They called themselves Ni-U-Ko'n-Ska, meaning "Children of the Middle Waters." That was their sacred name, a name they did not reveal to others. History remembers them as the Osage Indians, and they were the first people of record to inhabit the valley that now forms both Lake of Ozarks and Truman Lake.
No one can say how long the Osage had lived near the banks of the Wa-Tsi-Uzi - their word for the Osage River. The phrase meant Snake-With-Mouth-Open, for the river meandered through the valley like a serpent and grew wide at its mouth. Certainly they had lived here for centuries; tribal memory is not precise in such matters. The record of their leaving is more fixed, for it has been put down in words on the "talking paper" of the whites.
Indeed, it was the whites that gave these native people the name of "Osage." When the first Europeans - French traders - paddled their way up the river in their dugout canoes they came upon a village of the Osage. The Frenchmen asked, through signs, what these people called themselves. Not wishing to divulge their sacred name, the Indians offered the title of their largest clan. They uttered the phrase Wa-SHA-She. The Frenchmen found it difficult to form their tongues around such a guttural sound, and when they did it sounded more like "wa-sha-SHAY." The word would find its way into French documents as Ou-sagé. Some 120 years later, when the Americans took possession of the region, they further corrupted the word into O-sage.
It was around 1683 when those first French woodsmen made contact with the Osage somewhere in this valley. The Osage had heard of white men who came down from the Canadas to trade, but hearing of them did not prepare the Osage for the shock. They were appalled by the appearance of the whites. The pale faces of the French were covered with hair - even, too, the backs of their hands - and they stank. The Osage would call them the Heavy Eyebrows. It was not meant to be a term of admiration.
Over the next few decades the Heavy Eyebrows made frequent trips to the Osage villages in west central Missouri. The Osage were quite willing to obtain furs for the French - especially beaver fur - in exchange for manufactured goods. The Osage also offered up captives taken during their buffalo hunts on the prairies of Kansas and Oklahoma. The captives were Comanche Indians, whom the French would purchase from the Osage for muskets and sell into slavery in the Caribbean islands.
By 1770 the French had ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain, which included all of the Osage valley. Prior to this the Osage had made occasional contact with the Spanish in the southwest. But often as not, these meetings led to hostilities and caused the Spanish to fear the Osage. It became Spanish policy to deal harshly with the Osage by influencing neighboring tribes to wage war on them. The Sac and Potawatomi nations, having once been victims of Osage depravations, needed no special urging to mount retaliatory raids up the Osage River. The brief, fierce battles that took place outlasted the Spanish regime and spilled over into the time when the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory.
In May, 1804, a Sac war party ambushed a group of Osages east of present-day Osceola, Missouri. The Osage were traveling by canoe, in the company of white traders, and had just entered the bend in front of today's H. Roe Bartle Boy Scout Camp. At least one principal chief of the Osage was killed and others were taken captive. It now fell to the Americans to try to make peace in this troubled valley.
In 1805, an American officer traveled up the Osage River to inform the Osages that they now owed their allegiance to the United States, in return for which the Americans would protect them. But in November of that same year, Potawatomi warriors charged into an Osage camp just one-half mile above today's Truman Dam. Most of the Osage warriors were away hunting, and the camp consisted almost entirely of women and children. Those who could fight put up a strong resistance, but that only drove the Potawatomi to fiercer efforts. Thirty four Osages were killed. The remaining sixty were taken as captives and herded back to the Potawatomi villages in northern Illinois.
After the carnage a delegation of Osage warriors went to St. Louis to meet with the territorial governor, General James Wilkinson. With their faces covered in mud to show sorrow for their lost ones, the warriors pleaded with Wilkinson to keep the American promise of protection. Wilkinson and others brought all the influence they could bear upon the Potawatomi and eventually arranged a payment in trade goods for the release of the Osages.
In the summer of 1806, the ransomed captives were brought up the Osage River under the escort of Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike. They passed through the Lake area during August and arrived at the Osage villages near present-day Schell City, Missouri, a couple of weeks later. The Osage were greatly appreciative, and swore allegiance to the United States, but soon after their towns were decimated by smallpox, for which they blamed the Americans.
Over the next few years the Osage ranged up and down the river valley in search of game, though they maintained their permanent towns near the junction of the Marmaton, Marais des Cygnes, and the Little Osage Rivers. They called the area the Place-of-the-Many-Swans. It was not always a peaceful time, for the Osages sometimes waylaid an American trapper, and it seemed as though the United States would have to bring them under control.
In 1808, the Americans built a fort and trading post for the Osages. But it was not at Place-of-the-Many-Swans. Fort Osage was built on the banks of the Missouri River, about 25 miles east of present-day Kansas City. This was the extreme northern range of Osage lands, but the Osage were told that they must move there. If they would do so, and sign a treaty, the Americans would provide them with all the trade goods they could possibly want, in exchange for furs.
In the treaty, the Osage ceded nearly all of their land from the Missouri River to the Arkansas River. In exchange they would receive a one-time payment of $1,200 plus a yearly annuity of $1,500 in merchandise, in addition to trading rights at the fort and the protection of the American government.
The selection of the Missouri River site for the fort was largely a matter of convenience for the Americans. The Osage River fluctuated to such extremes, and was too shallow much of the year to allow reliable keelboat transportation of trade goods and pelts. But by moving ninety miles north of their traditional towns, the Osage put themselves in close proximity to enemy tribes.
By 1811 the Osage were in a full-fledged war with the Ioway nation to the north. On occasion, the American soldiers would ferry the Osages across the river so that they might attack Ioway hunting parties. One such Osage war party returned with eight scalps and proceeded to celebrate with a scalp dance. Henry Marie Breckenridge, a scientist and explorer who was staying at the fort, told what happened next:
"They had worked themselves into such an arrogance and high emotion that one of their warriors came to the gates of the fort and refused to halt at the command of the sentinel. The sentinel fired over his head, but he came on. The guard had to be called, and they seized him, but he only sneered and said that he would eat white man's bread in jail. He was defiant and the soldiers took him to the whipping post and applied the cat-o'-nine-tails. This was the greatest insult you could offer a warrior….
"He went to the village weeping and singing in disgrace, and when the others found out what had happened, they picked up their arms and marched on the fort. They could have taken it after setting it afire, and both sides knew this, but they finally dispersed when the cannon were swung on them from the towers."
The brutal hit and run war with the Ioways finally convinced the Osages that they must move back to Place-of-the-Many-Swans for their own security. The military garrison at Fort Osage was far too small to offer any protection along the Missouri River border.
By 1812, British influence with various northern tribes caused those tribes to wage war with the Americans and the Osages. At one point, a band of Osages were ambushed and nearly wiped out just a few miles from Fort Osage after picking up their annual annuities. Henceforth, the Osages would not return to the fort for any reason, and the garrison was closed.
After the war ended in 1815, the Osages continued to live in extreme western Missouri. When statehood came in 1821, one of the first orders of business was to rid the state of any Indian presence. The Osages were convinced to sign yet another treaty. This one would remove them eventually to a reservation in north central Oklahoma. It is there yet - known now as Osage County - home of one of the richest oil strikes in the state.
There is little today to mark the Osage presence in the Lake area. The Osage nation has scant knowledge of its Missouri heritage; they regard it as a painful time in their past. The only tangible evidence of their passage are the occasional archaeological finds - arrowheads and pottery shards, stone-covered burial cairns, and the few remaining thong trees that were tied down as saplings to point out a trail or a spring or a medicinal herb.
They are gone, these Ni-U-Ko'n-Ska. But in the deep forested shadows of a summer night, when the moon is high and the air is heavy, who amongst you cannot say that you have felt an intangible something silently watching from the woods?
Text © 2008 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.