Missouri, Mississippi, Meramec, Osage, Kahoka, Kenoma and Kewanee. The strange-sounding names on highway signs are reminders of the American Indians who once called Missouri home. Few Indians are left in the state. The names and some villages that still can be toured are nearly all that remain of a rich heritage.
The territory that now lies basically north of Interstate 70 once was controlled by the Missouri Indians. Some records call them the Missourias; the first French explorers knew them as the Oumessourit. The Osage tribe ruled south of the highway.
Today, visitors can explore what was the main Missouri village in a hilly area known as the Pinnacles in what is now Van Meter State Park in Saline County in central Missouri. From this high country overlooking the Missouri River, the tribe could control traffic on the river, which was the only highway through the territory at the time.
A portion of the Indian village and other ceremonial sites have been preserved at the camp that at one time had a population of about 5,000. A visitor’s center interprets the history of the tribe and the park’s natural landscape.
The main Osage village was on the Osage River in Vernon County in the southwestern corner of the state. Sometime between 1714 and 1719, early French businessmen convinced some of the Osage to set up a second, smaller village near the Missouri village.
Now called the Osage Village State Historic Site, the main village contains an archaeological excavation of what was believed to be an Osage ceremonial lodge and a typical dwelling. A walking tour of the area includes Blue Mound, which Osage legend calls the burial place of a number of prominent chiefs.
Archaeologists have found evidence of other tribes on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River – the Illinois, Sauk and Fox, among others – but they were never here in large numbers.
“Going back into prehistory, there were many tribes here,” said William Foley, a historian at Central Missouri State in Warrensburg. “Because of the river systems, this was a kind of a crossroads. But the Missouri and the Osage were the main resident tribes when the first explorers came.”
Two Frenchmen, Father Jacques Marquette and explorer-fur trader Louis Joliet are the first known Europeans to visit Missouri, having come down the Illinois River from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River in 1673. From Indians they encountered at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers just north of what is now St. Louis, they learned of the Missouri and the Osage.
The Missouri was one of several related tribes that inhabited the upper Midwest at the time, including the Iowa, Winnebago and Oto.
The origins of the Osage aren’t clear, historians say, but they may have formed from smaller groups in the area, or they may have been a spinoff of the Kansa. They’re believed to be related to such tribes as the Omaha, Kansa, Ponca and Quapaw in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Although they were similar in many ways, the two tribes reacted very differently to the coming of the Europeans.
The Missouri apparently didn’t deal heavily with the French traders and went into a decline. The Osage welcomed them and quickly developed a bustling market economy. Both were relatively peaceful at the outset.
“We tend to focus on the outbreaks of violence, and there were those,” Foley said. “But cooperation was much more commonplace. They lived together, intermingled.”
While the Osage thrived, the 5,000 or so Missouri found first contact with the whites to be deadly.
The tribe was ravaged by smallpox and other diseases brought by the Europeans and by 1758 numbered only about 600. Survivors moved to Nebraska and joined with the Oto tribe. By 1800, there were no Missouri left in the state that was to be named for them two decades later.
The last full-blood Missouri is believed to have died about 1908, and the remainder live near their agency land in Red Rock, Okla.
Disease didn’t hit the Osage so hard, and the tribe adapted well and grew strong under the European influx. At their peak, the Osage controlled the prairie and plains country running from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers southwest to the Red River on the Oklahoma-Texas border. They occupied most of Missouri and large portions of Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma.
In the end, however, history caught up with the Osage and more than a century of harmony came to an end.
As a natural gateway to the west, southern Missouri became flooded with tribes forced out by white settlement of the eastern United States. Tribes such as the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Kickapoo and Delaware passed through and often stopped, taking the land and game normally hunted by the now-outnumbered Osage.
The tribe was forced to sign treaties giving away larger and larger portions of their territory. Finally, in 1825, tribal leaders were summoned to St. Louis and forced to give up all claims to their lands.
For a while, the tribe fought efforts to move it onto reservations. But constant pressure wore them down, and they eventually ended up in what is now Osage County just northwest of Tulsa, Okla.
Source: Associated Press, St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press, Monday, August 16, 1993.