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Osage Nation Leaders Help Explain St. Louis' Earliest Days

The Osage Nation made Pierre Laclede’s fur trading post a success from its start 250 years ago. This week that bi-cultural partnership, tragically rare in this continent’s history, is being celebrated with more than a dozen events.

What might be called Osage Week includes nine free public events and a few private ones: lectures, a poetry reading by Osage poet Carter Revard, two art exhibits, tours of sites where the Osage and French interacted, school visits, a Catholic Mass partly in Osage and filled-t0-capacity meetings with the Florissant Rotary and the Midwest Art History Society. (Scroll to the bottom of this article for a schedule of what’s open to the public.)

Coming together

In early St. Louis, the French, French-Canadian and Osage did more than just trade furs, food, blankets and trinkets. They dined well in security and peace. Many intermarried. Old Cathedral records show that leaders of both groups supported their mutual grandchildren.

Eddy Red Eagle Jr.
Credit Provided by Christy Fansel
Eddy Red Eagle Jr.

“When they arrived in St. Louis, the French and French-Canadians had very little money but they had intelligence, and a strong family life, communal life,” Osage Elder Eddy Red Eagle Jr., Drum Keeper and Osage history and cultural and spirituality expert, said in a recent interview.

Osage women taught them planting techniques, and the men brought them game. Unlike the English colonists, the French quickly learned to adapt to the land and the local food supply.

“We (Osage) had three points of leverage with the French and French-Canadians, when Laclede and Chouteau arrived,” Red Eagle said.

“First, we had the numbers, there had to be quite a few of us to be dominant from south of the Missouri River to the Red River.

“Second, we had the logistics. We knew the land — where every grove of trees was, where every cave, hillside, stream, river, mountain was. We knew the weather, the seasons’ cycle, the growth patterns, the animal movement patterns — this land was so full of animals it was like the Serengeti today.

“The third element was our size, our men were 6- and 7-foot tall. The French and French-Canadians were short.”

Visitors to the Sheldon Galleries in Grand Center can see the tall Osage braves in George Catlin’s paintings. These rarely seen works are in the stunning “Imagining the Founding of St. Louis” on display through August. Catlin, the 19th-century painter, called the Osage “the tallest race of men in North America … there being few … who are less than six feet in stature, and very many of them six and a half, and others seven feet."

Osage chief Scott BigHorse added. “Not just seven feet tall but 300 pounds and all muscle. They had energy, they were well known to run a horse to death in pursuit of their enemies.”

Good nutrition and exercise accounted for the Osage stature, Red Eagle said. He called St. Louis in the mid-18th century “like paradise.” Osage thrived on a diet featuring game, fish and other lean protein, with plenty of pecans, walnuts, fresh and dried vegetables, berries and other fruit. They exercised all day and breathed clean air, he said. He is 6’2”; his great grandfather was 6’5”.

As early as 1727 the French-Canadian men in the Illinois Country married Osage trading partners’ daughters, according to church baptismal records. Red Eagle compared such arranged marriages to European royalty marrying their daughters for diplomatic and territorial reasons.

“Osage never married their elder two daughters (to the French Canadians) but their younger ones. And it was rare for a French woman to marry an Osage man,” Red Eagle said.

“Our people always said that they had had a choice to lean toward the Spanish or lean toward the French and they chose the French because they were more loving people. The French loved their families and their villages. The Osage matched that. We love our families, are committed to our village and our nation.”

The Osage return

Leaders at local institutions have been impressed by the Osage commitment to the coming events.

At least 66 Osage live in the St. Louis area, according to Christy Finsel, an Osage who for seven months has volunteered as a liaison between St. Louis groups and Chief Scott BigHorse. He is one of many coming from the Osage Nation’s headquarters in Pawhuska, a 1,470,000-acre, sovereign reservation in north Central Oklahoma’s Osage County.

“It is a great honor to have so many Osage from Pawhuska including the chief and assistant chief of the Osage Nation, visiting St. Louis,” said Jill Ahlberg Yohe, St. Louis Art Museum’s assistant curator of Native American Art.

She is delighted that the delegation includes several Osage artists whose contemporary creative work reflects their nation’s artistic style. With Caitlin Donald, a member of both the Osage and Ponca Nations, Ahlberg Yohe will talk about Osage artistic continuity at the Sheldon Concert Hall Friday at noon.

“In my family line, we have Osage and French intermarriage as of 1727 when Francoise LeDuc, in a second marriage, married the daughter of the first Claremore (an Osage leader),” Finsel said. “They were married 37 years prior to the founding of the City of St. Louis.”

Jesuit ties

When Osage talk today about why they are grateful to the French, they mention the lasting impact the French’s Catholic faith had on them, Red Eagle said.

“The Osage are a very religious, monotheistic people, so it was not so hard for us to understand that God had a son, and that son of God had a mother Mary and other Catholic religious doctrines,” Red Eagle said.

“That is why when we were planning this week we thought it was very important to have a Mass with the Jesuits to celebrate these blessings.”

Scott BigHorse speaking at Washington University in February
Credit Provided by Christy Fansel
Scott BigHorse speaking at Washington University in February

That sentiment was echoed by BigHorse, a former Oklahoma state senator. BigHourse is  descendant of city founder Marie Therese Chouteau through one of her great-great grandsons and Osage Rosalie Capitaine. he will talk about his bi-cultural family tree Thursday evening at the Chatillon-DeMenil museum house.

For BigHorse, the Catholic Mass with hymns and a scripture reading in Osage Wednesday at St. Francis Xavier “College” Church “is appropriate because of the strong Jesuit ties to the Osage. It takes us back to our ancients.”

A staggering number of important reports about the Osage are preserved at the Jesuit Missouri Province Archives. Catholic canon law requires religious orders to keep regular journals of their work. Recording what may have seemed mundane events today give the Osage their rich social history.

“The Jesuits were recruited to St. Louis to start the first school for Native American boys, mostly Osage, in Florissant,” said the Rev. John Padberg, a Jesuit historian and director and editor of the Institute of Jesuit Sources in Grand Center. The very first Jesuit missionary dispatched from St. Stanislaus in Florissant went to help the Osage, Padberg said.

“When the Osage had to move (first to Kansas, then to Oklahoma) due to the perfidy of the whites, the Jesuits went with and stayed with them,” he said.

Jesuit journals complement historic but unwritten records of the Osage.

Ahlberg Yohe, who is also an anthropologist, said the native histories are fully as solid as primary sources as written works. “In many native communities their histories, like their ceremonies and dances, must be record-perfect, factual, always precise and accurate.”

Louisiana Purchase ended

A great cloud fell upon the bi-cultural St. Louis shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The golden years of living in partnership with the French were over, Red Eagle said. The American government regarded Native Americans as less than equal and moved them from their centuries-old homelands. In some cases, the U.S. committed genocide.

Epidemics of European illnesses ravaged Native American populations. In 1808, Osage leaders peacefully handed over their Missouri lands and hunting grounds near the Osage River to the U.S. government at the Fort Osage Treaty.

The Osage wanted an advocate and began writing to the U.S. government asking it to dispatch “blackrobes” — Jesuits — to serve them, BigHorse said.

“The letters never got to Washington but were intercepted by a Quaker,” he said records show.

“Jesuits came to help us, teach us. They did not make us become Catholic,” BigHorse said. The Osage admired their charity, education and communal living. Most Osage eventually joined the Catholic Church, he said.

The first-ever Osage priest, Father Todd Nance of Tulsa, Father Christopher Daigle of the Pawhuska parish church, and Padberg will concelebrate Wednesday’s Osage Mass at College Church on the SLU campus. Red Eagle will proclaim the first reading in Osage, then repeat it in English. The delegation and St. Louis Osage will sing three hymns in Osage.  

Abundance of Osage art

Over the past two years Red Eagle and more recently Chief BigHorse and Finsel, worked with major St. Louis cultural institutions preparing for the 250th anniversary year’s Osage week.

Credit Provided by the Sheldon Art Galleries
"Mohongo, an Osage woman" from McKenny and Hall, The Indian Tribes of North America.

They teamed with theSheldon Art Galleries, the Art Museum, the Mercantile Library, the Missouri History Museum, and Osage art collector University of Missouri-St. Louis history professor J. Frederick Fausz. The Osage were astounded at the abundance of Osage art and other material in St. Louis, Finsel said. Much Osage art here is rarely exhibited. Five rarely displayed Mississippian sculptures, a highlight when St. Louis Science Center was a museum  at Oak Knoll Park in Clayton, have a prominent place in the Sheldon Galleries' show.

“It is some of the best Mississippian art anywhere,” Ahlberg Yohe said.

Within 70 years Of the Louisiana Purchase the Osage had lost 90 percent of its population, all the land they had farmed and hunting grounds. The great herds that provided the lean protein were nearly decimated.

In 1906 Osage leaders divided their Oklahoma reservation lands and allotted plots to the 2,229 living Osage heads of households. The Osage Nation Museum’s collection of 1000 photographs of those early 20th century allottees opens Wednesday at the Saint Louis University Museum.

Today the Osage Nation rolls have 17,769 members. Of them, 437 live in Missouri.

Highlights of this week’s free Osage-related events.

Now open

The Sheldon Art Galleries exhibit, "Imagining Founding of St. Louis," includes many Osage materials and images and runs through Aug. 23. The galleries, 3648 Washington Blvd., are open Tuesdays noon-8 p.m.; Wednesdays through Fridays from noon-5 p.m. and Saturdays, 10 a.m.–2 p.m.


11 a.m. Mass in Osage and English at St. Francis Xavier "College" Church, 3628 Lindell Blvd.

11 a.m.-4 p.m. Opening of Osage Tribal Museum’s Allottee Exhibit at Saint Louis University Museum of Art. 3663 Lindell Blvd. It runs through Dec. 14. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

2:30 p.m. Osage poet Carter Revard will read his poetry at the Saint Louis University Museum of Art. 


9 a.m.-noon Guides at the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine, 1 Rue St. Francois, Florissant, will show schoolrooms where Native American girls were educated first by St. Philippine Duchesne and her Religious of the Sacred Heart, later by the Sisters of Loretto. Jesuit Father Jean-Pierre DeSmet frequently celebrated Mass here. Morning tours continue through Saturday.

7 p.m. Osage Nation Chief Scott BigHorse, a Chouteau family descendent, speaks about “Interconnection: The Osage and the French in Early St. Louis” at Chatillon-DeMenil Museum House, 3325 DeMenil Place.


9 a.m., Osage Elder Eddy Red Eagle gives a traditional Osage blessing at Old St. Ferdinand Shrine.

Noon, Jill Ahlberg Yohe, St. Louis Art Museum assistant curator of Native American Art and Caitlin Donald, Osage/Ponca scholar speak on: "Children of the Middle Water: Osage Art Then, Now and Always," at the Sheldon Galleries, 3648 Washington Blvd.


 2:30 p.m. Kathryn Red Corn speaks about the Osage Tribal Museum collections at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.  

Additional Osage-related events in St. Louis are planned through September.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.