Fort Osage History
When we enter a place so rich in history, we feel the past as a tangible presence.
Words alone are not enough to describe the feeling. Photos and sketches don’t do it justice. You must visit Fort Osage to find the past held within its log walls and in the sweeping view across that wide Missouri far below. There bald eagles still soar on the winter wind and catfish big as logs ply the muddy, roiling waters and the past might as well be today.
Fort Osage: An Introduction
“The wind was against us this morning…were obliged to lie-to during the day at a small island….directly opposite, on the south, is a high commanding position, more than 70 feet above the high water mark, and overlooking the river…This spot has many advantages for a fort and trading house with the Indians.”
– William Clark, June 23, 1804
The likely aspect and strategic defensibility of this high bluff overlooking the Missouri River is indisputable. In 1808-09, Fort Osage was erected on this site in accordance with plans drawn up by William Clark and begun under his supervision. As part of the United States Factory System, it was commissioned both to secure the friendship of the powerful Osage nation and to establish U.S. military presence in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. The primary purpose of the military was to protect the considerable investment in the trade house itself. Fort Osage was the second U.S. outpost in the Territory and the westernmost, until Ft. Atkinson was commissioned in 1813.
George Champlain Sibley (1782-1863) was commissioned factor or government trade representative, and under his supervision the Fort was one of the most prosperous of the factories. His diary is in the Missouri Historical Society in Forest Park, Missouri (along with many other papers), a fascinating record of his appointment, arrival, and occupation at the frontier outpost, including extensive correspondence with Wm. Clark.
The son of Revolutionary War physician John Sibley, in 1816 George married Mary Easton, the child of a wealthy banking family from St. Louis. Mary was pampered even on the frontier. When she came to the Fort, she brought with her several keelboats worth of household goods, along with her younger sister and an entourage. When the post was decommissioned, the Sibleys returned to the St. Louis area, where they founded Lindenwood College, still in operation today.
During its years of operation, the site was visited by many people, including the naturalists Thomas Nuttall and John Bradbury, Henry Marie Brackenridge, lawyer-turned-writer, the fur trade family of Chouteaus, Manuel Lisa, Jim Beckwourth, Wilson P. Hunt, and many of the great chiefs. In 1833, Prince Maximillian of Weid passed the site with the painter Carl Bodmer and noted there was virtually nothing left.
At one time, approximately 100 residents included military and civilian alike, with villages of the Little Osage and Great Osage nearby. Conflict, camaraderie, tensions, births, deaths and the daily grind of hard work all mixed to create a extraordinary story–a story told again at the reconstructed Fort.
Rebuilding began in the 1940s with a single blockhouse. Now, five blockhouses, the barracks, forge, factory building, and interpreters’ cabin await the civilian cabins that once lined the palisades. In 1996, the newly-formed For Osage Garrison completed a survey using antique tools to find the original dimensions of the complex, and a whitewashed post marks the far corner. Looking out across the expanse, we can now imagine how much larger the Fort originally was.
Voices From The Past
Bits of information on life at Fort Osage filter down through primary documents such as inventories and journal accounts–following are a few of those accounts.
William Clark came upriver with a company of soldiers to build the fort, and noted that with them “Three Indians whom I Shall Send from Grand River to the Ioways, go in the other boat, also one of McClellan’s Hunters, by name of Day, and a Woman of the Camp, wife to a Soldier, and the sick”
-Westward with Dragoons, William Clark, edited by Kate L. Gregg; p. 44
From John Bradbury:
“March 25th–Met a boat with sixteen oars coming from Fort Osage to St. Louis, for supplies: news had arrived at the fort, that the Great Osages had lately killed an American at their village.”
“28th–I left the boats early, intending to walk to the [salt] Lick settlements, which are the last on the river, excepting those occupied by one or two families near Fort Osage.”
“30th–We were now beyond all the settlements, except those at Fort Osage, and Mr. Hunt resolved to send the hunters out more frequently, as game might now be expected in abundance.”
“8th–About ten o’clock we came in sight of the fort, about six miles distant. We had not been long in sight before we saw the flag was hoisted, and at noon we arrived, when we were saluted with a volley as we passed on to the landing place, where we met Mr. Crooks, who had come down from the wintering station at the mouth of the river Naduet to meet us. There were also collected at the landing place about 200 Indians, men, women and children, of the Petit Osage nation, whose village was then about 300 yards from the fort. We passed through them to pay our respects to Lieutenant Brownson, who then commanded in the absence of Captain Clemson. He received us very politely, and insisted that we should eat at his table during our stay. I had with me an introductory letter to Dr. Murray, physician to the garrison, whom I found disposed to give me every information relative to the customs and manners of the Osage nation, and from him also I received a vocabulary of a considerable number of words in that language. He walked with me down to the boats, where we found several squaws assembled, as Dr. Murray assured me, for the same purpose as females of a certain class in the maritime towns of Europe crowd round vessels lately arrived from a long voyage, and it must be admitted with the same success.
Towards evening an old chief came down, and harangued the Indians assembled about the boats, for the purpose of inviting the warriors of the late expedition to a feast prepared for them in the village. I was told it was intended that the dance of the scalp should be performed, on the occasion of the war party having brought in seven scalps from the Ayauwais, a village belonging to whom they had destroyed, and killed two old men and five women and children. All the rest had fled at their approach; but as rain came on the dance was not performed.
At evening Dr. Murray proposed that we should walk into the village, which I found to consist of about one hundred lodges of an oblong form, the frame of timber, and the covering mats, made of the leaves of flag, or Typha palustris. On our return through the town, we called at the lodge belonging to a chief named Waubuschon, with whom Dr. Murray was particularly acquainted. The floor was covered with mats, on which they sat; but as I was a stranger, I was offered a cushion. A wooden bowl was now handed round, containing square pieces of cake, in taste resembling gingerbread. On inquiring I found it was made of the pulp of the persimmon, (Diospuros Virginiana) mixed with pounded corn. This bread they called staninca.
We left the lodge of Waubuschon, and went to that of the chief. On the roof the seven scalps were placed, tied to sticks ornamented with racoons’ tails. We where shewn to the upper end of the lodge, and sat down on the ground. I learned that the chief was not present; that he was a boy of six years of age, his name Young White Hair, and that the tribe was now governed by a regent. Immediately a warrior came in, and made a speech, frequently pointing to the scalps on the roof, as they were visible through the hole by which the smoke escaped. I understood that he had distinguished himself in the late expedition against the Ayauways.
I inquired of Dr. Murray concerning a practice which I had heard prevailed among the Osages, of rising before day to lament their dead. He informed me that such was really the custom, and that the loss of a horse or a dog was as powerful a stimulus to their lamentations as that of a relative or friend; and he assured me, that if I should be awake before day the following morning, I might certain hear them. Accordingly on the 9th I heard before day that the howling had commenced; and the better to escape observation, I wrapped a blanket round me, tied a black handkerchief on my head, and fastened on my belt, in which I stuck my tomahawk, and then walked into the village. The doors of the lodges were closed, but in the greater part of them the women were crying and howling in a tone that seemed to indicate excessive grief. On the outside of the village I hear the men, who Dr. Murray had informed me, always go out of the lodges to lament.
(Journal, Pg. 60-67)
The unpublished diary of Government Factor George Sibley is a rich mine of information, but a tantalizingly cryptic one:
“Also had a serious talk with Madame Lorr Relative to her Services in Kitchen &c. She promised to be more attentive and managing, and from the wish I feel to assist her and her very Large Family I am induced to try her again, and I hope she will do better in future.” (Sibley diary, p. 24.) A few days later, Sibley allows her 107 pounds of flour against her husband’s wages.
“Mr. Cottle arrived in the evening with his Family (Wife & 2 Children)…I gave Mr. Cottle leave to occupy the House I got from Doctor Robinson until he can provide himself with one of his own.” (Sibley diary, p. 29) “Mrs. Cottle is to attend to my cooking &c, and will be principally engaged making Candles and Soap for the factory, for which her compensation will be fixed after she has made a trial and ascertained what She can afford to make them for per Hundred weight.” (Sibley diary, p. 30)
(Sibley’s unpublished diary, Missouri Historical Society).
George Sibley complains of being low on flour for bread in this letter to businessman John G. Comegy of St. Louis on January 8, 1811; “I hope you will not fail to cause to be procured and send up to me by the first boat in the Spring, the articles I requested per letter of 9th October; and by all means two barrels of good flour, unless you send me the flour I apprehend I shall be put to hard shifts for bread, which is pretty near the case already, I assure you.”
On the same date as the letter above Sibley writes to another St. Louis business partner, Mr. Risdon H. Price; “Respecting your hogs corn & c at this place. The harvesting of your crop was completed on the 15th of Decr. the following note is transcribed from my diary; ‘Thursday December 13th – The day pleasant and fair – finished gathering Mr. Price’s corn today – off of about 14 1/2 acres of ground I got somewhere about 800 bushels of corn housed’.” Mr. Sibley continues his letter with; “I have been at some considerable pains to collect all your hogs together and succeeded in getting about 150 into an enclosure, and kept for about a fortnight and fed with a little corn.”
(both from letters transcribed by David Hinkley)