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Fort Osage

John F. Hess, Sr., Committee Chair

The Native Sons of Greater Kansas City was the catalyst in the late 1940's for the restoration of Fort Osage overlooking the Missouri River. Once the guardian of an unexplored frontier, historic Fort Osage was of the era when rugged men sought furs and found adventure along the Missouri River valley.

During Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's famous expedition, their attention was drawn to a bluff overlooking the Missouri River.  Clark noted the site, near the present-day Missouri-Kansas border, in a letter after his return from their journey.

"Directly opposite, on the south, is a high commanding position, more than seventy feet above high-water mark, and overlooking the river, which is here but little width. This spot has many advantages for a fort and trading-house with the Indians."

Years later, after he had returned safely from the expedition, Clark went back to look at that same spot. This time he was serving as superintendent of Indian Affairs, and his duty was to choose the location for a new trading post.

The post, called a factory, was needed because American settlers who were pushing westward were beginning to have deadly encounters with the Indians who had lived in the area for years. Also, the British had built trading factories west of the Great Lakes and were establishing close ties with the Indians.  At the same time, the Spanish in the Southwest were influencing the Indians to turn against Americans.

U.S. government officials knew they needed to establish friendly relations with Indians if they wanted to avoid a major confrontation. Clark proposed that a trading factory be built along the Missouri River and that the tribe of Osage Indians living seventy-five miles to the south be moved closer to that factory.

The War Department approved the idea in August 1808. George Sibley was chosen to run the factory, which would also be the site of a military post under the command of Captain Eli B. Clemson.

In September, the soldiers began constructing Fort Osage.  Nathan Boone, son of Daniel Boone, arrived at the fort with seventy-five Osage Indians from the Osage Nation's two major divisions - the Great and the Little Osage. Clark made them a proposal.  He wrote in his diary that he "informed them they had been in frequent habits of committing theft, murder and robbery on the citizens of the U.S. in this territory, and to effectively put a stop to all such acts in the future....I shall propose a line to be run between the U.S. and the Osage hunting lands; beginning at this place and running south to the River Arkansas, and all the land east of that line to be given up by the Osage to the U.S. forever..."

The Osage Indians agreed to the treaty, relinquishing their land in return for being allowed to hunt on U.S. land and to trade furs and pelts for other goods. The government was also to provide a blacksmith shop at the fort so items could be made and repaired for the Indians.

With the treaty successfully secured, Clark returned to St. Louis. Shortly after his departure, large groups of Osage began to arrive and set up their villages near the fort.

The factory, the largest in the nation, was also one of the most expensive to operate and build. It took in a large amount of furs, including beaver, fox, wolf, buffalo, and bear, in addition to deerskins.

The fort, which included barracks, a blacksmith shop, officers quarters, blockhouses, a garden, and the factory, attracted visits from people traveling through the area. "This was the happening place. The river was equivalent to I-70. No one would pass this fort without stopping."

Despite the constant comings and goings of people, the soldiers were often bored because there wasn't that much to do. "This was a lousy place to soldier." The pay wasn't great, either, with recruits earning five dollars a month, or sixty dollars a year, for their services. Although they passed the time by doing military chores or taking care of the garden, "their days were not thrilling. They spent time gambling and drinking, which was always a problem."

The soldiers were needed to keep peace in the area if the Indians decided to attack. However, the man most responsible for keeping the peace was George Sibley, who was in charge of the factory. He took it upon himself to learn more about the Indians' traditions. For instance, the Osage Indians thought it was an insult when people used their fingers to point, so they pursed their lips to gesture toward items instead. They also believed that whistling summoned the spirits of the dead. Because of Sibley's acts of kindness and his willingness to understand the Indians' traditions, he gained the respect of the Osage.

In 1813, the soldiers at Fort Osage were called to fight the British in the War of 1812, so the fort and the factory closed.  After the war, Sibley returned to the fort in 1815.

The factory continued to trade with the Indians, but it was its success that led to its demise. Private traders lobbied Congress to close trading factories, citing unfair competition. Congress sided with the lobbyists and discontinued the factory system in 1822, and the abandoned buildings soon fell into disrepair. The Osage Indians signed a new treaty in 1825 and moved to a site near present-day Wichita, Kansas before moving to the Oklahoma region in 1870.

The forgotten fort's fate was saved by the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas City and the Fort Osage Historical Society.  The efforts of these groups led to the construction of the present-day fort from 1941 to 1962. The structures were built following plans furnished by the War Department.

Now the recreated site attracts thousands of visitors annually from across the nation and worldwide. They come to tour the wooden structures and get a peek at life on the frontier. Visitors can first watch an orientation film and wander through the new Fort Osage Education Center before walking down to the fort. There, they can tour the small barracks where soldiers had to sleep two to a bunk or climb up in the blockhouses where sentries stood duty twenty-four hours a day. Along the way, they will encounter living interpreters playing various roles, and are eager to explain what daily life was like during the 1800s.

The fort, which is run by Jackson County Parks and Recreation, is a popular field trip destination of area schools. There are also special weekend events throughout the year. By offering these special celebrations and events along with the regular tours, the fort hopes to heighten people's curiosity about America's past. History in a book can be dry. Fort Osage wants to show that history can be fun and bring that period of time to life.

--John Hess Sr.