to a point at the bottom of the sternum during this period. Photographs from the 19th century show these patterns of several Osage men.

It is likely that warriors painted their faces and bodies with personal, predominately red and black paint prior to entering combat.

Ears

Ears were likely to have been pierced around the rim and decorated with rings of brass, silver or tin which could be ornamented with stones, shells, beads or geometrically cut pieces of brass or tin. Fevret de Saint-Mémim shows an Osage man with two silver bands around the helix and drops of large beads with a ‘ball’ of fluffy feathers dyed red at the top.

Ornaments and Necklaces

George Catlin shows necklaces of wampum, imitation wampum or glass being worn. Pendants could have consisted of large shells. Silver ornaments, armbands and bracelets may also have been worn but were less available than to those peoples living further east.

Breechclout

Breechclouts were narrow strips of cloth looped over a belt front and back. J. C. Bonin recorded of Native American men in the Ohio catchment, although likely to be applicable to the Iowa at this period, that ‘The loincloth is made of deerskin or cloth obtained from Europeans. It is a quarter or third cloth that the men wind between their legs. The piece of cloth is held in place around the hips with a cord. The two ends of the loincloth are folded over in front and in the back, with the end in front longer than the one in the back.’

Leggings

Catlin shows Osage men wearing full length buckskin leggings both with a front seam and a side seam with hair fringes, one with a quilled strip running down the leg at the seam, characteristic of Plains Indian ones.

Garters

Garters were worn below the knee. Garters were made of woven bison hair or probably from woollen fibres typically dyed red with white bead patterns incorporated into the weave, or of deerskin.

The porcupine was absent from Osage territory so it is likely that garters or other items were less commonly decorated with quillwork. Although the porcupine’s range is north of their territory, it is likely that the Osage obtained porcupine skins or quills in trade.

Moccasins

It is likely that Osage moccasins in the mid-18th century were made of smoked bison or buckskin with a puckered centre seam along the instep and with cuffs. These are shown in paintings by George Catlin and an example from 1890 is held by Portland Art Museum. Later moccasins were also made of the one-piece side fold plains style as well by the mid-19th century.

Shirts

A European shirt of linen or cotton, cut in contemporary European fashion, obtained from French traders, were popular and could be daubed with vermilion and grease to waterproof it over the shoulders.

Blankets and Robes

Buffalo or other skin robes were worn by the Osage for warmth. In one 19th century painting Catlin shows a man’s robes with a narrow band of quillwork around the edge border by a hair fringe. Trade blankets, usually of blue, white or red woollen cloth, which could be decorated with a band of ribbon, are also likely to have been worn.

Armament

By the beginning of the 18th century the standard trade musket that armed the Osage was manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal. The .62 calibre ‘fusil de chasse’ or hunting musket has a 44-inch octagon-to-round barrel and the lock plate is marked with the name of the arsenal spelt as TVLLE. After 1745 the ‘V’ changed to a ‘U’. Characteristically the stock had a drooped ‘cow’s foot’ butt.

A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were possibly made of dyed and woven basswood fibre, woven buffalo hair or of hide.

It is likely that some Osage warriors carried bow and arrows. Osage bows were made of Osage Orange. Arrows were often crested with red for the day and black for the night as a symbol of precision.

A tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt. Pouchot describes, ‘They hung to this belt their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which is the skin of an otter beaver, cat or bird, taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel. They have also a pocket like a wallet, for carrying their balls and lead for hunting and war. They carry their mirror and tomahawk upon their hips.’

References

Burns, Louis F., The History of The Osage People, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Dunnigan, Brian L., Siege – 1759: The Campaign Against Niagara, Youngstown: Old Fort Niagara Association, Inc., 1996, p.95.

Ellis, Richard N. & Charlie R. Steen, An Indian Delegation in France, 1725, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), Vol. 67, No. 4 (Sep., 1974), pp. 385-405.

Laubin, Reginald & Gladys Laubin, American Indian Archery, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Matthews, John J., The Osages: Children of the Middle Water, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973, pp.223-228.

Pouchot, Pierre, Memoir Upon the Late War in North America, Between the French and English, 1755-60. Volume II, Alpha Editions, 2021, pp. 49, 189-191.

Acknowledgements

Larry Burrows for the initial version of the article