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History Osage Hunting

Osage Hunting

ArrowheadsThe Osage burned the forest to keep it open to hunt game. Fire allowed grass and other plants for grazing to grow on the sunny ground under the widely spaced trees. Lightning and Indians set fires that were carried by the grass across large areas. This use of fire allowed prairie-like conditions to spread eastward into areas that are now forest. 

Because of frequent fires, the forest was not as dense then as it is now. Open woodlands were common on sunny south slopes and ridgetops. Savannas, where widely spaced trees grew over a carpet of grasses and wildflowers, were widespread. Glades are places where thin soils prevent easy growth of hardwoods. Now often overgrown with cedar, they were also kept open by fire. 

The Osage were driven out of the state by the white settlers. Their legacy, and that of the Indians before them, can be seen in the overgrown savannas that still dot the watershed. You can see restored savannas in Caney Mountain Conservation Area. Carefully controlled periodic burning is returning savannas and glades to their presettlement appearance. 

The early traveler and writer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft never saw any Osage Indians on his 1818-1819 trip through the Ozarks. That's because the Osage only came to the Ozarks during the warmer months of the year for long hunting trips. During Schoolcraft's winter journey, the Osage were snug in their villages on the Osage and Missouri Rivers to the north. 

Schoolcraft did, however, come across many signs of Osage Indians. He found a hunting encampment near Tecumseh. He also found three deserted camps in the Swan Creek Valley, along a trail called the Osage Trace. Swan Creek Watershed is west of the Beaver Creek Watershed, so it is two watersheds west of Bryant Watershed. The Osage returned to their encampments every year for hunting. Schoolcraft wrote that the three camps looked like they could hold 100 people each. Men, women and children went on the long hunting trips. Some elders stayed behind in the villages to tend the crops. 

The huts in the hunting camps were called wigwams and were shaped like dome tents. The Osage made wigwams from small bent hickory poles that they covered with animal skins or rush mats. They arranged the wigwams in a large circle. In the center of the circle was a wooden scaffold for drying meat. Schoolcraft wrote that the chief's hut was easy to spot because it was larger than the others. The camps didn't look like abandoned settlements. They were very neat and well ordered because the Osage used them every year. 

Schoolcraft was impressed with the careful ways of Indians he had seen in other places. He described how an Indian would make a small fire by gathering pieces of dry wood from the forest floor and sit close to it for warmth. He contrasted this with the white hunter's custom of cutting large green trees and making a huge bonfire, then sitting far back from the fire to avoid getting burned. 

The Indians only killed what they needed. They ate, preserved or used the bones and skin of everything they killed. Schoolcraft wrote that he once saw a white hunter carrying the meat and skins of five bears stop to kill three buffalo for "no other object than the sport of killing them. Behavior like that by white hunters was a major source of the trouble "between the red and white hunters of Missouri." 

Source: Schoolcraft's "Journal of His Trip into the Interior," recently reissued and updated by Dr. Milton Rafferty under the title Rude Pursuits and Rugged Peaks, University of Arkansas Press.