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Houses of the Kansa Tribe

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To quote from the Handbook: “Their linguistic relations are closest with the Osage, and are close with the Quapaw. In the traditional migration of the group, after the Quapaw had first separated there from, the main body divided at the mouth of Osage River, the Osage moving up that stream and the Omaha and Ponca crossing Missouri River and proceeding northward, while the Kansa ascended the Missouri on the south side to the mouth of Kansa River. Here a brief halt was made, after which they ascended the Missouri on the, south side until they reached the present north boundary of Kansas, where they were attacked by the Cheyenne and compelled to retrace their steps. They settled again at the month of Kansas River, where the Big Knives, as they, called the whites, came with gifts a,  induced them to go farther west. The native narrators of this tradition give an account of about 20 villages occupied successively along Kansas River before the settlement at Council Grove, Kansas, whence they were finally removed to their reservation in Indian Territory. Marquette’s autograph map, drawn probably as early as 1674, places the Kansas a considerable distance directly west of the Osage and some distance south of the Omaha, indicating that they were then on Kansas River.  It is known that the Kansa moved up Kansas River in historic times as far as Big Blue River, and thence went to Council Grove in 1847. The move to the Big Blue must have taken place after 1723.”

Thus it would appear that for many generations the villages of the Kansa had stood near the eastern boundary of the great plains, a region where buffalo were plentiful, one suited to the wants and requirements of the native tribes.

On June 26, 1804, the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the mouth of the Kansas and encamped on the north side, where they remained two days. In the journal of those days they referred to the Kansa, and said: “On the banks of the Kanzas reside the Indians of the same name, consisting of two villages, one at about twenty, the other forty leagues from its mouth, and amounting to about three hundred men. They once lived twenty-four leagues higher than the Kanzas [river], on the south bank of the Missouri. This nation is now hunting in the plains for the buffalo which our hunters have seen for the first time.”1 A few days later July 2, after advancing a short distance up the Missouri, above the mouth of the Kansas, they arrived at the site of an ancient village of the tribe. In the journal2 is this account: “Opposite our camp is a valley, in which was situated an old village of the Kansas, between two high points of land, and on the bank of the river. About a mile in the rear of the village was a small fort, built by the French on an elevation. There are now no traces of the village, but the situation of the fort may be recognized by some remains of chimnies, and the general outline of the fortification, as well as by the fine spring which supplied it with water. “Three days later, July 5, 1804, while on the right bank of the Missouri, they “came along the bank of an extensive and beautiful prairie, interspersed with copses of timber, and watered by Independence creek. On this bank formerly stood the second village of the Kanzas; from the remains it mist have been once a large town.”3

The village mentioned by Lewis and Clark as standing on the banks of the Kansas River some 40 league above its confluence with the Missouri may have been the one visited and described by Maj. George C. Sibley during the summer of 1811. Sibley wrote in his journal: “The Konsee town is seated immediately on the north bank of the Konsee River, about one hundred miles by its course above its junction with the Missouri; in a beautiful prairie of moderate extent, which is nearly encircled by the River; one of its Northern branches (commonly called the Republican fork, which falls in a few hundred paces above the village) and a small creek that flows into the north branch. On the north and southwest it is overhung by a chain of high prairie hills which give a very pleasing effect to the whole scene.
“The town contains one hundred and twenty-eight houses or lodges which are generally about 60 feet long and 25 feet wide, constructed of stout poles and saplings arranged in form of an arbor and covered with skins, bark and mats; they are commodious and quite comfortable. The place for fire is simply a hole in the earth, under the ridge pole of the roof, where an opening is left for the smoke to pass off. All the larger lodges have two, sometimes three, fire places; one for each family dwelling in it. The town is built without much regard to order; there are no regular streets or avenues. The lodges are erected pretty compactly together in crooked rows, allowing barely space sufficient to admit a man to pass between them. The avenues between these crooked rows are kept in tolerable decent order and the village is on the whole rather neat and cleanly than otherwise. Their little fields or patches of corn, beans and pumpkins, which they had just finished planting, and which constitute their whole variety, are seen in various directions, at convenient distances around the village. The prairie was covered with their horses and mules (they have no other domestic animals except dogs).”

The manuscript journal from which the preceding quotation is made is now in the possession of Lindenwood College, St. Charles, Missouri, the copy having been made by Mrs. N. L Beauregard.

The preceding is a clear though all too brief account of a native village, prepared at a time when it continued in a primitive condition. The site, on the left bank of Kansas River just below the mouth of the Republican, would have been about the present Fort Riley, near the northern line of Geary County. In some respects this is the most interesting description of a Kansa village given in the present work. The habitations long mat-covered lodges were of the type erected by the Osage and Quapaw, kindred tribes of the Kansa, and it is highly probable they represented the form of dwellings reared by the same tribes many generations before in their ancient villages which then stood in the valley of the Ohio, far east of the Mississippi.

Just 15 years elapsed between the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the arrival of the Long party in the country of the Kansa. In August, 1819, to those aboard the steamboat Western Engineer, “The site of an old village of the Konzas, and the remains of a fortification erected by the French, were pointed out a few miles below Isle au Vache. This island, which lies about one hundred miles above Fort Osage, was the wintering post of Capt. Martin’s detachment, destined to proceed in advance of the troops ordered to the Missouri.” And nothing shows more clearly the changed conditions in that region during the past century than the continuation of this narrative: “Captain Martin, with three companies of the rifle regiment, left Bellefontain in September 1818, and arrived at Isle au Vache in October, with the expectation of resuming his march, as early in the following spring as the weather would permit. But not having received the necessary supplies of provisions as anticipated, they had been compelled to remain till the time of our arrival, subsisting themselves principally by hunting. Between two and three thousand deer, besides great numbers of bears, turkies, &c had been taken.” On August 23, 1819, a large number of Kansa Indians, from their villages on the river bearing their tribal name, gathered at Isle au Vache to meet members of the Long party in council. “There were present at this council, one hundred and sixty-one Konzas, including chiefs and warriors, and thirteen Osages.”4

While at Fort Osage members of the Long expedition left for an overland journey to the Kansa towns. The party was led by Say, and left the fort August 6, arriving at the villages just two weeks later. The Kansa town then stood in the extreme southwestern corner of the present Pottawatomie County, Kansas, at the mouth of the Big Blue. And “as they approached the village, they perceived the tops of the lodges red with the crowds of natives: the chiefs and warriors came rushing out on horseback, painted and decorated, and followed by great numbers on foot, the village was in confusion, the, hunters having lately returned, and being then engaged in preparations for the journey to Isle au Vache. “The journey was that mentioned above, when the Indians arrived at Isle au Vache to hold council with Long. Continuing the narrative: “The approach to the village is over a fine level prairie of considerable extent; passing which, you ascend an abrupt bank of the height of ten feet, to a second level, on which the village is situate in the distance, within about ¼ of a mile of the river. It consists of about 120 lodges, placed as closely together as convenient, and destitute of any regularity of arrangement. The ground area of each lodge is circular, and is excavated to the depth of from one to three feet, and the general form of the exterior may be denominated hemispheric.

“The lodge, in which we reside, is larger than any other in the town, and being that of the grand chief, it serves as a council house for the nation. The roof is supported by two series of pillars, or rough vertical posts, forked at top for the reception of the transverse connecting pieces of each series; twelve of these pillars form the outer series, placed in a circle; and eight longer ones, the inner series, also describing a circle ; the outer wall, of rude frame work, placed at a proper distance from the exterior series of pillars, is five or six feet high. Poles, as thick as the leg at base, rest with their butts upon the wall, extending on the cross pieces, which are upheld by the pillars of the two series, and are of sufficient length to reach nearly to the summit. These poles are very numerous, and, agreeable to the position which we have indicated, they are placed all around in a radiating manner, and support the roof like rafters. Across these are laid long and slender sticks or twigs, attached parallel to each other by means of bark cord; these are covered by mats made of long grass, or reeds, or with the bark of trees; the whole is then covered completely over with earth, which, near the ground, is banked up to the eaves. A hole is permitted to remain in the middle of the roof to give exit to the smoke. Around the walls of the interior, a continuous series of mats are suspended; these are of neat workmanship, composed of a soft reed, united by bark cord, in straight or undulated lines, between which, lines of black paint sometimes occur. The bedsteads are elevated to the height of a common seat from the ground, and are about six feet wide; they extend in an uninterrupted line around three-fourths of the circumference of the apartment, and are formed in the simplest manner of numerous sticks, or slender pieces of wood resting at their ends on cross pieces, which are supported by short notched or forked posts, driven into the ground; bison skins supply them with a comfortable bedding. Several medicine or mystic bags are carefully attached to the mats of the wall, these are cylindrical, and neatly bound up; several reeds are usually placed upon them, and a human scalp serves for the fringe and tassels. Of their contents we know nothing. The fireplace is a simple shallow cavity, in the center of the apartment, with an upright and a projecting arm for the support of the culinary apparatus.”5

Say and his associates left the Kansa village to rejoin the main party aboard the steamboat Western Engineer, then waiting near Isle au Vache, but soon after starting on the journey were attacked by some wandering Pawnee and forced to return to seek refuge among those whom they had just left. And as told in the narrative, they were, as a consequence, able to witness an interesting ceremony in one of the large earth lodges. This was August 23, 1819, “Mr. Say’s party were kindly received at the village they had left on the preceding day. In the evening they had retired to rest in the lodge set apart for their accommodation, when they were alarmed by a party of savages, rushing in armed with bows, arrows and lances, shouting and yelling in a most frightful manner. The gentlemen of the party had immediate recourse to their arms, but observing that some squaws, who were in the lodge, appeared unmoved, they began to suspect that no molestation to them was intended. The Indians collected around the fire in the centre of the lodge, yelling incessantly; at length their howlings assumed something of a measured tone, and they began to accompany their voices with a sort of drum and rattles. After singing for some time, one who appeared to be their leader, struck the post over the fire with his lance, and they all began to dance, keeping very exact time with the music. Each warrior had, besides his arms, and rattles made of strings of deer’s hoof, some part of the intestines of an animal inflated, and inclosing a few small stones, which produced a sound like pebbles in a gourd shell. After dancing round the fire for some time, without appearing to notice the strangers, they departed, raising the same wolfish howl, with which they had entered; but their music and their yelling continued to be heard about the village during the night.

“This ceremony, called the dog dance, was performed by the Konzas for the entertainment of their guests. Mr. Seymour took an opportunity to sketch the attitudes and dresses of the principal figures.”6 The sketch made by Seymour was engraved and served as an illustration in the narrative of the expedition prepared by James. It is here reproduced as plate 30b. The interior of the large earth lodge is clearly shown. The “continuous series of mats” are suspended around the wall, and the “bedsteads,” as described, serve as seats for the guests. Mats are also represented as spread over the floor in the foreground.

Kansa village, 1841 - George Lehman
Plate 30a - Kansa village, 1841 - George Lehman

On August 25, 1819, the steamboat Western Engineer steamed away from Isle au Vache, and that night, after having advanced about 23 miles up the Missouri, stopped at the mouth of Independence creek, and a little above the creek, on the right bank of the Missouri, was “the site of an old Konza town, called formerly the village of the Twenty Four.” This was evidently the same site as mentioned by Lewis and Clark, July 5, 1804. Ruins of the earth lodges had undoubtedly remained quite distinct, being overgrown with the grass of the prairie.

Isle au Vache, in the Missouri, faces Oak Mills, Atchison County, Kansas, and Iatan, Platte County, Missouri. A brief history of the island was prepared a few years ago.7

Interesting notes on the habitations of the Kansa Indians are contained in a narrative prepared by one who passed through their country during the month of May, 1834.

On the night of May 1 the party encamped on a small branch of the Kansas River, where they were joined by some members of the Kansa tribe who occupied six lodges in a near-by woods. “This party is a small division of a portion of this tribe, who are constantly wandering; but although their journeys are sometimes pretty extensive, they seldom approach nearer to the settlements than they are at present.” Later they arrived at the banks of the Kansas River, and as it was approached, so the narrative continues, “we saw a number of Indian lodges, made of saplings driven into the ground, bent over and tied at top, and covered with bark and buffalo skins. These lodges, or wigwams, are numerous on both sides of the river. As we passed them, the inhabitants, men, women, and children, flocked out to see us, and almost prevented our progress by their eager greetings. Our party stopped on the bank of the river, and the horses were unloaded and driven into the water. “They crossed the river by means of a large flat-bottomed boat, and reaching the opposite bank saw many Indian lodges with some frame houses occupied by whites. “The canoes used by the Indians are mostly made of buffalo skins, stretched, while recent, over a light frame work of wood, the seams sewed with sinews, and so closely, as to be wholly impervious to water. These light vessels are remarkably buoyant, and capable of sustaining very heavy burdens. “That evening they were visited by the Kansa chief who lived near by, a “young man about twenty-five years of age, straight as a poplar, and with a noble countenance and bearing. The Kaws living here appear to be much more wealthy than those who joined our camp on the prairie below. Their dress consists, universally of deer skin leggings. belted around the loins, and over the upper part of the body a buffalo robe or blanket.”8

Dog dance within a Kansa lodge, August 23, 1819. Samuel Seymour
Plate 30b - Dog dance within a Kansa lodge, August 23, 1819. Samuel Seymour

During the morning of May 20, 1834, the party departed from the Kansa settlement on or near the banks of the Kansas River, “leaving the river immediately, and making a northwest by west course and the next day came to another village of the same tribe, consisting of about thirty lodges, and situated in the midst of a beautiful level prairie. The lodges here are constructed very differently from those of the lower village. They are made of large and strong timbers, a ridge pole runs along the top, and the different pieces are fastened together by leathern thongs. The roofs, which are single, make but one angle, are of stout poplar bark, and forms an excellent defense, both against rain and the rays of the sun, which must be intense during midsummer in this region. These prairies are often visited by heavy gales of wind, which would probably demolish the huts, were they built of frail materials like those below. We encamped in the evening on a small stream called Little Vermillion creek.”9

The sketch by “Seymour conveys a very good idea of the general appearance of the interior of a Kansa lodge, and an equally interesting picture of the village, as it was just 22 years later, is to be found in one of Father de Smet’s works. He arrived at the first of the villages May 19, 1841, and in describing it said: “At the first sight of their wigwams, we were struck at the resemblance they bore to the large stacks of wheat which cover our fields in harvest time. There were of these in all no more than about twenty, grouped together without order, but each covering a space about one hundred and twenty feet in circumference, and sufficient to shelter from thirty to forty persons.

Kansa Habitation
Plate 31 - Kansa Habitation

The entire village appeared to us to consist of from seven to eight hundred souls, an approximation which is justified by the fact that the total population of the tribe is confined to two villages, together numbering 1900 inhabitants. These cabins, however humble they may appear, are solidly built and convenient. From the top of the wall, which is about six feet in height, rise inclined poles. which terminate round an opening above, serving at once for a chimney and window. The door of the edifice consists of an undressed hide on the most sheltered side, the hearth occupies the centre and is in the midst of four upright posts destined to support the rotunda; the beds are ranged round the wall and the space between the beds and the hearth is occupied by the members of the family, some standing, others sitting or lying on skins, or yellow colored mats. It would seem that this last named article is regarded as a piece of extra finery, for the lodge assigned to us had one of them.”10 Following this description of a lodge is an account of its occupants. He refers to the women busily engaged at various occupations, and the men, some eating or smoking, and others plucking the hair from their brows and beard. The brief description of the interior of the lodge conforms with those of the earlier writers, but it is to be regretted that more was not said about the outside of the structure. Were they covered with earth or thatch? The village visited by Say in 1819 was composed of earth-covered lodges, clearly described, but the drawing made by one of Father de Smet’s associates (it is marked Geo. Lehman, del.) represents the large circular houses with overhanging roofs, more closely resembling thatch than the usual covering of earth and sod. This drawing. which was reproduced in the work cited, is here shown in plate 30a. The structures standing in the village visited by Father de Smet may have resembled the bark-covered house illustrated in plate 31. This most interesting photograph was probably made about 40 years ago, and at once suggests the frame, covered with bark, and ready for the final covering of earth; in other words, an unfinished earth lodge. However, it was probably a complete and finished structure.

Regarding the large village visited by De Smet as mentioned above, one historian of the tribe has written: “An important village, and the largest of the tribe at, that time, was that of old Kah-he-gah-wa-ti-an-gah, known as Fool Chief, which from about 1830 to 1846 was located on the north side of the Kansas river, just north of the present Union Pacific station of Menoken. Until recent years the lodge circle marks were visible and its exact location easy to be found.” 11

A year passed between the visit of Father de Smet to the Kansa towns and the arrival of Fremont in the same locality, but it had been a period of trouble for the tribe and they had suffered greatly. On June 18, 1842, Fremont wrote in his journal: “We left our camp seven, journeying along the foot of the hills which border the Kansas valley. I rode off some miles to the left, attracted by the appearance of a cluster of huts near the mouth of the Vermillion. It was a large but deserted Kansas village, scattered in an open wood, along the margin of the stream. chosen with the customary Indian fondness for beauty of scenery. The Pawnees had attacked it in the early spring. Some of the houses were burnt, and others blackened with smoke, and weeds were already getting possession. of the cleared places.”12

It is quite probable that during their journeys away from the permanent villages the Kansa, like other tribes of the Missouri Valley, made use of skin tipis as being easily transported from one place to another. It would also appear that in later years the earth and bark covered lodge ceased to be used, and that skin tipis were constructed to the exclusion of other forms of dwellings. A missionary who resided at the Kansa agency from 1865 to 1868 wrote: “The tribe at that time was divided into three bands, or villages, as they were generally called. Ish-tal-a-sa’s village occupied the northern part of the reserve. He was not only village chief, but head chief of the whole tribe also. Fool Chief’s village occupied the central part of the reserve, and Al-le-ga-wa-ho’s the southern portion. The latter became head chief after Ish-tal-a-sa’s death. There were probably about 300 in each band. Their custom was for the entire band to camp together in some desirable locality, where wood, water and grass for their ponies were accessible, and remain until the pasture was eaten down, and then move to another site. Another reason for moving was to get away from the filth that always accumulated in an Indian village. Their tents, or tepees, were made of buffalo skins. The Lodge, as they usually designated their tepees, was easily taken down and removed to another place.”13

Of the numerous tribes mentioned at the present time no one appears to have erected a greater variety of dwellings than did the Kansa, whose habitations were of several distinct forms and were constructed of various materials.

Sauk and Fox habitation covered with Elm bark
Plate 19 - Sauk and Fox habitation covered with Elm bark

The long mat-covered lodges described by Sibley in 1811, as at that time standing in the village at the mouth of the Republican, on the left bank of the Kansas River, may be accepted as being the typical or primitive form of structure erected by the tribe. Eight years later Say and his companions reached another village, a few miles eastward from the one preceding, and there found the circular earth lodges. Evidently the ruined towns mentioned by Lewis and Clark as being visible from the Missouri River were once groups of similar earth lodges. But all circular lodges were not covered with earth and sod; in some instances the walls and roofs were formed of sheets of bark.

During the month of May, 1834, many small dwellings were standing on both banks of the Kansas River which were formed by covering a frame composed “of saplings driven into the ground, bent over and tied at top,” with sheets of bark and buffalo skins. And not far away was another village of the same tribe but presenting a very different appearance. The structures were described as being “made of large and strong timbers, a ridge pole runs along the top, and the different pieces are fastened together by leathern thongs. The roofs, which are single, make but one angle, are of stout poplar bark.” Whether this was of circular or quadrangular base is difficult to determine, but probably the latter, resembling the example shown in plate 19. And in addition to the various structures already noted, the conical skin tipis were extensively used by the Kansa, probably serving in early days when the people were away from their more permanent villages, but later they were more generally utilized.

Footnotes

  1. Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., I, pp. 18-19. 

  2. Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., I, p. 20 

  3. Lewis and Clark, History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark. . . Prepared for the press by Paul Allen. Philadelphia, 1814. 2 vols., I, pp. 21-22. 

  4. James, Edwin, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the years 1819 and 1820. Philadelphia, 1823. 2 vols., I, pp. 110-112. 

  5. James, Edwin, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the years 1819 and 1820. Philadelphia, 1823. 2 vols., I, pp. 120-121. 

  6. James, Edwin, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the years 1819 and 1820. Philadelphia, 1823. 2 vols., I, p. 135. 

  7. Remsburg, G. J., Isle au Vache. In Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1903-1904. Vol. VIII. Topeka, 1904, pp. 436 413. 

  8. Townsend, John K., Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains. Philadelphia, 1839, pp. 30-33. 

  9. Townsend, John K., Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains. Philadelphia, 1839, pp. 33-34. 

  10. De Smet, P. J., Letters and Sketches with a Narrative of a Year’s Residence Among the Indian Tribes of the Rocky Mountains. Philadelphia, 1843, pp. 65-66. 

  11. Morehouse, George P., History of the Kansa or Kaw Indians. In Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1907-1908. Vol X. Topeka, 1908, p. 348. 

  12. Fremont, J. C., Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in the years 1843-44. Washington, 1845, pp. 12-13. 

  13. Spencer, Joab, The Kaw or Kansas Indians : Their Customs, Manners, and Folk Lore. In Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1907-1908. Vol. X. Topeka, 1908, p. 373. 


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