This chief of one of the most powerful Indigenous tribes ever to thunder across Oklahoma casts a legacy of enduring fascination and mystery. Gathering at least four wives and 37 children to himself, for many years he engineered sensational coups and military victories over others of America’s most formidable tribes, as well as Spanish, French, and American trappers and hunters who trespassed Osage lands.
It all came at a price, however, as Clermont’s Osages suffered many of their own devastating setbacks, failed to sustain the bursts of prosperity they enjoyed—usually at the expense of other Natives—and wound up with enemy tribes populating their land, economically beholden to the multiplying whites, and in fear and confusion, at last treating away most of that land.
Hereditary chief of the Osages, Clermont lost this mantle as a boy to another chief, Pawhuska, whom Western trading titan Pierre Chouteau aided. Lionhearted young American soldier and explorer James B. Wilkinson, who knew the leaders about whom he spoke, declared his thoughts on the matter:
“…though Cashesegra be the nominal (Osage) leader, Clermont, or the Builder of Towns is the greatest warrior and most influential man, and is now more firmly attached to the interests of the Americans than any other chief of the nation. He is the lawful sovereign of the Grand Osages, but his hereditary right was usurped by Pahuska (Pawhuska), or White Hair whilst Clermont was yet an infant. White Hair, in fact, is a chief of Chouteau’s creating, as well as Cashesegra, and neither has the power or disposition to restrain their young men from the perpetration of an improper act, fearing they should render themselves unpopular.”
Enemies and Battles
Fearsome of spirit and physical build—no less an observer than the famed American artist George Catlin adjudged the typical Osage man as standing between six and seven feet tall—Clermont’s people had battled for their lives all the way from their ancient warring with the Iroquois in Kentucky. Denied his rightful headship of the tribe, Clermont led a significant Osage band from present Missouri to the Verdigris River in present northeastern Oklahoma. There, in the 1790s—years before the United States took charge of the land through Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase—he founded a town at the site of modern Claremore (derivative of his name) and grew into the tribal leader in that region. His titled bona fides excited the Osages already in the area and drew other southern outliers there.
Clermont’s personal power and that of his band’s multiplied through the years, but so did their adversaries. His saga in present Oklahoma proved a long and often agonizing ordeal. Within a few years of his arrival, Cherokees began migrating to the region, due to increasing pressure from the U.S. Government. That government had consigned the two proud and powerful tribes to the same land!
It took the Federals years to exert much influence over the bitter and brutal situation they had spawned. Even then, they couldn’t prevent a sometimes near-continual cycle of bloodletting amongst both peoples.
Though he no doubt had plenty of blood on his own hands, Clermont often attempted to cooperate with both the Cherokees and the Americans to foment peace through the early decades of the 19th Century. Challenges littered his path, though, in all these endeavors.
For instance, though no one labored harder for the Osages than Clermont and the Chouteaus, they did so, often, at cross purposes with each other. The chief loathed the Chouteaus, whose influence had delivered the tribal crown to Pawhuska. The enmity perhaps extended even farther back, as something caused that powerful pioneer family to throw their support behind Pawhuska.
Worse, the young Osage warriors repeatedly proved difficult if not impossible to restrain from committing outrages against not only the Cherokees—whose physical stature, agrarian ways, and more European-American culture the hulking Osages mocked—but every other tribe in the present Southwest U.S.
Such actions triggered the most pitiable tragedy in the Osages’ marathon war with the Cherokees. As so often proved the case in tribal wars as well as Indigenous-white conflicts, it involved the massacre of mostly old men, women, and children while the bulk of their armed warriors hunted elsewhere. In this case, a powerhouse war party of perhaps 700 men—mostly Cherokees, but including Chickasaws, Choctaws, Delawares, whites, and others—slaughtered much of Clermont’s village in the 1817 “Battle” of Claremore Mound or the Strawberry Moon, near present Claremore.
In 1821, Clermont’s own son Mad Buffalo triggered another heartrending sequences when his Osage war party ambushed and killed several Cherokee hunters on the Poteau River in present eastern Oklahoma. This led to reprisal actions from both tribes, a large Osage campaign that turned back only after one of its leaders “dreamed a bad dream (that) foreboded evil,” then finally a piteous massacre near the Cimarron River, again of mostly Osage old men, women, and children by Cherokee warriors. The absent Osage warriors had departed on their annual buffalo hunt, believing their civilians shielded by U.S. soldiers in the area.
Over a decade later, while expected in Kansas following the latest treaty, Clermont’s Osage warriors instead wiped out more than 100 Kiowas in a similarly warrior-less enclave far southwest in present Comanche County (OKLAHOMANS 1, Chapter 3). Amidst such frequent bloodshed, Clermont presided over the continual and bitter chipping away, and movement, of the Osages’ homeland. Treaties forced upon the tribe wrested land from them in 1808, 1816, 1818, 1825, 1839, and 1865.
Washington Irving left a sparkling account in Tour of the Prairies of one Clermont meeting with his friend, famed U.S. Army commander Matthew Arbuckle, for whom modern day southern Oklahoma’s Arbuckle Mountains were named:
“Clermont…shrewd, intelligent, and wary…and Col. Arbuckle had a great regard for each other, but often disputed about Indian matters. Both were prone to beat around the bush. One evening he and the Colonel had a long talk in which Clermont played shy as usual. At length Col. Arbuckle got out of patience. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You have talked now for two hours and said nothing.’ ‘Brother,’ replied Clermont, ‘You have talked about as such and said about as little, so as it is growing late, I think’ (wrapping himself in his blanket) ‘I will go home.’”
After all the blood, loss, fear, and sorrow, the impact of Christian missionaries and their long, arduous labors among the Osages glimmered through an account late in Clermont’s life of a visit between him and his erstwhile foe A. P. Choteau:
“(I)n the evening the old Chief (Claremore) came in and entered into a long conversation about his troubles. He was poor, his hunting ground was occupied by enemies who were strong and threatened to destroy him, and he knew not what to do or which way to turn. Mr. Choteau declared that this was the first time he ever heard the Old Chief or any of the Osages address the Supreme Being.”
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Oklahomans Vol 2 :
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