Osage Chief with Two Warriors, oil painting on card by George Catlin. [National Gallery of Art, Paul Mellon Collection, 1965.16.68]

A succession of Osage leaders from the 1790s to the 1870s were known as “Cheveux Blancs” in French or “White Hair” in English. This is probably a mistranslation of the Osage name by which these men were also known, Paw-Hiu-Skah or Pawhuska, meaning “white-headed eagle.” (There seems to be no basis to a story published by Timothy Flint in 1826 that the name referred to an American soldier’s wig captured in battle.) Since the name Paw-Hiu-Skah was popular among several Osage clans, it is often difficult to identify the particular individual meant in a given reference. Still, two White Hairs who were prominent in tribal affairs during the last years the Osages occupied their traditional homelands in Missouri may be identified with some certainty.

The first White Hair was born in the first half of the eighteenth century, and was related, perhaps a half-brother, to the first Clermont, peace chief (Tsi-zhu Gahige) of the main village of the Big Osage in present-day Vernon County. While Clermont remained somewhat skeptical and aloof in his dealings with French and Spanish fur traders and government officials, White Hair welcomed the potential wealth and power these newcomers offered. A serious rivalry developed between the two men, probably representing factions within the village and tribe.

This factionalism played into the hands of St. Louis traders Jean Pierre Chouteau and Auguste Chouteau. In 1795, after the Spanish government granted them a monopoly on the Osage trade, the Chouteaus built a trading post near the Big Osage villages. Pierre spent much time among the Osages, involving himself deeply in tribal politics to further his business interests. Clermont resented the interference and tried to limit Chouteau’s influence; Chouteau in turn lent his support to the more cooperative White Hair.

About this time, perhaps in late 1795 or 1796, Clermont died. With the Chouteaus’ support, White Hair claimed to be head chief of all the Osages. The Chouteaus convinced Spanish officials to confirm this title, but they had less success with the Osages. A single chief was contrary to Osage tradition: each village governed its own affairs through a complicated balance of peace chiefs, war chiefs, and council of elders. Moreover, Clermont II claimed his father’s title of Tsi-zhu Gahige, now usurped by White Hair. The younger Clermont and his supporters abandoned their village to join a breakaway Osage band on the Arkansas River. This was the first in a series of defections as White Hair’s people moved away rather than submit to his claims of authority over them.

Through the Chouteaus, White Hair attempted to enlist the aid of the Spanish government, and subsequently that of the United States, in pressuring the dissidents to reunite under his authority. In 1804 he traveled to Washington, DC, with Pierre Chouteau, where the president, Thomas Jefferson, and other officials accepted him as head chief of the Osages, though this did little to shore up his sagging prestige at home.

White Hair continued in close alliance with the Chouteaus. About this time his daughter married Pierre Chouteau’s interpreter, Noel Mongrain. Government officials in Missouri considered White Hair the tool of the Chouteaus, of whom they were generally suspicious; nevertheless, they were willing to make use of him. Relying on the government to support his authority, White Hair was always accommodating to US demands. After an abjectly humble speech, he signed a treaty ceding most of the Osage homeland in Missouri and Arkansas to the United States in 1808, further undermining his credibility among many Osages.

White Hair died not long after the treaty council of November 1808, probably sometime in 1809. His son, Che-sho-hung-ga, assumed the name of White Hair and his father’s status as “government chief” and leader of an ever-dwindling Osage faction. He proved as pliable as his father to the interests of the Chouteaus and the demands of the US government. In 1822 he signed a treaty absolving the government from commitments it had made in the 1808 treaty. In 1825 he signed treaties ceding yet more Osage land and granting a right-of-way for the Santa Fe Trail through the remainder.

At the Chouteaus’ urging, White Hair moved his village to the Neosho River, in what is now southeastern Kansas, near a trading post established by Pierre’s sons, Paul Liguest and Auguste Pierre Chouteau. He died in the spring of 1832 and was succeeded by another equally cooperative White Hair. Other White Hairs figured prominently in Osage affairs in the 1850s and 1860s, one signing a treaty with the Confederate States of America in 1861. Pawhuska, Oklahoma, is named for the White Hair who settled near there in about 1870.

Further Reading

Din, Gilbert C., and Abraham Nasatir. The Imperial Osages: Spanish-Indian Diplomacy in the Mississippi Valley. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.

Edwards, Tai S. Osage Women and Empire: Gender and Power. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018.

Foley, William E., and C. David Rice. The First Chouteaus: River Barons of Early St. Louis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

Mathews, John Joseph. The Osages: Children of the Middle Waters. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

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

Rollings, Willard H. The Osage: An Ethnohistorical Study of Hegemony on the Prairie-Plains. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992.

Published June 27, 2024

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