Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Osage Mission: The Story of Catholic Missionary Work in Southeast Kansas

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Osage Mission: The Story of Catholic Missionary Work in Southeast Kansas

Article excerpt

In 1820, Osage chiefs traveled from southeast Kansas to St. Louis to ask Bishop Louis DuBourg to visit their villages, promising that "he could pour waters on many heads." Through their experience with French traders, the Osage had come to trust Catholic priests; thus, as Protestant clergy began to petition the government for the right to establish missions on Osage lands, the chiefs turned to the "Chief of the Black Robes." By negotiating a relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, the Osage hoped to preserve their identity as "Children of the Middle Waters." The author examines the ensuing relationship between the Osage and the Jesuit priests.

Keywords: Jesuit Fathers; Osage Indians; Catholic Missions; Kansas history

When the first Jesuit missionaries to arrive in southeast Kansas alighted from the ox-drawn wagon train that had brought them from St. Louis over the course of fourteen long days, they were enthusiastically greeted by a large group of expectant Osage men, women, and children. As Father John Bax, one of the priests, recalled: "It would be impossible to paint for you the enthusiasm with which we were received." Interestingly, Bax was not sure he shared the Osage's joy. As he reminisced in 1850, "At first sight of these savages, I could not suppress the pain I felt. . . . Half-serious, half-jesting, I thought that a truly savage portion of the Lord's vineyard had been given to me to cultivate."1

As this vignette reveals, the relationship that developed between the Osage peoples and the Roman Catholic Church in southeast Kansas in the nineteenth century was complex. In what follows, the contours of this relationship will be explored by analyzing the ability of the Osage people and Jesuit priests to construct a common, mutually comprehensible world in spite of cultural misunderstandings, fear, and religious bigotry.

Like most indigenous peoples, the precontact history of the Osage is shrouded and obscured in the darkness of early American prehistory. What is known about the early history of the Osage can be summarized as follows. At some point, a large group of Dhegian-Siouan speakers, composed of Quapaw, Osage, Kansas, Omaha, and Ponca peoples, left the eastern forests of the Ohio Valley and migrated across the Mississippi River; scholars disagree about the reason for the move. Once the Osage had crossed the Mississippi, the tribes then separated. The Osage settled along the Great Plains prairies where they established villages near the headwaters of the river that became known as the Osage. Adapting to this location, the Osage merged their older agricultural way of life with elements more in keeping with their new prairie existence. Because their new home was a transition zone between eastern forests and western plains, they were able to keep many of their older ways. However, significant changes also occurred to both their way of life and collective cultural identity. The Osage referred to themselves as "the Children of the Middle Waters," and, from the standpoint of both history and culture, this name was fitting. The Osage way of life was a unique blend of woodland and grassland cultural patterns.2 In addition, by learning to creatively exploit their geographical position, the Osage developed a cultural predilection for compromise and carefully cultivated the art of negotiation from "the middle" to preserve their way of life.

In the nineteenth century, however, the Osage discovered that their greatest asset- their geographical location- had become a heavy liability. Given the location of their villages and their proximity to the Mississippi River, the Osage were among the first western tribes to feel the impact of the aggressive federal and state policy of Indian removal in the early-nineteenth century. In the 1820s, more than 6000 Cherokee were forcibly moved to settlements along the White and Arkansas Rivers while Creek and Choctaw people were relocated into the Ouachita Mountains south of the Arkansas River. …

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