Of the Indian nations living north of the Arkansas River and west of the Mississippi River, the Osage were best known to the French during the early years of their occupancy of Louisiana. Claiming lands extending east even to the banks of the Mississippi River, and maintaining friendly intercourse with the Illinois tribe, who dwelt on the opposite shore, the Osage were brought in frequent contact with the French adventurers of Kaskaskia, Natchez and New Orleans. Rumors of mines of silver and lead to the west of the Mississippi River brought, at a very early day, many explorers into that region, and the discovery of the “Mine of the Marameg” by Sieur de Lichens in 1719, followed by the arrival of a large company of the King’s miners, under the superintendence of M. Renandiere, to construct furnaces and develop the mine, gave a fresh impetus to the prevailing spirit of extravagant expectation in regard to the mineral resources of the western portion of Louisiana.
At this time, the Osage had villages on the Missouri and Osage Rivers, the latter not very distant from the famous mine. Their country was thoroughly explored by parties in search of silver and lead, and to a comparatively late day, the extensive “diggings’ on the old Osage Trail near the Le Mine River bore the marks of the spade and pick of the early French explorers.
It was during the year that silver was discovered on the Marameg, and when the mining mania was at fever heat, that Du Tissenet was sent by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, Governor of Louisiana, to explore the western part of the province, and, in the course of his investigations, visited and crossed from southeast to northwest to the present State of Kansas. Du Tissenet visited the village of the Osage Indians, five miles from the Osage River, at eighty leagues above its mouth, and describes the inhabitants as stout, well made and great warriors. He also mentions the lead mines that were found in their country.
Sixty-four Osage Indians formed a part of the escort of Etienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont on his Pacific Mission to the Padoucas in 1724, but from that time there is no record of any organized French expedition visiting the region. The destruction of Fort Orleans, of which De Bourgmont was Commandant, and the massacre of entire garrison, effectually put a stop, for a long time, to any further attempts to extend French exploration toward the west, and, except the fact that the Osage, Kanza and Pawnee were engaged in continual war among themselves and with the more western tribes, little is known of them until the explorations of Lewis and Clark and Lieutenant Zebulon Pike furnished more definite knowledge of their locations, homes and habits of life.
As early as 1796, a division was effected in the Osage Nation. The Chaneers or Arkansas band, under the lead of Chief Cashesegra, or Clermont, removed to the Verdigris River and formed several villages along its banks, that of Clermont being about 60 miles up the river. The Arkansa band was principally composed of the young men of the two tribes, and its formation was effected through the influence of Pierre Choteau, a St. Louis fur trader, who had hitherto enjoyed a monopoly of the trade with the Osage by the way of the river of the same name. Having been superseded as agent by Manuel de Lisa, also an enterprising St. Louis trader, Choteau determined to plant a colony of young and vigorous Osage on one of the tributaries of the Arkansas River, and endeavor to draw the trade of his rival to the more southern river, in which financial scheme he was quite successful, the new settlement soon quite overshadowing the older.
About 1803, the Little Osage separated from the Grand Osage, and made a village on the Missouri River, near where Fort Clark, afterward called Fort Osage, was built. They, however, were soon attacked by the warlike tribes farther to the north and east, and forced to seek refuge and protection in the vicinity of the more numerous band of the Grand Osage, who dwelt near the headwaters of the Osage River, about fifteen miles east of the present Kansas line.
One of the objectives of Lieutenant Zebulon Pike’s expedition of 1806 and 1807 through the interior of Louisiana was to deliver at the village of Grand Osage several Osage captives, lately prisoners in the hands of the Pottawatomie. Another was “the accomplishment of a permanent peace between the Osage and Kanza and a third was to endeavor to make peace between the Comanche and Osage.
In the accomplishment of these objectives, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike had the opportunity to carefully observe the customs and noted the peculiarities of the Osage at that period. At the time of his arrival at the village of the Grand Osage, the Little Osage had already marched a war party against the Kanza, and the Grand Osage, a party against the Arkansas band. White Hair, chief of the Grand Osage, was unable to prevent it, although the expedition was contrary to his wishes. Schemers at St. Louis were constantly inciting trouble between the tribes, and turning their quarrels to their own advantage. The treaty of peace, which Lieutenant Pike was instrumental in bringing about, was faithfully observed by both Osage and Kanza.
At the time of this visit, the Grand Osage village on the Osage River numbered, by actual census — men, 502; boys, 341; women and girls, 851; lodges, 214. Cheveau Blanc, or White Hair, was the chief. The Little Osage numbered 824, and Clermont’s band, 1,500. The government was nominally vested in a small number of chiefs, but their power was limited, all measures which they proposed being submitted to a council of warriors and decided by a majority vote.
The tribe was divided into two classes; warriors and hunters composing the first, cooks and doctors the second. The doctors were also priests or magicians, possessing great influence, being supposed to have knowledge of deep mysteries, and to be wonderfully skilled in the use of medicines. The cooks were also of much importance, the class including all the warriors who, from age or other cause, were unable to join the war parties.
When received into an Osage village, a guest immediately presented himself at the lodge of the chief, where he was expected to eat his first meal, after which he was invited to a general feast, given by the most important warriors and great men. The cooks stood outside the lodge and gave the invitation by crying, in a loud voice: “Come and eat; such a one gives a feast.” The feasts were repeated until all the more important members of the tribe had an opportunity to display their hospitality.