Houses of the Oto Tribe

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When Lewis and Clark ascended the Missouri during the summer of 1804 they reached the mouth of the Platte July 21. At that time, so they entered in their journal, the Oto were living on the south side of the Platte, 10 leagues above its junction with the Missouri, and 5 leagues beyond, on the same bank, were the Pawnee. Living with the Oto were the remnants of the Missouri who had, a few years before, joined them. On August 3, 1804, the expedition having ascended the Missouri to about the location of the present city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, held a council with representatives of the two tribes, Oto and Missouri, an event which has been perpetuated in the name of the city. A majority of the two tribes were then absent from their village on their summer buffalo hunt, consequently few were present at the council.

"Oto Encampment, Near the Platte" - Samuel Seymour
Plate 33 - "Oto Encampment, Near the Platte" - Samuel Seymour

On May 3, 1811, Bradbury arrived at the Oto village, but it was deserted. All were probably some miles away hunting the buffalo. However, a very interesting description of the habitations in the deserted village is preserved. First referring to the Platte: “The southern bank is wholly divested of timber, and as the village is situated on a declivity near the river, we could see the lodges very distinctly, but there was no appearance of Indians.”  On the following day, May 4, 1811, he visited the village and found it “to consist of about fifty-four lodges, of a circular form, and about forty feet in diameter, with a projecting part at the entrance, of ten or twelve feet in length, in the form of a porch. At almost every lodge,, the door or entrance was closed after the manner which is customary with Indians when they go on hunting parties and take their squaws and children with them. It consists in putting a few sticks across, in a particular manner, which they so exactly note and remember, as to be able to discover the least change in their position. Although anxious to examine the internal structure of the lodges, I did not violate the injunction conveyed by this slight obstruction, and after searching some time found a few that were left entirely open. On entering one, I found the length of the porch to be an inclined plane to the level of the floor, about two and a half or three feet below the surface of the ground; round the area of the lodge are placed from fifteen to eighteen posts, forked at the top, and about seven feet high from the floor. In the centre, a circular space of about eight feet in diameter is dug, to the depth of two feet; four strong posts are placed in the form of a square, about twelve feet asunder, and at equal distances from this space; these posts are about twenty feet high, and cross pieces are laid on the tops. The rafters are laid from the forked tops of the outside posts over these cross pieces, and reach nearly to the centre, where a small hole is left for the smoke to escape; across the rafters small pieces of timber are laid; over these, sticks and a covering of sods, and lastly earth. The fire is made in the middle of the central space, round the edges of which they sit, and the beds are fixed between the outer posts. The door is placed at the immediate entrance into the lodge; it is made of a buffalo skin, stretched in a frame of wood, and is suspended from the top. On entering, it swings forward, and when let go, it falls to its former position.”1

It is to be regretted that Bradbury did not give a more detailed account of the general appearance of the village; that he did not tell of the placing of the lodges, and of the other structures, if any stood within the village. But this large group of earth-covered lodges undoubtedly resembled the village of the Republican Pawnee, as shown in the photograph made by Jackson more than half a century later.

In the narrative of the Long expedition, during the spring of 1820, more than a century ago, is a brief note on the Oto. It reads: “The Oto nation of Indians is distinguished by the name of Wah-toh to-na. The permanent village of this nation is composed of large dirt lodges, similar to those of the Konzas and Omawhaws, and is situate on the left bank of the river Platte, or Nebraska, about forty miles above it confluence with the Missouri.” (James, (1). I, p. 338.) On the map which accompanies the narrative the village is indicated on the south or right bank of the Platte, in the eastern part of the present Saunders County, Nebraska. Continuing, the journal states, “The hunting grounds of the Oto nation, extend from the Little Platte up to the Boyer creek, on the north side of the Missouri, and from Independence creek to about forty miles above the Platte, on the south side of that river. They hunt the bison, between the Platte and the sources of the Konzas rivers. “Thus their hunting grounds included one of the richest and most fertile sections of the valley of the Missouri, now occupied by many towns and villages.
Much of interest respecting the manners and ways of life of the Oto when they occupied their village near the mouth of the Platte is to be found in Irving’s narrative of the expedition of which he was a member. During the summer of 1833 the small party under the leadership of Commissioner H. L. Ellsworth left St. Louis and, with several teams, proceeded up the Valley of the Missouri. They traversed the vast rolling prairie: ” Hour after hour passed on; the prospect was still the same. At last a loud cry from our guide announced that we had come in sight of the cantonment. There was a snowy speck resting upon the distant green; behind it rose a forest of lofty timber which shadowed the Missouri. This was Leavenworth. It was mid day when we first caught sight of Leavenworth, but it was near sunset before we arrived there. About a dozen white-washed cottage looking houses, composed the barracks and the abodes of the officers. They are so arranged as to form the three sides of a hollow square; the fourth is open, and looks out into a wide but broken prairie. It is a rural looking spot a speck of civilization dropped in the heart of a wilderness.”2 From Fort Leavenworth they continued up the valley, soon reaching the village of the Oto, near the banks of the Platte. after describing the reception accorded the party by the people of the town Irving wrote: “The village of the Otoe Indians is situated upon a ridge of swelling hills overlooking the darkly wooded banks of the Platte river, about a quarter of a mile distant. There is but little beauty or neatness about an Indian town. The lodges are built in the shape of a half egg. They frequently are twenty feet in height, and sometimes sixty in diameter. The roofs are formed of long poles, which diverge like the radii of a circle, from one common centre. The ring of the circle is formed of upright posts, driven closely together in the ground, and projecting upward about five feet. These are interwoven with brushwood and the smaller branches of trees, and form the support of the outer end of the poles composing the roof, the interstices of which are also interwoven with twigs and brushwood. The whole is then covered with earth, and when finished resembles a large hillock. The town contained about seventy of these lodges, standing singly or in groups, without any attention to order or regularity. Within, they are capacious, but dark, being lighted merely by a small aperture at the top, which serves both as window and chimney. The fire is built in a cavity in the centre, directly under the hole in the roof, by which the smoke escapes after floating in easy wreaths about the interior.

"Pemmican maul, Oto Agency, Nebraska, J. W. Griest." Formed of one piece of wood. Extreme length, 39 inches. (U.S.N.M. 22437)
Plate 34a - "Pemmican maul, Oto Agency, Nebraska, J. W. Griest." Formed of one piece of wood. Extreme length, 39 inches. (U.S.N.M. 22437)

“As the lodges are very spacious, a little back from the fire there is a circular range of tree trunks standing like columns, and connected by timber laid in their forks, forming a support for the roof, which otherwise, from the great length of the poles that form it, and the heavy mass of superincumbent earth, might fall in, and bury the inhabitants. Around the wall of the building, are ranged cribs or berths for sleeping, screened from view by heavy mats of grass and rushes. Over the fire is inclined a forked stake, in the hook of which hangs a large kettle, generally filled with buffalo flesh and corn. This, to judge from its looks, is never removed from the fire, even for the purpose of cleaning it.”3

A week or more passed after the arrival of the party at the Oto village before a council was held with the chief men of the tribe, “for the purpose of forming a treaty, with respect to the lands lying in the neighborhood of the Nemahaw river.” The time for holding the council having arrived, the commissioner and his party proceeded from their camp to the earth-covered lodge in which the ceremony was to be enacted. They entered and “found nearly the whole tribe assembled, and seated in circles, in the large lodge of the Iotan chief. At the far end of the building was the Iotan; and by his side were stationed those two worthies, the Big Kaw and the Thief. Next them were the stern forms of the older warriors and braves. The lodge was excessively crowded. One ring was formed beyond another: one dark bead rose behind another; until the dim, dusk outlines of the more distant were lost in shadow, and their glistening eyes alone could be seen. The passage which led to the air was completely crowded with women and children: and half a dozen curious faces were peering down through the round hole in the roof.

The most of them had adorned themselves for the occasion. Plumes were floating from their scalplocks; their heads and breasts were painted with vermilion, and long strings of wampum hung from their necks and mutilated ears. But at the present moment there appeared to be no thought of their appearance. Every sense was wrapped up in an intense interest in the approaching council; every breath was held; and every eye fixed with eagerness upon the face of the Commissioner, as he arose to address the meeting.”4 This vivid description of the gathering of the Oto in a great earth-covered structure near the banks of the Missouri during the summer of 1833 tends to recall Lieut. Timberlake’s meeting with the head men of the Cherokee, when they came together in the townhouse at Chote late in the year 1761. The two structures were of similar appearance and probably did not differ greatly in size, although at Chote there were several tiers of seats surrounding the central space within the house which were lacking in the Oto lodge, but the two gatherings were evidently quite similar, although belonging to different generations and being in regions separated by many hundreds of miles of forest and plain. The great rotundas, or townhouses of the Cherokee, were the most interesting of the various native structures which formerly stood east of the Mississippi.5

The preceding notes on the Oto refer to their permanent earth lodge villages, which were occupied only part of each year. When away from the village they would make use of the skin-covered tipi, although the temporary shelter of the Pawnee may have been copied by some members of the tribe. Fortunately a very good description of the appearance of a winter encampment of several families, at some point far west of the Missouri on the prairie of Nebraska, during the winter of 1851-52, has been preserved. The account was prepared by a traveler who became separated from his companions and reached the camp unexpectedly while traversing the snow-covered wilderness. The “little camp consisted of two large tents, which stood in a deep ravine, overgrown with stunted oaks, and on the banks of a deep stream, whose waters were hidden beneath a thick covering of ice.” One tent belonged to the chief Wa-ki-ta-mo-nee, the other to a half-breed named Louis Farfar. Arriving at the camp, so the narrative continues, I “crawled into the tent of the medicine-man, and took my place by his blazing fire, while the other occupants lay or crouched around. The old mother was busy in the preparation of the meat, and by her side, next the opening, were two daughters; the older about eighteen, the younger about two years old. The father of the family, his son, and Schin-ges-in-ki-nee had, according to Indian custom, kept the best places for themselves, which was so much the better for me as I was placed between them. The medicine pipe, with a bowl cut out of some red stone, went round briskly, and the time that was employed in distributing the meat intended for the meal I spent in taking a good view of the Indian dwelling. Sixteen long moles, made of slender pine trees, were so placed as to form a circle of sixteen or eighteen feet in diameter, their tops being bent over and fastened together. Around this framework was thrown, like a mantle, the tent leather, consisting of a great number of buffalo hides, tanned white, and neatly sewed together for the purpose with sinews. The leather did not reach quite to the top, but left an opening, by which the smoke could escape; but there were two prolongations of the tent leather, something like flags, which were supported by particular poles, so as, in stormy weather or contrary winds, form a very tolerable chimney. The tent was fixed so firmly to the ground with pegs that the tightly stretched sides would admit neither the rain nor the snow, when it melted from the heat of the fire; and the inhabitants had not only a secure refuge, but a tolerably comfortable dwelling. The various possessions of the Indians were hung round on the tent poles, where they only took up room that could easily be dispensed with, and kept out the cold that could have most readily found an entrance at those places. On the space round the fire, buffalo-hides were spread for beds at night, and when rolled up in the day made convenient seats; the fire, in a kind of pit half a foot deep, and two and a half in diameter, was a mass of glowing embers, with a number of logs blazing on the top, and diffused a most pleasant warmth over the small space. Near the fire a branch of a tree was stuck into the ground, and another placed horizontally across it, and running the whole breadth of the tent, from which hung the most indispensable of household utensils in the form of a great kettle, whilst the rest of the pole was covered with wet and torn moccasins and gaiters, in a manner that was certainly more convenient than ornamental Besides the wild half-naked forms of the Indians, a number of dogs, young and old, made part of the company assembled in Wa-ki-ta-mo-nee’s tent. The attention of the mistress of the family, a very dirty old squaw, was exclusively devoted to the vast kettle and its bubbling contents; a row of roughly-cut wooden platters stood before her, and by means of a pointed stick she fished up from the cauldron large joints of bear and half turkeys, and loaded each of the platters with a huge portion of the savory smelling food.” (Mollhausen, (1), I, pp. 171-175.) The second tent, so he wrote, “was more spacious” than the one which he had entered, and described. This is an interesting description of a small winter camp of the Oto as it stood in the midst of the snow-covered prairie, near a stream “whose waters were hidden beneath a thick covering of ice.” The scene could undoubtedly have been repeated in many localities in the vast region west of the Missouri. The identity of the stream near which the two tents stood during the winter of 1851-52 is suggested by a note in Fremont’s journal, written 10 years earlier. On June 22, 1842, when traversing the prairies, soon to reach the right bank of the Platte, he wrote: “Made our bivouac in the midst of some well-timbered ravines near the Little Blue. Crossing the next morning a number of handsome creeks, with clear water and sandy beds, we reached at 10 A . M., a very beautiful wooded stream, about thirty-five feet wide, called Sandy creek, and sometimes, as the Otto frequently winter there, Otto fork.”6 The greater part of the course of Sandy Creek is through the present Clay and Thayer Counties, Nebraska, a hundred miles or more south of west from the Oto village then situated near the mouth of the Platte.

Oto dugout canoe, from Kurz's Sketchbook, May 15, 1851
Plate 35a - Oto dugout canoe, from Kurz's Sketchbook, May 15, 1851

Möllhausen remained with the Oto until the temporary camp was abandoned, then returned with them to their permanent village. The journey required several weeks but in time they approached the Missouri, and as they neared their destination: “We passed the burial place of the Otto just before we descended into the valley, and shortly afterwards came to the village. The first consisted of a number of hillocks inclosed by rough palings, and decorated with sticks with little bits of colored stuff and feathers fluttering from them. The village, which lay not many hundred yards farther was a group of about sixty huts of various construction, some of clay, shaped like haycocks or baking ovens, others like small houses, built of thick oak bark. These dwellings stood mostly empty, as the inhabitants had pitched their tents just now in the angle formed by the Nebraska and Missouri, on account of the rich grass to be found in these bottom lands under the protecting snow, and because they and their cattle were in that situation more sheltered from the violent gales of wind.”7 Here is a reference to a third form of habitation known to the Oto. In addition to the earth-covered lodge and the skin tipi, both of which were characteristic of the time and place, they appear to have reared structures similar to the habitation of the Sauk and Fox, as shown in plate 19, a type of dwelling known to several neighboring tribes in the upper Mississippi Valley.

It is quite evident that after leaving the permanent earth-lodge village of the Oto the Long party just a century ago passed one of the temporary camps of the same people. This, fortunately, was sketched by the artist of the expedition and reproduced in the narrative of the journey, and is now shown in plate 33. To quote from the narrative: “For the elucidation of what we have said respecting the form and arrangement of the skin, or traveling lodges of the Indians, we subjoin an engraving, representing an encampment of Oto Indians, which Mr. Seymour sketched near the Platte river. In this plate, the group of Indians on the left is intended to represent a party of Konza Indians approaching to perform the calumet dance in the Oto village. It may be proper to remark, that this party when still distant from the Oto, had sent forward a messenger, with the offer of a prize to the first Oto that should meet them. This circumstance was productive of much bustle and activity among the warriors and young men, who eagerly mounted their horses, land exerted their utmost speed,”8

Various ethnological specimens collected among the Oto a generation. or more ago are in the collections of the National Museum. One quite rare object, a “pemmican maul,” formed of a single piece of wood, is figured in plate 34a.

An original sketch by Kurz in May, 1851, representing a group of Oto with a dugout canoe, is reproduced in plate 35a.

Footnotes

  1. Bradbury, John, Travels in the Interior of America, in the years 1809, 1810, and 1811. Liverpool, 1817, pp. 54-57. 

  2. Irving, John T., Jr., Indian Sketches, taken during an Expedition to the Pawnee Tribes. Philadelphia, 1836. 2 vols., I, pp. 46-47. 

  3. Irving, John T., Jr., Indian Sketches, taken during an Expedition to the Pawnee Tribes. Philadelphia, 1836. 2 vols., I, pp. 158-160. 

  4. Irving, John T., Jr., Indian Sketches, taken during an Expedition to the Pawnee Tribes. Philadelphia, 1836. 2 vols., I, pp. 233-235. 

  5. Bushnell, D. I. Jr., Native Villages and Village Sites East of the Mississippi. 69, Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, 1919, pp. 59-63. 

  6. 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, p. 14. 

  7. Möllhausen, Baldwin, Diary of a Journey from the Mississippi to the Coasts of the Pacific. London, 1858. 2 vols., I, pp. 210-211. 

  8. James, Edwin, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the years 1819 and 1820. Philadelphia, 1823. 2 vols., II, pp. 188-189. 



MLA Source Citation:

Bushnell, David Ives. Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan and Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi. Published in Bulletin 77, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Washington. 1922. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 16 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/oto-tribe-houses.htm - Last updated on Jul 14th, 2014

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