When the European explorers first encountered the Osage Indians (Wa-Zha-Zhe), in the mid 1600’s the Osage were the most powerful nation in North America, and had been so for centuries. In an 1808 treaty, the Osage ceded most of their land in Missouri and all in northern Arkansas. They were subsequently moved to the new “Indian territory”, Kansas.
Pahuska (White Hair), descendant of the old Chief Pahuska, established the Great Osage Village near the present town of Shaw in Neosho County, while the Little Osage made their village just west of Chanute, Kansas. In the early Kansas days, there was no Neosho or Labette county. These two counties were one, known as Dorn county, named after a government Indian “Agent”. The official reservation in Kansas was 50 miles wide, bordering present Oklahoma on the north, and extending west to the 100th meridian from a north-south line, 25 miles west of the Missouri line. All of their villages existed in the eastern part of this reservation, primarily along the banks of the Neosho and Verdigris rivers.
When the Osage signed the treaty of 1825 at St. Louis, they ceded all their lands to the United States, all of Oklahoma north of the Arkasas and Canadian Rivers, northwestern Arkansas, western Missouri and nearly half of Kansas.
The Osage at this time became part of the history of Kansas. It was during this period that father John Shoemaker (Schonmaker) established the Osage Mission, at the present site of St. Paul, Kansas in Neosho County. It became one of the most influential Roman Catholic Schools in the west. It was attended by many Osage boys and girls as well as children from other Indian tribes. There were also villages at Oswego (Heart Stays), Chetopa (Four Lodges), Baxter Springs, Coffeyville and Independence, as well as all along the Big Hill creek. In fact The Big Hills are one of the traditional 12 Osage bands, or clans.
As the “War in Kansas”, as the pre-Civil War era was characterized began, all of southeast Kansas was embroiled in the border wars. The Osage suffered greatly as intruders invaded the area in preparation for the pro or anti-slavery settlers invaded by the thousands and fought each other. When the Civil War started, both the Big Osage and Little Osage signed treaties with the Confederacy, due to the fact that the U.S. government never offered any treaty of war with the Osage. In actual practice, more of the Osage fought with, and assisted the North.
Southeast Kansas during the Civil War was of vital importance to both sides. The Confederacy hoped to use this area as a corridor to the north, and deployed spies and other agents to that end. This fact is best illustrated by an incident from May, 1863.
In 1863, the Claremore ‘Big Hills’ and the Little Osage Bands were all settled on the Verdigris near present day Independence Kansas, then known as Hay Town. There was an illegal settlement of 40 white settlers who lived in grass houses. This is also the area settled by a group of Quakers, as well as the original “little house on the prarie”, now immortalized by the Laura Ingalls book.
The incident mentioned above happened on May 15, when ‘Hard Rope’ and 8 of his men had left the Big Hill village after a visit. They intended to travel to the mission of Father Schonmaker, but encountered a group of 22 white men, near Drum Creek, south of Independence. Hard Rope approached the men, inquiring who they might be. The men told the Indian group that they were a detachment of Union soldiers from Fort Humboldt, on the upper Neosho. Hard rope replied that he knew every one of the Union soldiers from that fort, and he did not recognize any of them! Hard Rope then requested that they go to Fort Humboldt (now Humboldt, Kansas) to be identified. They ignored the request, and a shooting match ensued, killing one Osage.
Wisely, Hard Rope retreated and sent a runner to the nearby Big Hill village to request more warriors. When the reinforcements arrived, a running battle ensued. Had the white men known enough about Indian warfare to stay out on the open prarie, they may have survived this battle. Not knowing any better, they retreated to the woodlands lining the Verdigris, thus sealing their fate. Forced out onto a gravel bar, they were picked off, one at a time, while the Osage attacked from the shelter of the woods.
Twenty bodies of the white intruders were recovered, apparently two wounded men had escaped. The twenty bodies were soon beheaded and the heads proudly displayed on wooden poles. A search of the bodies discovered their intentions. They were actually Confederates who were sent to travel to the northern Kansas tribes (Kaw, Pawnee), to incite war against the United States. Thus, the Osage had most likely saved many white settlers in the northern parts of Kansas. Later in the War, 5 Osage scouts tracked and killed 2 Confederate soldiers in Southeastern Colorado on the very same type of mission.
One Battalion of Osage did serve the Confederacy under Stand Watie. Far more Osage served the U.S. under Colonel John Ritchie’s Second Indian Regiment in Kansas. Ritchie was an Abolitionist, woman’s rights supporter, teetotaler and general advocate for reform, who looked “eagerly and earnestly for the ultimate redemption of mankind from all oppressions, abuses and vices, of whatever nature and kind.” He was actively engaged in the cause of the Union throughout the Civil War, holding commands in both the Fifth Kansas Cavalry and the Indian “Home Guard”.