Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Osage in a Strange Land

This portrait of an Osage woman named Mohongo was issued in the McKenney & Hall History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1837-44). It shows her holding her two year old daughter, who is playing with a Presidential medal with the profile of Andrew Jackson. One of 117 portraits of Native Americans included in this important volume, it portrays an individual whose adventures leading up to her portrait being painted are among the most interesting of any of the Indians included in the volume.


Beginning with Columbus and continuing thereafter on a regular basis, Native Americans were shipped off to Europe, often unwillingly, as objects of curiosity. Europeans, even into modern times, have been fascinated by the colorful and out-of-the-ordinary cultures and appearance of American Indians, and there have always been those who took advantage of this by bringing these “exotics” across the Atlantic for their own purposes. The Indians have been displayed, examined, interviewed, put on stage and otherwise used by others for hundreds of years.


The Osage were a tribe which had originated along the Ohio River, but had moved westward to the Great Plains by the mid-17th century. They became the dominant power in the region by the 18th century and soon developed trade and diplomatic contacts with the French, who were most impressed by their appearance, fierceness and dignity.


In 1723, Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont established Fort Orleans on the Missouri River, the first European post on that river. In 1725 he took a group of their chiefs, including one Osage, to Paris to show them the power and glory of France. The “sauvages” proved a great novelty and generated huge interest throughout France. They were feted, dined, went to the opera, and were given gold-trimmed coats and cock hats and other gaudies. Their visit was a popular success and the Indians seemed equally impressed, stories of their trip passing down over the years after their return.


The Osage maintained their relations with the French in subsequent years, doing extensive trade with René Auguste Chouteau of St. Louis. In the 1820s, the Osage became acquainted with a friend of Chouteau’s, David Delaunay. This led, in 1827, to the Osage being taken to France by Delaunay for an eventful and not so successful, two year visit. About this trip there is a fair bit of graphic illustration and documentary information, but there is much about the Osage’s visit to Europe in 1827 which remains unclear.


The main problem is that there are two conflicting sources of information. One consists of a number of pamphlets which were published in France during the Osage’s visit. The original source of the story told in these pamphlets was likely Delaunay himself and they present a generally positive report. The other source is the biography of Mohongo, one of the Osage travelers, that appeared in the McKenney & Hall History of the Indian Tribes of North America. That account takes a much dimmer view on the whole episode.


According to the French pamphlet accounts, the Osage instigated the idea of visiting France on their own, inspired by the stories they heard of the earlier visit of 1725. According to the pamphlets, initially 25 Osage planned to make the trip and spent four years raising money for it. Eventually the number dropped to 12 and then a boat full of furs, which they were planning to sell in St. Louis, overturned and they lost everything. They supposedly then met David Delaunay in St. Louis and he agreed to take a small party with him to France.


This is not the story as told by McKenney & Hall. There it was Delaunay’s idea to take the Osage to France in order to profit by exhibiting them in various venues; “decoyed from the boarders of Missouri, by an adventurer, whose intention was to exhibit them in Europe for the purpose of gain.” Supposedly they were impressed with Delaunay’s wearing an American uniform and they were further persuaded by Paul Loise, a Frenchmen who had been appointed by Meriwether Lewis in 1808 as Osage interpreter.


Whatever the case, in 1827, a small party set out for France from St. Louis. It included Delaunay, Loise, M. Tesson, another Frenchmen, and six Osage. These consisted of Little Chief, Washingsabba (or Black Spirit), Marcharthitahtoongah (or Big Soldier), Minckchatahooh, and two women. These Mohongo, also known as Sacred Sun, and Gretomih, or Hawk Women. The status of these women is unclear, for Mohongo is said to be the wife of Little Chief or possibly Black Spirit, and Hawk Woman is said to be Little Hawk’s wife or cousin.


This group arrived in France on July 27, 1827. The handsome and exotic Osage brought the romantic American West to life in France and thousands swarmed the docks to see them. They attended the theater in Havre, where they were the object of great curiosity, and the throng was so intrusive that during the intermission they left and returned to their hotel. They later moved on to Rouen, where they attended an opera performance, which seemed to go better than their first visit to a theater. It was at the Rouen opera that an artist drew their picture, an image which subsequently appeared in prints published in France and Germany, feeding the immense public fascination with the wild Indians.


The Osage continued on to Paris and continued to be a huge hit. Delaunay placed advertisements of their appearances at the theater or other events and attendance was tremendous. Supposedly the only competing attraction in Paris at the time was the arrival of a giraffe at the Jardin du Roi. Delauney organized a Fête Extraordinaire, again charging a fee, where there was a balloon assent (in which Little Chief went up) and Indian dances by the Osage. More prints were made, and vendors sold Indian dolls, work bags with pictures of the Osage embroidered on them, bronze Osage paperweights, and even Indian figures made of spiced bread. The high point of their trip—at least from the French viewpoint—was an audience with King Charles X at St. Cloud on August 21st.


Eventually, though, interest faded and soon the unhappy Osage were wandering around Europe as Delaunay tried to revive the inflow of receipts and perhaps also to avoid creditor. In the winter of 1828-29, Delaunay was jailed for debt; at that time either in jail or just on the lam, Delaunay disappeared from their lives. In January 1829, a newspaper in January reported that “The Osage abandoned at at Fribourg, Breslau, by their conductor have been brought here [Munich] by a friend of humanity; they find themselves in the greatest destitution, suffering from hunger...”


To add to their travails, Mohongo had given birth to one or two daughters about six months after arriving in France. If she had twins, it seems that she gave up one of the children for adoption to a wealthy Belgian woman, for by the winter of 1829, she had only one daughter with her.


In financial straits and left in a strange land, the Osage eventually made it back to France, where they did find help in their desire to return to their American home. They had split into two groups, one of which connected with Bishop William DuBourg, who had got to know the Osage when he resided in St. Louis from 1818 to 1823. The bishop was able to get this group back to the United States via Bordeaux.


The other group received help by money being raised for their passage by a subscription supported by none-other than the Marquis de Lafayette, who supposedly gave them medals with his likeness on them. This group sailed back from Havre to Norfolk in late 1829. It was then that Thomas McKenney heard of the return of the Osage and brought them to Washington before sending them back to St. Louis; it was during this visit that Mohongo’s portrait was painted by Charles Bird King.


Not all the Osage made it back to America, for either two or three died of small pox on the trip back. The survivors did return to their tribal lands, where the History of the Indian Tribes of North America reports that “although they suffered much from the treachery of one of our race…they were indebted to the white man for many acts of kindness and sympathy during their novel and adventurous journey.” (Vol. I, p. 22)


In 1833, Mohongo and Little Chief were seen in 1833 on the Neosho River, and also that year Little Chief was at the treaty conference at Fort Gibson. Big Soldier lived until 1844 and he would proudly show off his Lafayette medal. French tourist Victor Tixier met him in 1840, saying that he was a minor chief of great pomposity, but Big Soldier was befriended by John Mix Stanley, who painted his picture in 1843, the year before he died.


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