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Posted on: September 15, 2014

Fort Osage Exhibit Focuses On 19th Century Native Americans

Sacred Sun

The adage "a picture is worth a thousands words" can be traced back to the early 20th Century, when use of photographs became a standard newspaper practice. More than 2,000 years ago, the ancient Roman Horace said, "A picture is a poem without words."

But sometimes for a picture's true meaning to come into a focus -- for its poetry to be fully appreciated -- a few words accompanying it are necessary.

For the last few years, original prints plucked from the pages of the History of the Indian Tribes of North America, a three-volume collection of hand-colored engravings of Native Americans published from 1836 to 1844, have adorned the auditorium walls in the Fort Osage Education Center. They are striking images. They would often catch the eye of visitors to the center, which opened in 2007 next door to the National Fort Osage Landmark.

Now through a new exhibit, Indian Dignitaries in the Lower Missouri, words are helping these pictures tell their stories. The exhibit, created in-house by the Fort Osage Site Administrator Kate Warfield and Museum Curator John Peterson, is on display at the Education Center now through November 25.
"We had all these beautiful original prints from History of the Indian Tribes in North America hanging on the walls in the auditorium downstairs, but with no interpretation," said Warfield. "We wanted to put words with the pictures. We were interested in telling the story of some of the historical characters in these portraits. As it turns out, many of them had a direct connection with Fort Osage."

Tracing The Origins Of Missouri Back To Fort Osage

How historically significant are some of these individuals?

Mandan chief Shahaka (English translation "White Coyote") befriended Lewis and Clark, making such a significant impression on the two explorers that he accompanied their expedition back to St. Louis. Then he traveled to Washington, D.C., where he meet President Thomas Jefferson. Upon his return to home in the Dakotas, Shahaka passed through Fort Osage.

When William Clark returned to our region in 1808 to construct the fort, America's first military outpost on what was then the western frontier, Le Soldat du Chene, whose portrait is featured in the exhibit, signed a treaty on behalf of the Osage tribe that led to developing the Missouri Territory.

"The creation of the State of Missouri can be traced to that treaty signed right here at Fort Osage," said Peterson.

Indian Dignitaries in the Lower Missouri was created over several months. Peterson and Warfield produced interpretive panels to accompany each portrait now on display.

"I think Fort Osage acquired these prints back in the 1960s," Peterson said. "They're in excellent condition. People used to take pictures like these out of the books, frame them and transform them into works of art. They're really interesting. Kate had the inspiration to put the pictures into an in-house exhibit and let people discover the connection many of these Native Americans had to Fort Osage, to our local history."

Thomas McKenney, an avid advocate for Native Americans in the first half of the 19th Century -- he served as Superintendent of Indian Affairs (1824-1830) -- accumulated the portraits later published in History of the Indian Tribes of North America. While the Fort Osage collection of prints from the three-volume set is extensive, it is not complete.

"Having a whole set of the prints is rare. A History of the Indian Tribes of North America book completely intact, every page still in place, is extremely rare," Peterson pointed out. "That book's value would be in the six-figure range." (Warfield described the McKenney's books as "being what we'd call coffee-table books.")

The exhibit may eventually be moved permanently to the Fort Osage Education auditorium, Peterson added.

County Executive Mike Sanders' praised the initiative that Peterson and Warfield showed in creating Indian Dignitaries in the Lower Missouri, saying, "Too often we think of our origins in this area as beginning with the Lewis and Clark expedition. I like that this exhibit concentrates on the Osage people and the other Native American tribes who were here long before Lewis and Clark. In some cases we have portraits of individuals who interacted directly with Lewis and Clark -- helped show them the way, so to speak. Some of these stories are historically important; some are personally touching like the story Mohongo."

The 'Hardships' Of Mohongo

Mohongo ("Sacred Sun"), an Osage woman, may actually have been born at Fort Osage in 1809. In her brief life -- "it is believed smallpox" caused her death at only 27 years old, Peterson said -- Mohongo may have become a mother at just 14, traveled to France as part of an Osage delegation, and then while essentially trapped overseas when funding for the group's trip collapsed, gave birth to twin daughters. Only one of twins would return to America with her mother.

"A wealthy woman adopted the other twin," Peterson said. "The reason is unclear. Europeans were at the time fascinated with Native Americans. The other twin, Maria, did return to America with Mohongo, and Thomas McKenney commissioned a painting of Mohongo with a child believed to be Maria."
The State Historical Society of Missouri describes how Mohongo's trip to France in 1827 went from one that began with her and her companions being "honored guests" to one filled with "hardships." The six Osage who made the trip spent four years hunting game and collecting furs to finance the journey, which French-born St. Louisian David Delaunay organized. He served as the Osage's guide when they arrived in France. The French were captivated by the 18-year-old Mohongo: "According to French newspaper descriptions and drawings, the six Osage looked exotic and interesting. Sacred Sun was particularly beautiful with her large, lively eyes and small frame."

But in early 1828, with the group's money having run out, the Osage were abandoned in Europe, after Delaunay was imprisoned for not paying his bills. Mohongo, who had anxiously wanted to give birth in her tribal village, delivered her twin daughters in Belgium, instead. Both girls were given French names. For two more years, the Osage struggled to survive and find a way back home until the Marquis de Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolutionary war, arranged for their safe passage back to America.

Mohongo's historical status was affirmed when the United States christened a gunboat in 1865 the USS Mohongo.

"We found out there are a lot of fascinating stories like Sacred Sun's to go with these portraits," Peterson said. "Each of these portraits represents a real flesh and blood human being. This exhibit is about them and the lives they led."

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