The Osage were originally known by Ni-U-Kon-Ska, which means meaning "Children of the Middle Waters." Today they call themselves Wah-Zhá-Zhi, which was translated by French explorers as Ouazhigi, which later became the English name Osage. Early settlers have said that the Osages were the largest Native people in North America, with the Osage men averaging over 6 feet tall. In war, they were feared by neighboring tribes.
The Osage language belongs to the Dhegihan branch of the Siouan stock of Native American languages, now spoken in Nebraska and Oklahoma. They originally lived among the Kansa, the Ponca, the Omaha, and the Quapaw in the Ohio Valley.
The Osage held high rank among the old hunting tribes of the Great Plains. From their traditional homes in the woodlands of present-day Missouri and Arkansas, the Osage would make semi-annual buffalo hunting forays out into the Great Plains to the west as well as hunt deer, rabbit, and other wild game in the central and eastern parts of their domain. They grew corn, squash, and other vegetables near their villages, and they harvested nuts and wild berries. So, in this sense, the Osage's lifestyle did not conform to either a strictly woodland Native American tribe nor a Great Plains people.
Friendly relations with the Osage enabled French fur trader René Auguste Chouteau to extend his business, and he monopolized trade with the tribe from 1794 to 1802.
Lewis and Clark reported that in 1802, the tribe comprised the Great Osage on the Osage River, the Little Osage upstream, and the Arkansas band on the Vermillion River, a tributary of the Arkansas River. The tribe then numbered some 5,500.
Wealthy fur trader Jean Pierre Chouteau, a half-brother of René Auguste Chouteau, became the United States agent for the tribe in 1804. He founded the Saint Louis Missouri Fur Company in 1809 with a family member, Auguste Pierre Chouteau. The Spanish imprisoned Auguste in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1817 but released him after several months. He actively traded with the Osage and made his home at Salina, Oklahoma.
In 1833, the Osage clashed with the Kiowa near the Wichita Mountains in modern day south central Oklahoma in an incident known as the Cutthroat Gap Massacre. The Osage cut off the heads of their victims and arranged them in rows of brass cooking buckets. Not a single Osage died in this attack. Later, Kiowa warriors, allied with the Comanche, raided the Osage and others.
In 1867, because of their scouting expertise, excellent terrain knowledge, and military prowess, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer employed Osage scouts in his campaign against Chief Black Kettle and his band of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in western Oklahoma near the Washita River. Chief Black Kettle and his band were taken by surprise in the early morning by Custer and his soldiers, believed to have been led there by Osage scouts. Chief Black Kettle was killed, along with others from both sides. This incident became known as the Battle of Washita River.
Between that first treaty conducted in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase and 1825, the Osages ceded their traditional lands across Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. They were first moved onto a southeast Kansas reservation in the Cherokee Strip, on which the city of Independence, Kansas now sits. Subsequent treaties and laws through the 1860s further reduced the lands of the Osage.
An act of Congress on July 15, 1870 provided that the remainder of the Osage land in Kansas be sold and the tribe relocated to Indian Territory in the Cherokee Outlet, becoming the only American Indian nation to buy their own reservation. The reservation is conterminous with present day Osage County, Oklahoma in the north-central portion of the state between Tulsa, Oklahoma and Ponca City, Oklahoma.
It was many years before the Osage recovered from the hardship suffered during their last years in Kansas, and their enforced removal to their new home. Many adjustments to their new way of life had to be made. During this time, Indian Office reports show nearly a 50 percent decline in the Osage population. This was due to inadequate medical supplies and scarcity of food and clothing.
For agricultural purposes, their new land was the poorest in the Indian Territory. They existed by small farming, and later with stock raising. The growth of the cattle raising industry and the fact that their new lands were covered with the rich Bluestem grass, proved to be the best grazing in the entire country.
The Osages had experience with the government and, through the efforts of Principle Chief James Bigheart, negotiated in 1907 to maintain mineral rights to their new reservation lands, which was later found to have great amounts of crude oil. They were unyielding and held up statehood for Oklahoma before signing an Allotment Act.
Unlike most other tribes, the Osage unexpectedly stumbled upon a valuable natural resource on their reservation lands that allowed them to financially prosper. In 1894 large quantities of oil was discovered to lie deep beneath the vast prairie the tribe owned. Because of his recent discoveries of oil in southern Kansas, Henry Foster, a petroleum developer, approached the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to request that they allow him exclusive privileges to explore the Osage reservation for oil and natural gas. The BIA granted his request in 1896, with the stipulation Foster was to pay the Osage tribe at that time a 10% royalty on all sales of petroleum produced on the reservation. The rise in production over the next 10 years prompted Congress to pass the Osage Allotment Act on June 28, 1906. This act states all persons listed on tribal rolls prior to January 1, 1906 or born before July 1907 would be allocated a share of the reservation's subsurface natural resources, regardless of blood quantum.
After mineral leases were auctioned by the tribe and explored, the oil business on the Osage reservation boomed. Overnight, Osage share holders became in the words of many the "richest people in the world". When royalties peaked in 1925, annual headright earnings were $13,000. A family of 4 who were all on the allotment role would earn $52,800, comparable to approximately $600,000 in today's economy. Although the Osage Allotment Act protected the tribe's petroleum interests, the surface land was sold freely by any adult of a sound mind. In the time between 1907 and 1923, thousands of acres of land that was formerly restricted was sold or leased to non-Indian persons. Many Osage at this time did not understand the intricacies or value of these contracts and were promptly swindled by greedy businessmen.
Another trick used by non-Indian Americans to cash in on the new found Osage wealth was to marry in to a family that had headrights. This tactic took a shocking and heinous turn in 1921 when a white man Ernest Burkhart married into an Alottee family and with the help of his uncle and brother plotted to murder those that would inherit the headrights. This became known as the Osage Indian Murders and went so far as to receive attention from Federal law enforcement. This violence finally caused Congress to pass legislation limiting inheritance of headrights to only those with Osage Indian blood and required those with no degree of Osage Indian blood to sell their shares to the tribe. Today, headrights have become split up among the Osage descendants of those who originally possessed them, although it is estimated that 25% of headrights are owned by non Osage people. The social consequences of the oil boom for the Osage Nation have been depicted in John Joseph Mathews' semi-autobiographical novel Sundown (1934).
The historian Willard Hughes Rollings in 2004 penned Unaffected by the Gospel: Osage Resistance to the Christian Invasion, 1673-1906: A Cultural Victory, published by the University of New Mexico Press in Albuquerque, a study of how Christian missionaries tried largely in vain to win converts among the tribe.