NATIVE AMERICAN Early Contact
How did contact with white settlers affect population, health, the economy, and ecology on Native American lands?
Early Contact Along the Missouri
Research compiled by: James S., Makenzy N., Ari M.
At trading posts on the Missouri River, French and American traders exchanged beads for things that could help them settle and goods to send back to their commanders in St. Louis. When the hunters gathered enough furs, especially from beavers, they gave them to their wives so that they could prepare the pelt. Using the brains of the animal to treat the pelt made the pelts smoother and longer lasting. After smothering the pelts with brains, the wives would get a stack of fifty pelts and canoe them upriver to take them to the nearest trading post.
The Native Americans wanted beads and metal goods while the Americans and French wanted animal pelts for clothing and hats. The most traded item was beaver fur and beads for Native American moccasins and decorations. Some people decided to trade alcohol to the Native Americans even though they knew that the Native Americans didn’t handle alcohol very well. Some fur traders got married to Native American women. Intermarraige helped these early settlers become friends and form partnerships with various tribes. Sometimes to become friends, American and French fur traders would trade tobacco and smoke "peace pipes" with local chiefs to form partnerships and get better deals while trading.
For over a thousand years, Omaha Native People lived near what is today the Missouri River. Living in earth lodges, they used the river for hunting, fishing, transportation, and farming. ( From the Nebraska Palladium, July 15th, 1854) In the early 1800s, whites began trading with the Omaha and Otoe people for animal fur. In 1822, Jean Pierre Cabanne established a trading post for this purpose.
At Cabanne’s post, near present day Dodge Park, Omaha Indians traded for essential items. Metal goods, beads, weapons, and alcohol were traded in return for beaver and buffalo fur. Because so many native people had become addicted to alcohol, Cabanne restricted its sale starting in the 1830s. Joshua Pilcher, an alcohol smuggler and land owner, tried to smuggle a shipment of alcohol to be sold to Native Americans. Cabanne stopped him by shooting his cannon across the bow of his boat and taking the whole shipment. Because of his interference, Cabanne was fired by John Jacob Astor and the trading post was closed in 1840.
Cabanne’s Post was important because it helped both whites and Omaha native people to trade and get needed items. It is a symbol of friendship because they helped each other be successful. Built without a protective pallisade, the trappers who lived and worked at Cabanne’s Post felt safe interacting with the native people.
Constructed in 1820, Fort Atkinson once contained over 1,000 American soldiers patrolling and living in the barracks. At least that number of local Native Americans camped nearby, trading with the soldiers for goods and guns. Since the fort was right next to the river the soldiers decided to farm most of their food. They also traded for furs and hunted for some of the meat they ate. The three nearby tribes were the Otoe, Omaha, and the Ponca. They all gathered from time to time at the fort to sign treaties with the local Indian Agent, the U.S. government ambassador.
Fort Atkinson was built on the side of the bluffs because the great view allowed the soldiers to keep track of what went up and down the Missouri River. Fort Atkinson’s location in proximity to three tribes was important to make sure that they were able to communicate and trade with each other. Fort Atkinson never needed to be defended from any wars or battles because they had good relationships with everyone around them. The soldiers built Fort Atkinson with cottonwood, because it was the only lumber available for them and brick was just too expensive. They didn’t know that cottonwood rotted easily, a fact that would lead to the fort's rapid deteroiration, forcing the soldiers to abandon it after only seven years.
Though most native and white interactions were peaceful at this time, in 1824 a misunderstanding between the Arikara and some whites near Souix City led to the deaths of several fur trappers. In response Fort Atkinson soldiers traveled upriver three hundred miles and fought the Arikara under the command of Colonel Henry Leavenworth. The Lakota (Sioux) joined with the American forces and won the battle. Fort Atkinson soldiers never engaged in combat with Native Americans after that.
The above photo shows the Council Bluffs and the chimneys of Ft. Atkinson as Karl Bodmer saw them in 1833. Courtesy of Ft. Atkinson State Historical Park
In the 1810s, French and American settlers began moving into the Native American land around what is today Omaha. In the Omaha area, whites and native tribes made peace through trading and treaties. Most of the treaties concerned who would be able to use and own the land around the Missouri River. Not everything was peaceful for the Omaha and whites. When the white settlers came, they brought a disease called smallpox that would kill millions of Native Americans, including almost ninety percent of the Omaha tribe. Also, the Omaha people did have conflicts with the Lakota (Souix) people of the Dakotas. Big Elk, the last full-blooded chief of the Omaha tribe, would lead his people through these changing times.
Although there were other Omaha chiefs after him, Big Elk, Ong pa tonga in his native tongue, was the last to have only native parents. During a time of great changes Big Elk wasn’t afraid to speak out for his tribe. He had a powerful ability to bring whites and native people together through his voice. Famous for his speeches, Big Elk traveled to Washington D.C. in 1821 and 1837 to tell the American government that his people cared about the land. He also asked for help in the conflicts with the Lakota. Toward the end of his life, he moved his people from Omaha to Bellevue to keep them safe. In 1846, Big Elk died from smallpox.
There are some questions around the chiefdom of Big Elk. Different sources claim that Big Elk may have been a “paper chief.” A paper chief is a native who was selected by the U.S. government as a spokesman for the tribe. There may have been other chiefs alongside Big Elk. In a speech to President James Monroe, Big Elk says that “I am a chief, but not the only one in my nation; there are other chiefs who raise their crests by my side.” He also says that “I was often reproached for being a friend, but when my father (whites) came amongst us he strengthened my arms and I soon towered over the rest.” (Big Elk, 4 February 1822)
Big Elk brought whites and the Omaha people together through his peace treaties with the American government. Through his speeches he became a symbol of peace for his people. Big Elk died in what is today Bellevue near his grandson, Logan Fontanelle's settlment. He received a Christian burial. Today his grave site memorializes his accomplishments and reminds us that he was a figure who brought whites and Native Americans together.
(Karl Bodmer paintings courtesy of Joslyn Art Museum. Special thanks to Dennis Milhelich, Gavin Flint, Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, Nebraska History Museum)
Thanks to Karl Bodmer
I thought we were going to interview Native Americans, but in my group we interviewed a historian and we went on tons of field trips. I learned that most Native Americans made peace with the whites by trading and through peace treaties. My favorite experience was going to Lincoln and running up the steps of the capitol building.