La Salle’s Contact with the Otoe

Posted By BrokenClaw on April 18, 2007

It is not my intent to document every historical reference to the Otoe and Missouria tribes. Many of those references have been compiled in the Garland series book, Otoe and Missouria, which is cited at the bottom of this page, and by Alan H. Hartley for his dictionary slips research. I wrote this article in response to an email I received from a reader who questioned one particular phrase in my Otoe-Missouria History. You can read that dialogue in a separate post, Historical Accuracy, which will explain why I devoted a whole page to this one isolated historical reference.

The Meeting

In 1680, two years before his famed expedition down the Mississippi River, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle [aka Robert La Salle or Cavelier de La Salle] built a fortified camp along the Illinois River near the settlement of the Illinois Indians, which he named Fort Crévecoeur. His purpose was to establish friendly relations with the native population, and to learn as much as he could from them about the Mississippi River and the obstacles that might await him. In February of that year, he received two Otoe chiefs who had traveled from the west. La Salle’s official narrative, written in the third person in his Seventeenth Century French, reported the meeting this way:

Quelques jour auparavant et la 17 de Février, deux des plus considérables de la nation des Matoutanta, esloigneé de 80 ou 100 lieues à l’oust de la Grande-Riviere, arriverent pour les Francois.
L’un d’eux avoit à la ceinture un pied de cheval avec la peau d’une partie de la jambe qui luy de sac à pétun. Il dit qu’il l’avoit apporté d’un pays situé à cinq journées du sien, du costé de l’ouest, et dont les habitants se battoient à cheval avec des lances et avoient de longs cheveux. Ces circonstances firent connoistre qu’il parloit des Espagnols du Nouveau-Mexique, parce que les sauvages de ces quartiers ne laissent croistre leurs cheveux que d’un travers de doigt.

This brief passage has been interpreted by some to infer that the Otoes had engaged the Spaniards in battle by 1680. This conclusion appears on at least two websites about Otoe history:

  • Access Genealogy: Nebraska Indian Tribes. “In 1680 two Oto chiefs came to visit La Salle in Illinois and reported that they had traveled far enough west to fight with people using horses, who were evidently the Spaniards, a fact which proves their early westward range.”
  • Four Directions Institute: Otoe. “1680 Two Otoe chiefs visited La Salle in Illinois, told him of fighting Spaniards far to the west”

Translation of the Narrative

However, La Salle’s narrative does not, in fact, say that the Otoe fought the Spaniards. What it actually says is that the Otoe chief told him that a particular piece of equipment he carried, a petun [tobacco] pouch made from the hide of a horse, came from a country where the inhabitants fought on horseback. From the Otoe’s description, La Salle concluded that he was speaking of the Spaniards. That fact was more than a little interest to La Salle. Knowing that the Spaniards were venturing into the prairie, he knew that he needed to traverse and claim the Mississippi River soon, before the Spaniards beat him to it.

In 1901, Melville B. Anderson translated the entire La Salle narrative, including the Otoe passage:

Some days before, on the 17th of February, two chiefs of the Matoutanta [Otoe] tribe, living eighty or a hundred leagues west of the Great River, came to see the Frenchmen.
One of these had at his belt a horse’s hoof, and the skin of part of the leg, serving as a petun pouch. He said he had brought it from a country five or six days’ journey to the west of his own, where the inhabitants fought on horseback with lances and had long hair. These details showed that he spoke of the Spaniards of New Mexico, since the savages of those regions let their hair grow to the length of but a finger’s breadth.

Interpretation of the Narrative

It is difficult to ascertain from these few sentences exactly what the Otoe chiefs told La Salle about their contact with the Spaniards. Obviously, the report is only as good as La Salle’s interpreter at the moment. It’s possible that the Otoe told a detailed description of how they fought off the invading Spaniards, but that La Salle chose to report only the relevant fact that the Spaniards were moving to the northeast. The La Salle narrative is replete with descriptions of battles and conflicts between native tribes and European explorers, so it seems unlikely, if the Otoe chief had said they fought the Spaniards, that La Salle would have left that out of his report. Instead, he merely reported that the horseflesh was brought from a country [apporté d'un pays] where the inhabitants fought on horseback. The passage could just as easily be interpreted to mean that the Otoe had seen the Spaniards on horseback, or that they had heard tales of the Spaniards fighting on horseback, but it’s certainly not explicit that the Otoe had fought the Spaniards themselves.

Father Louis Hennepin, one of the missionaries who accompanied La Salle and was in his camp at the time, wrote his own narrative. He recounted many of the same events the week before and the week after, but he made no mention of the visit by the Otoe, so it appears that the La Salle passage is the one and only account of the meeting. In modern times, the foremost published historian of the Otoe-Missouria, Berlin Basil Chapman, submitted testimony to the Indian Claims Commission. In his statement about the non-aggressive nature of the Otoe, he referenced only the incident of 1720 and made no reference to anything earlier.

The websites listed above do not cite an author or reference for their statements, so it’s unknown if they drew their conclusion from a reading of the original document, or if they were merely repeating the conclusion of someone else’s interpretation of it. Obviously, I have read the original French document and have reconciled Anderson’s translation with my own translation, but I draw no such conclusion. Until I see a compelling argument to the contrary, or a document in which La Salle later added more to the story, I can only conclude that the Otoe had some type of contact with the Spaniards by 1680, perhaps fought against them, and that they were aware of the Spaniards’ armament. That knowlege probably served them well when they did fight the Spaniards in 1720.

End of the Journey

When La Salle reached the mouth of the Mississippi River in April of 1682, he conducted a ceremony in which he officially claimed the Louisiana Country for his king. His words were recorded by Jacques de La Métairie, notary of Fort Frontenac who had joined the expedition. Among the proclamations that he gave that day, La Salle announced:

…ce du consentement des Chikacha et autres peuples y demeurant, avec qui nous avons fait alliance, comme aussi le long du fleuve Colbert ou Mississipi et rivières qui s’y déchargent, depuis sa naissance au-delà du pays des Sioux ou des Nadouesioux, et ce de leur consentement et des Ohotante, Ilinois, Matsigamea, Akansa, Natchè, Koroa, qui sont les plus considérables nations qui y demeurent…

La Salle was claiming ownership of the entire Mississippi River basin, and he put the political spin on it by proclaiming that he had the consent of the principle tribes who inhabited the region: the Chickasaw, Sioux, Otoe, Illinois, Mitchigamia, Arkansas, Natchez, and Koroa. Of course, the Louisana Territory was inhabited by dozens of other Indian nations, and it’s doubtful that any of them, including those he named that day, could fully understand what he meant by claiming the land.

References

  1. Relation of the Discoveries and Voyages of Cavelier de La Salle from 1679 to 1681 — the Official Narrative; translation by Melville B. Anderson. Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1901. pp. 143-144.
  2. Hennepin, Father Louis. A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America. Reprint of the 1698 London edition. Notes and index by Reuben Gold Thwaite. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903.
  3. La Salle, Nicolas de. The La Salle Expedition on the Mississippi River. Edited by William C. Foster; translated by Johanna S. Warren. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2003. Appendix B.
  4. Chapman, Berlin Basil, et al. Otoe and Missouria: The Prehistoric and historic habitat of the Missouri and Otoe Indians. New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 1974. p. 81.

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