Compendium of History Reminiscence and Biography of Western Nebraska

Otoes a Powerful Nation

The Otoes were once a powerful nation, and lived about twenty miles above the Platte on the southern bank of the Missouri. Being reduced, they emigrated to the neighborhood of the Pawnees, under whose protection they were then living. Their village was on the south side of the Platte, about thirty miles from its mouth, and their number was two hundred men, including about thirty families of Missouris (all that were left), who were incorporated with them. Five leagues above them, on the same side of the river, resided the Pawnees. This nation, once among the most numerous of those inhabiting the valley of the Missouri, had gradually been dispersed and broken until they were now greatly reduced in numbers. They consisted of four bands. The first was the one just mentioned, of about five hundred men, to whom of late .years had been added the second band called Republican Pawnees, from their having lived previously on the Republican branch of the Kansas river, whence they emigrated to join the principal band on the Platte. They amounted to nearly two hundred and fifty men. The third was the Pawnees Loups, or Wolf Pawnees, who reside on the Wolf fork of the Platte, about ninety miles from the principal Pawnees. These numbered two hundred and eighty men. The fourth band originally resided on the Kansas and Arkansas, but in their war with the Osages they were so often defeated that they at length retired to the Red river, where they formed a tribe of four hundred men. To the westward of the Pawnees, upon the Platte, were a number of wandering tribes supposed to have previously been of the Padoueahs, previously mentioned.

The expedition again started up the Missouri on the 27th of July. At ten and a half miles, there was seen and examined a curious collection of mounds, on the south side of the river. Not far from a low piece of land and a pond was discovered a tract of about two hundred acres covered with these prehistoric earthworks of different heights, shapes and sizes, some of sand and some of both earth and sand, the largest being nearest the river. After making fifteen miles the party encamped for the night on the Nebraska side of the Missouri. The next day (July 28) they reached the place where the Iowa Indians formerly lived. These were a branch of the Otoes, and emigrated thence to the river Des Moines. The hunter to the expedition in the evening brought to the camp a Missouri Indian whom he had found with two others, dressing an elk. They were perfectly friendly, gave him some of the meat, and one of them agreed to accompany him in. He was one of the few remaining Missouris living with the Otoes. He belonged to a small party, whose camp was four miles from the river. He reported that the body of the Otoes were hunting buffalo on the plains. He appeared quite sprightly, and his language resembled that of the Osage, particularly in his calling a chief “inca.” This name was probably learned from the Spaniards of New Mexico. Captains Lewis and Clark sent the Indian back the next morning with one of their own party, with an invitation to the Indians to meet them on the river above, and the expedition proceeded on its way. What transpired during the next six days is best given in the record of the company:

Sunday, July 29. We soon came to a northern bend in the river, which runs within twenty yards of Indian Knob creek, the water of which is five feet higher than that of the Missouri. In less than two miles we passed Bower’s creek on the north (side of the Missouri), of twenty-five yards width. We stopped to dine under a shade near the highland on the south, and caught several large catfish, one of them nearly white and all very fat. Above this highland we observed the traces of a great hurricane which passed the river obliquely from northwest to southeast, and tore up large trees, some of which, perfectly sound and four feet in diameter, were snapped off near the ground. We made ten miles to a wood on the north (of the Missouri), where we encamped.

July 30. We went early in the morning three and a quarter miles, and encamped on the south (Nebraska) in order to wait for the Otoes. “July 31. The hunter supplied us with deer, turkeys, geese and beaver. One of the last was caught alive and in a very short time perfectly tamed. Catfish are very abundant in the river, and we have also seen a buffalo fish. One of our men brought in yesterday an animal called by the Pawnees ehocar toosh, and by the French blair eau or badger.

“We waited with much anxiety the return of our messenger to the Otoes. The men whom we dispatched to our last encampment returned without having seen any appearance of its having been visited. Our horses, too, had strayed, but we I were so fortunate as to recover them at the distance of twelve miles. Our apprehensions were at length relieved by the arrival of a party of about fourteen Otoe and Missouri Indians, who came at sunset on the 2d of August, accompanied by a Frenchman, who resided among them and interpreted for us. Captains Lewis and Clark went out to meet them, and told them that they would hold a council with them in the morning. In the meantime we sent them some roasted meat, pork, flour and meal, in return for which they made us a present of watermelons. We learned that our man Liberte had set out from their camp a day before them. We were in hopes that he had merely fatigued his horse or lost himself in the woods and would soon return, but we never saw him again.

August 3. The next morning the Indians with their six chiefs were all assembled under an awning formed with the mainsail, in the presence of all our party, paraded for the occasion. A speech was then made, announcing to them the change in the government, our promises of protection and advice as to their future conduct. All the six chiefs replied to our speech, each in his turn, according to rank. They expressed their joy at the change in government; their hopes that we would recommend them to their great father (the president of the United States) that they might obtain trade and necessaries. They wanted arms as well for hunting as for defense, and asked our mediation between them and the Mahas (Omahas), with whom they were now at war. We promised to do so, and wished some of them to accompany us to that nation, which they declined for fear of being killed by them. We then proceeded to distribute our presents. The grand chief of the nation not being of the party, we sent him a flag, a medal and some ornaments for clothing. To the six chiefs who were present we gave a medal of the second grade to one Otoe chief and one Missouri chief; a medal of the third grade to two inferior chiefs of each nation, the customary mode of recognizing a chief being to place a medal around his neck, which is considered by his tribe as a proof of his consideration abroad. Each of these medals was accompanied by a present of paint, garters and cloth ornaments of dress, and to this we added a canister of powder, a bottle of whisky and a few presents to the whole, which appeared to make them perfectly satisfied. The airgun, too, was fired, and astonished them greatly. The absent chief was an Otoe named Heahrushhah, which in English degenerates into Little Thief. The two principal chieftains present were Shongotongo, or Big Horse, and Wethea, or Hospitality; Shosguscan, or White Horse, an Otoe. The first an Otoe, the second a Missouri.

“The incidents just related induced us to give to this place the name of Council Bluffs. The situation of it is exceedingly favorable for a fort and trading factory, as the soil is well calculated for bricks, and there is an abundance of wood in the neighborhood, and the air being pure and healthful. It is also central to the chief resorts of the Indians – one day’s journey to the Otoes, one and a half to the great Pawnees, two days from the Mahas; two and a quarter from the Pawnees Loups village, convenient to the hunting ground of the Sioux, and twenty-five days’ journey to Santa Fe. “

After concluding the ceremonies of the council, Lewis and Clark set sail in the afternoon and encamped in what is now Nebraska, at a distance of five miles above Council Bluffs. The next day (August 5), after passing a narrow part of the river, they came to a place on the south side of the Missouri, where was a deserted trading house. Here one of the party had passed two years in trafficing with the Mahas. Fifteen miles from their previous encampment brought the expedition to a place where it was concluded would be a good stopping place for the night – where the hills on both sides of the river were twelve or fifteen miles from each other. From this point nothing of especial interest transpired during the next three days. Meanwhile a distance of nearly sixty miles was made, when (August 7) four men were sent back to the Otoe village in quest of the missing man, Liberte, also to apprehend one of the soldiers, who left the party on the 4th of the month under pretext of recovering a knife which he had dropped a short distance behind, and who it was feared had deserted. Small presents were also sent to the Otoes and Missouris, and a request that they would join the expedition at the Maha village, where a peace might be concluded between them. On the 11th of the month, after having made sixty miles farther up the Missouri, the expedition halted on the south side of the stream for the purpose of examining a spot where one of the great chiefs of the Mahas, named Blackbird, who had been dead about four years, was buried. He died of the small pox. This chief seemed to have been a person of great consideration in his nation. August 13 he brought the party at a distance of over forty miles from I31ackbird’s grave to a spot where, on the Nebraska side of the Missouri, a Mr. Mackay had a trading establishment in the years 1795 and 1796, which he called “Fort Charles.”

The diary of the expedition continues: “At fourteen miles (from the previous place of camping) we reached a creek on the south on which the Mahas reside, and at seventeen miles and a quarter formed a camp on a sandbar to the south side of the river, opposite the lower point of a large island. From this place Sergeant Ordway and four men were detached to the Maha village, with a flag and a present, in order to induce them to come and hold a council with us. They returned at 12 o’clock the next day, August 14. After crossing a prairie covered with high grass, they reached the Maha creek, along which they proceeded to its three forks which join near the village. They crossed the north branch and went along the south. The walk was very fatiguing, as they were forced to break their way through grass, sunflowers and thistles, all above ten feet high and interspersed with wild pea. Five miles from our camp they reached the position of the ancient Maha village. It had once consisted of three hundred cabins, but was burnt four years ago, soon after the small pox had destroyed four hundred men and a proportion of women and children. On a hill in the rear of the village are the graves of the nation, to the south of which runs the fork of the Maha creek. This they crossed where it was about ten yards wide, and followed its course to the Missouri, passing along a ridge of hill for one mile and a half and a long pond between that and the Missouri. They then recrossed the Maha creek and arrived at the camp, having seen no tracks of the Indians nor any sign of recent cultivation.

“On the morning of the 15th some men were sent to examine the cause of a large smoke from the northeast and which seemed to indicate that some Indians were near, but they found that a small party who lately passed that way had left some trees burning, and that the wind from that quarter blew the smoke directly toward us. Our camp lies about three miles northeast from the old Maha village, and is in latitude forty-two degrees, thirteen minutes and forty-one seconds. The accounts we have had of the effects of the small pox on that nation are most distressing. It is not known in what way it was first communicated to them, though probably by some war party. They had been a military and powerful people, but when these warriors saw their strength wasting before a malady which they could not resist, their frenzy was extreme. They burnt their village, and many of them put to death their wives and children to save them from so cruel an affliction, and that all might go together to some better country.

“On the 16th we still waited for the Indians. A party had gone out yesterday to the Maha creek, which was dammed up by the beaver between the camp and the village; a second went today. They made a kind of drag with small willows and bark, and swept the creek. The first company caught three hundred and eighteen fish; the second upwards of eight hundred, consisting of pike, bass, fish resembling salmon, trout, red horse, buffalo, one rock fish, one flatback, perch, catfish, a small species of perch called on the Ohio silver fish, a shrimp of the same size, shape and flavor of those about New Orleans and the lower part of the Mississippi. We also found very fat mussels, and on the river as well as the creek are different kinds of duck and plover.

Friday, 17. In the evening one of the party sent to the Otoes returned with the information that the rest were coming on with the deserter. They had also caught Liberte, but by a trick he made his escape. They were bringing three of the chiefs in order to engage our assistance in making peace with the Mahas.

August 18. In the afternoon the party arrived with the Indians, consisting of the Little Thief and Big Horse, whom we had seen on the 3d, together with six other chiefs and a French interpreter.

August 19. The chiefs and warriors being: assembled at 10 o’clock, we explained the speech we had already sent from Council Bluffs and renewed our advice.

“The next morning, August 20, the Indians mounted their horses and left us, having received a canister of whisky at parting. We then set sail, and after passing two islands on the north came to one on that side under some bluffs, the first bluffs near the river since we left Ayauwa (Iowa) village. Here we had the misfortune to lose one of our sergeants, Charles Floyd. He was yesterday seized with a bilious colic, and all our care and attention were ineffectual to relieve him. A little before his death he said to Captain Clark, ‘I am going to leave you.’ His strength failed him as he added, ‘ I want you to write a letter for me.’ He died with the composure which justified the high opinion we had formed of his firmness and good conduct. He was buried on the top of the bluff with the honors due a brave soldier, and the place of his interment was marked by a cedar post on which his name and the day of his death were inscribed. About a mile beyond this place, to which we gave his name, is a small river about thirty yards wide, on the north side (of the Missouri), which we called Floyd’s River, where we encamped. We had a breeze from the southeast, and made thirteen miles.”

On the 21st of August the party reached the mouth of the great Sioux river, where is now situated Sioux City, Iowa, and on the 27th of the same month reached the mouth of the James or Dakota river. Here they met and held a council with the Sioux Indians, a large body of whom were encamped nearby. This council was held at Calumet Bluffs on the Nebraska side of the Missouri, August 30. The Sioux were found by Lewis and Clark to be divided in ten separate tribes or bands Yanktons, Tetons of the Burnt Woods, Tetons-Okandandas, Tetons-Minnekenozzo, Tetons-Saone, Yanktons of the Plains, Wahpatone, Mendawarcarton, Wahpatoota and Sistasoone. It was estimated that the men of the entire nation in 1804 was over twenty-five hundred, representing a population of over ten thousand. From here on to the Rapid river (or as it was called by the French, Rivere qui Court, now the Niobrara) nothing of particular importance occurred, and here the expedition passed beyond sight of Nebraska soil. The expedition finally reached the Pacific Ocean, and returned down the Missouri in the summer of 1806.


Compendium of History Reminiscence & Biography of Western Nebraska, Alden Publishing Company, Chicago, 1912.

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