The Indian Nations, Moving Endlessly West

Tal-lee, an Osage warrior, by George Catlin

Tal-lee, an Osage warrior, by George Catlin

When the French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet first arrived on the Great Plains in 1673, they encountered a tribe who may themselves have arrived only shortly before.  The Osage had moved west from the Ohio valley over the previous century, because of a long series of conflicts with the Iroquois.  They were a semi-nomadic, hunting and farming people,  living for much of the year in the Arkansas and Missouri woodlands, but traveling to the Great Plains for regular hunting expeditions.  Tall and powerful warriors, they quickly adapted to a horse-based culture, and by 1750 controlled much of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

It was the Osage with whom the French fur traders of the Mississippi valley established the closest connections, intermarrying with them, living in their villages, and encouraging them to build their own villages next to the French.   By the mid-eighteenth century, however, there were other tribes moving west across the Mississippi,  driven out of their ancestral homes by the relentless pressure of white immigration.  At the end of the 18th century, a French-Canadian métis trader named Louis Lorimier led a large group of Shawnees to settle on the bluffs above the Mississippi, between Ste. Genevieve and Cape Girardeau.  They were soon followed by a group of Delawares.

Hoping that the Shawnees and Delawares would serve as a buffer to protect the European settlements from Osage raids, the Spanish authorities granted them a tract of roughly 750 square miles.  The eastern Indians, who had long lived in close contact with whites, settled down in farming villages virtually indistinguishable from those of the whites nearby.  But they had already become too Americanized to offer effective resistance to the Osage, and they  resented the fact that the Spanish expected them to do so while the Spanish themselves continued to trade with their supposed enemies.

Ahuludegi (John Jolly), Arkansas Cherokee chief

Ahuludegi (John Jolly), Arkansas Cherokee chief

The last to arrive were a group of Cherokees, later known as the Old Settlers,  who moved to southeast Missouri and Arkansas between 1780 and 1820 in hopes of preserving their traditional culture.  Like the Shawnees and Delawares, they considered themselves civilized.  For as long as they could, they maintained friendly relations with the local whites.

S.C. Turnbo, an Arkansas writer collecting local stories nearly a century later, described the Cherokees who had settled on the White River as “a lively crowd” whom “white settlers visited…from far and near.”  When settlers were present at a Green Corn Dance they would be invited to participate, and the Indians would laugh at their awkwardness.  One story describes a visit to a settler’s cabin by a Cherokee father and son, where in exchange for a gift of salt the Indian entertained the family with an energetic dance, and the settler’s two sons were invited to accompany the Cherokees on their next hunt.

And then, as always on the frontier, everything changed overnight.  The floods of white settlers arriving in the 1820’s made the Indians into enemies and “savages,” usurped their land, and drove them west once again. The brief period of multicultural coexistence was over.

Further reading:  James F. Keefe & Lynn Morrow, eds.,  The White River Chronicles of S.C. Turnbo: Man and Wildlife on the Ozarks Frontier


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