<em>Missouri Indian, Oto Indian, Chief of the Puncas</em>, portraits made by Karl Bodmer during an exploration of the Missouri River and its environs led by Prince Maximilian of Wied in 1833–1834. The Missouria man portrayed is Mahinkacha (Maker of Knives). [State Historical Society of Missouri Art Collection, <a href=https://digital.shsmo.org/digital/collection/art/id/477/> 1958.0007c1</a>]
A detail from a map drawn in 1732 showing the location of the Missouria and Little Osage villages on the Missouri River. [Stanford University Libraries, David Rumsey Map Collection, map by Jean Baptiste Bourguignon D’Anville]
Interior of a reconstructed Missouria lodge at Missouri’s American Indian Cultural Center at Annie and Abel Van Meter State Park. [Photo by Michael Dickey]
This mural depicts a Missouria village at the Utz archaeological site, now Annie and Abel Van Meter State Park. [Courtesy of Missouri Department of Natural Resources]
George Catlin’s 1832 portrait <em>Háw-che-ke-súg-ga, He Who Kills the Osages, Chief of the Tribe</em>. [Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1985.66.122]

When French explorer Robert La Salle passed by the mouth of the Missouri River in 1682, he wrote that on its banks were “a great number of large villages of many different nations.” The two dominant nations at that time in what is now the state of Missouri were the Missouria and the Osage. Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz, a colonist from 1718 to 1734 who wrote an early history of French Louisiana, noted, “The nation of the Missouries is very considerable, and has given its name to the large river that empties itself into the Mississippi. It is the first nation we meet with from the confluence of the two rivers.” Yet though the river and, later, the state took their name, the Missouria declined over the next century and ceased being an independent nation before 1795.

The Missouria villages were in the Great Bend of the Missouri River in what is now Saline County, Missouri. Father Pierre Marquette, the first European to learn of their existence, asked his Peoria guides what people lived on the river they called the Pekitanoui (Big Muddy) as they passed its mouth in 1673. They replied weemeehsoorita, which in their Algonquin language meant “one who has dugout canoes.” Marquette wrote the name as Ouemessourit, which soon became mishoori, meaning “log canoe.” This word was spelled more than two dozen ways before reaching its current configuration of “Missouri.” The alternate but historical name “Missouria” is the official name of the tribe today and minimizes confusion over whether the people or river is being discussed. The Missouria called themselves Ñút^achi (Ni-uta-chi), literally meaning “rivers join (where) dwelling at,” and interpreted as “People of the River’s Mouth,” referring to the mouth of the Grand River where it flows into the Missouri on the border of present-day Carroll and Chariton Counties.

The Missouria played an important role in the early commercial and military activities of Louisiana Territory. Early in 1693, French traders in the Illinois Country anticipated “the great profits that would derive from the trade with the Missouris.” Governor Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville estimated there were 1,500 families of Missouria in 1702. Extended families often lived in a single lodge, so Iberville’s estimate could mean there were as many as 7,500 to 10,500 Missouria.

Yet in 1702 another chronicler, Father Marc Bergier at the Tamaroa, Illinois, mission, wrote, “the Missouris are practically reduced to nothing.” An Osage tribal memory said that the weluschkas, “little mystery people” living inside the white men, caused many Missouria to sicken and die. Smallpox struck the Missouria throughout the eighteenth century. The population fluctuated but had declined to about 1,000 by 1770.

Consequently, most of Missouria culture was lost before it could be recorded. Contrasting archaeological records and surviving fragments of tradition with related and neighboring tribes allows for some plausible reconstruction of their culture. The Missouria, Otoe, Ioway, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) were once one people speaking a Siouan dialect known as Chiwere. They were descendants of the Oneota culture, which existed from about AD 1300 until European contact in 1673. The Utz Village site, partially within Annie and Abel Van Meter State Park in Saline County, reveals how the Oneota-Missouria lived. The Chiwere speakers and neighboring Dhegiha Siouan speakers including the Osage, Kansa, Omaha, Ponca, and Quapaw are sometimes referred to as “Southern Siouans.” They shared some broad similarities in their languages and culture. The Missouria maintained close alliances with the Little Osage and Kansa (Kaw).

The Oneota had some contact with the Mississippian culture that existed from about AD 900 to 1500. The Mississippians built large permanent villages and towns with agriculture as the primary occupation; Cahokia Mounds in Illinois is an outstanding example of this civilization that covered one quarter of what is now the United States. In contrast, the Oneota lived in smaller, semi-permanent villages. They raised corn, beans, and squash, but depended more on hunting and gathering than did the Mississippians.

The Oneota gradually superseded the Mississippians in the Midwest, arriving at the Utz site around AD 1450. Other nearby sites may indicate the Oneota were already in the region by AD 1300. Early French trade goods found at Utz show a transition from a Neolithic culture to one that became more dependent on European trade. By 1723 the Missouria had moved several miles upriver to Gumbo Point, near the present-day town of Malta Bend. Sometime before contact with Europeans a dispute erupted in the nation. Part of the tribe split off to become the Otoe and moved to the Platte River in what is now Nebraska.

As with other Southern Siouans, spirituality pervaded all aspects of Missouria life. Villages were divided on the east-west path of the sun. The north half of the village housed the Sky clans: Eagle, Thunderbird, Owl, Pigeon, and Buffalo. The south half housed the Earth clans: Bear, Wolf, Beaver, Snake, and Elk. Each clan had several sub-clans under it. These clans represented tribal origins and balance in the universe. The Bear Clan led the tribe half the year, and the Buffalo Clan led the other half. This was a way of maintaining balance and harmony in the tribe. Sophisticated ceremonies guided activities such as hunting, farming, war, and child naming.

The Missouria were versatile and used several styles of houses. Archaeologists have found two house types on Oneota-Missouria sites. The chakiruthan (house tied together), designated the “prairie-mat lodge,” was the most common. Mats of woven reeds, cattails, or rushes covered a sapling framework of these round to elliptical lodges. The naháchi (bark house) was a rectangular, gabled framework covered with slabs of bark. Later, after joining the Otoe on the Platte River, the Missouria used maháchi (earth lodges) and chibothraje (house stands upright) tipis when hunting.

Bison remains, especially scapula bones used as garden hoes, are common at Oneota and Missouria archaeological sites. Explorer Henri Tonti, who traveled along the Missouri River in the late seventeenth century, wrote that “Along this river and inland are several nations, such as the Baotets [Ioway], Ototenta [Otoe], Emissourita [Missouria], where the buffaloes which are found everywhere in Louisiana come from.” In 1719, Jean Claude Tisné noted the importance of bison and horses to the Osage and Missouria. “They [Osage] stay in the village like the Missourias, and pass the winter in chasing the buffalo which are very abundant in these parts. Horses, which villagers steal from the Pawnees, can be bought of them.”

As Tisné observed, because the Missouria were bison hunters, their villages were occupied on a seasonal basis. Archaeologist Mildred Widel described the life cycle of the Missouria: “The entire cycle involved planting gardens in the spring and harvesting them in late summer at this ‘permanent’ village, then going onto the prairie for one or two communal bison hunts in the summer and probably late fall where the tribe pursued a somewhat nomadic life . . . with the coming of winter weather, many families moved to protected river valleys where deer and forest game could be easily found. All the tribe would be back in the Missouri River village in the early spring.”

During Missouri’s colonial era, the Missouria were fairly reliable allies to the French. They assisted Etienne de Veniard Bourgmont in constructing Fort Orleans in 1723. They traveled with him to the Great Plains to make peace with the Padouca (Plains Apache). Bourgmont took his Missouria son and common law wife to France in 1725. “Ignon Ouaconisen” made such an impression on the French courtesans that they dubbed her the “Missouri Princess.” Her actual name was Hinų Waxonyitą, “Sacred Woman.” Romanticized tales made her the most famous of the Missouria people.

The Missouria aided the French in their wars against the Meskwaki (Fox) and Chickasaw nations. Missouria warriors participated in the destruction of British General Edward Braddock’s army near Fort Duquesne in 1755 early in the Seven Years’ War. When Pierre Laclède established his trading post and house at St. Louis in 1764, the entire Missouria nation encamped nearby. Laclède’s clerk Auguste Chouteau paid the women and children with trade goods to dig the foundations of the buildings.

When Spain took control of Louisiana, relations with the Missouria were not always cordial. The Spanish tried to control the Native nations by sometimes withholding trade. These actions led some Native Americans to retaliate or to trade with British agents. The Missouria detained “the traders who ascend the [Missouri] river for the sole purpose of getting some guns, powder, bullets . . . ” Periodically they stole horses from European settlements on the Mississippi. Missouria and Little Osage warriors broke into Fort San Carlos in 1772 and stole all the ammunition. They briefly menaced the citizens of St. Louis and raised a British Union Jack in the town square.

The Missouria and Little Osage were long engaged in wars against the Sac and Fox nation. The conflict was further inflamed by Spanish officials in the 1790s, with disastrous results for the Missouria. After the United States claimed sovereignty through the Louisiana Purchase, William Clark wrote on June 15, 1804, “The war was so hot & fierce both nations become so reduced the Little Osage & a few Missouris moved and built a village 5 miles near the Grand Osages, the rest of the Missouris went and took protection under the Otoes on Platte River (Nebraska).” George C. Sibley, the US government trader at Fort Osage, said, “The Missourias . . . have long since abandoned the country and left the Ioway in possession of it.” Maximilian, Prince of Wied, who traveled through western Saline County in 1833, wrote of the final blow that befell the Missouria about 1792: “We were at the part called Fox Prairie, [where] the Sac and Fox Indians . . . formerly attacked, and nearly extirpated the tribe of the Missouris . . . The Missouris came down the river in many canoes, and their enemies had concealed themselves in the willow thickets. After the Missouris, who suspected no evil, had been killed or wounded with arrows the victors leaped in the water, and finished their bloody work with clubs and knifes; very few of the Missouris escaped.”

In 1804 about thirty families of Missouria were living with the Otoe, twenty with the Osage, four or five with the Kansa, and some with the Ioway. US Indian agent Benjamin O’Fallon tried in 1819 to force the complete merger of the Missouria with the Otoe. He failed, but the other Missouria assimilated into their host tribes by the 1830s.

The Otoe-Missouria signed the Platte Purchase Treaty in October 1836, ceding their land in what is now northwest Missouri to the United States. On their reduced reservation in present-day Nebraska and Kansas, they experienced continued cultural distress. The government increased its efforts to force them to give up their traditional lifestyle. They were cheated by unscrupulous traders and preyed on by whiskey peddlers. As the bison herds decreased, starvation and sickness became commonplace. Government rations were often late or insufficient. Inept and sometimes corrupt Indian agents exacerbated these problems.

The winter of 1839–1840 was especially hard. Starving Otoe-Missouria entered Missouri’s Buchanan County in March seeking food. They butchered some settlers’ cattle, raising alarm on the frontier. US Dragoons (mounted troops) from Fort Leavenworth under the command of Major Nathan Boone confronted and evicted them.

The Otoe-Missouria went on their last bison hunt in 1874, which ironically was successful. Euro-American settlers clamored for their ever-shrinking reservation. More than two hundred traditionalists known as the “Coyote Band” fled to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1878. On October 5, 1881, 320 members of the “Quaker Band” left Nebraska, arriving at Red Rock Creek in Indian Territory on October 24. The two groups reunited in 1890. The tribe received only $120,000 of the $270,000 sale price of their small Nebraska-Kansas reservation.

The Otoe-Missouria remain in Oklahoma today, with tribal headquarters in the town of Red Rock. Several families in the Otoe-Missouria community continue to identify their lineage as Missouria. “Missouria” was added to the official tribal name in the 1950s to reflect the mix of the two historic tribes. The Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma has 3,300 enrolled members. It invests in several business enterprises and provides community services for tribal members.

The Otoe-Missouria are making efforts to preserve their Chiwere language. George Washington Dailey, Xra Sag’e (Old Eagle) of the Missouria Eagle Clan, taught his son Truman about his heritage. One of the last fluent speakers of Chiwere, Truman assisted the University of Missouri with a language project. He earned an honorary degree from MU in 1994, shortly before his death. The Otoe-Missouria people still honor traditions and clan ties with roots going back to their days in Missouri.

Further Reading

Chapman, Berlin Basil. The Otoes and Missourias: A Study of Indian Removal and the Legal Aftermath. Oklahoma City: Times Journal Publishing, 1965.

Chapman, Carl H., and Eleanor F. Chapman. Indians and Archaeology of Missouri. Rev. ed. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

Dickey, Michael. The People of the River’s Mouth: In Search of the Missouria Indians. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011.

Edmunds, R. David. The Otoe-Missouria People. Phoenix, AZ: Indian Tribal Series, 1976.

Fracchia, Adam. “Negotiating Identity: The Missourias Response to European Contact 1670–1800.” Master’s thesis, University of Missouri, 2006.

Olson, Greg. Indigenous Missourians: Ancient Societies to the Present. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2023.

Stanley, Lori. “Indian Path of Life: A Life History of Truman Washington Dailey of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe.” PhD diss., University of Missouri, 1993.

The Otoe-Missouria Elders: Centennial Memoirs (1881–1981). Red Rock, OK: Otoe-Missouria Tribe, 1981.

Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Oklahoma website. www.omtribe.org.

Published March 2, 2024; Last updated March 5, 2024

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