Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan and Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi

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Life on the prairies or mountains with the best built house had to be hard for our ancestors, but consider the Indians of the 1800′s.  With few implements, or tools, they constructed their homes from their surroundings.  David Bushnell, provides a vivid picture of the traditional homes, hunting camps, and travels of our ancestors.  Even without the photos and drawings included here, he paints a picture of their life with his words.

The villages as well as the separate structures reared by the many tribes who formerly occupied the region treated in the present work presented marked characteristics, causing them to be easily identified by the early travelers through the wilderness of a century ago. The mat and bark covered wigwam predominated among the Algonquian tribes of the north, although certain members of this great linguistic family also used the skin tipi so typical of the Siouan tribes of the plains, while some of the latter stock constructed the earth lodge similar to that erected by the Caddoan tribes. Thus, it will be understood no one group occupied habitations of a single form to the exclusion of all others, and again practically all the tribes had two or more types of dwellings which were reared and used under different conditions, some forming their permanent villages, others, being easily removed and transported, serving as their shelters during long journeys in search of the buffalo.

Algonquian Tribes

Catlin, George - 334, Chippeway Village and Dog Feast at the Falls of St. Anthony; lodges build with birch-bark: Upper Mississippi
Catlin, George – 334, Chippeway Village and Dog Feast at the Falls of St. Anthony; lodges build with birch-bark: Upper Mississippi

The numerous tribes and the many confederated groups belonging to the great Algonquian linguistic family extended over the continent from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic coast, and from Labrador on the north southward to Carolina. They surrounded the Iroquoian tribes of the north, and at various places came in contact with members of other stocks. The combined population of the widely scattered Algonquian tribes was greater than that of any other linguistic family in North America.

The native tribes of tidewater Virginia and those who were encountered by the New England colonists, tribes so intimately associated with the early history of the Colonies, belonged to this stock, as did the later occupants of the Ohio Valley and of the “country of Illinois.” In the present work the villages of other members of the linguistic group will be considered, including those of the Ojibway and the related Cree, and of the Blackfoot confederacy, Arapaho, and Cheyenne, usually termed the western division of the stock. Several tribes whose villages stood east of the Mississippi in early historic times will also be mentioned.

Siouan Tribes

The numerous and widely scattered tribes belonging to the Siouan linguistic family formerly had a combined population which caused this to rank as the second largest stock north of Mexico, being exceeded only by the Algonquian.

All evidence tends to prove that during past centuries the many tribes who were found living west of the Mississippi when the great central valley of the continent first became known to Europeans had, within a few generations, migrated from the eastward. This is likewise indicated by certain tribal traditions. Many had undoubtedly occupied the upper parts of the Ohio Valley, and were probably the builders of the great earthworks discovered in that region. What impelled the westward movement of the tribes may never be determined. Whether they were forced to abandon their early habitat by stronger forces, by the lack of food which made it necessary for them to seek a more plentiful supply, or by reason of causes distinct from either of these can never be definitely known.

But some remained in the east; all did not join in the migration, and the native tribes encountered by the colonists living in the piedmont region of Virginia and extending southward into Carolina belonged to this linguistic family. Their villages have been mentioned in a former publication.[1]

It is more than probable that while living east of the Mississippi all reared and occupied structures similar to those of the Algonquian tribes of later generations, mat and bark covered lodges, such as continued in use by the Osage, Quapaw, and others even after they had reached their new homes, but some through necessity were compelled to adopt other forms of dwellings. Thus many were found occupying the conical skin tipi, while some had learned the art of building the large earth-covered lodges, an art which had evidently been derived from the Caddoan tribes coming from the Southwest.

Dakota-Assiniboin Group:

The Dakota constitute the largest division of the great Siouan linguistic family. To quote from the Handbook, this group includes the following tribes, a classification which is recognized by the people themselves: Mdewakanton,Wahpeton,Wahpekute,Sisseton,Yankton,Yanktonai, and Teton; each of which is again subdivided into bands and subbands.” These seven principal divisions are often referred to as the Seven Council Fires of the Dakota. The first four groups as given in this classification formed the eastern division, and their home, when first encountered by Europeans, was in the densely forested region about the headwaters of the Mississippi. The others lived westward, reaching far into the plains. The Assiniboin, in historic times a separate tribe, was originally a part of the Yanktonai, from whom they separated and became closely allied with the Algonquian Cree. Thus some of the Dakota as first known to history were a timber people, others lived where the forest and prairie joined, with a mingling of the fauna and flora of the two regions, and in later years the Oglala, the principal division of the Teton, extended their wanderings to and beyond the Black Hills, crossing the great buffalo range.

As will be shown in the sketches of the dwellings and other structures of the Dakota tribes, those who lived in the timbered region, occupying much of the present State of Minnesota, erected the type of habitation characteristic of the region, but in the villages along the Minnesota both bark and skin covered lodges were in use, and the more western villages were formed exclusively of the latter type, the conical skin tipi of the plains. There appears to have been very little variation in the form of structure as erected by the widely scattered bands.

Dhegiha Group:

Five tribes are considered as belonging to this group of the Siouan linguistic family: Omaha, Ponca. Quapaw, Osage, and Kansa. Distinct from the Dakota-Assiniboin tribes already mentioned, these undoubtedly some centuries ago lived in the central and upper Ohio valleys, whence they moved westward to and beyond the Mississippi. To these tribes may be attributed the great earthworks of the southern portion of Ohio and the adjacent regions bordering the Ohio River. To quote from the Handbook: “Hale and Dorsey concluded from a study of the languages and, traditions that, in the westward migration of the Dhegiha from their seat on Ohio and Wabash rivers, after the separation, at least as early as 1500, of the Quapaw, who went down the Mississippi from the mouth of the Ohio, the Omaha branch moved up the great river, remaining awhile near the mouth of the Missouri while war and hunting parties explored the country to the northwest. The Osage remained on Osage River, and the Kansa continued up the Missouri, while the Omaha, still including the Ponca, crossed the latter stream and remained for a period in Iowa, ranging as far as the Pipestone quarry at the present Pipestone, Minnesota.

While living in the heavily timbered valleys reaching to the Ohio the several tribes now being considered unquestionably occupied villages consisting of groups of mat-covered lodges of the type erected by the Osage and Quapaw until the present time. But with the Omaha, Ponca, and Kansa it was different, and when they reached the intermediate region, where forest and prairie joined, they were compelled to adopt a new form of structure, one suited to the natural environments, and thus they began to make use of the earth covered lodge, and the conical skin tipi, with certain variations in form. The characteristic structures of the five tribes will now be briefly described, beginning with those of the Omaha.

Chiwere Group

This group, so designated by the late Dr. J. O. Dorsey, includes three tribes, the Iowa, Oto, and Missouri, who spoke slightly different dialects of the same language. According to tribal traditions, they were, generations ago, allied and associated with the Winnebago, from whom they separated and scattered while living in the vicinity of the Great Lakes east of the Mississippi, where the Winnebago continued to dwell. It is not the purpose of the present sketch to trace the movements of the three tribes from their ancient habitat to the banks of the Mississippi, thence westward to the Missouri and beyond, but the routes followed in their migrations can be fairly accurately determined by comparing their own statements and traditions with early historical records, and it is quite probable that many village sites now discovered within this region were once occupied by some members of these tribes.

While living east of the Mississippi in a region of lakes and streams surrounded by vast forests, their habitations were undoubtedly the bark or mat covered structures, but when some moved far west and came in contact with tribes beyond the Missouri they evidently learned the art of constructing the earth-covered lodge which they soon began to occupy. Likewise when and where the skin tipi first became known to them is not possible to determine, but probably not until they had reached the valley of the Missouri and were nearing the banks of that stream north of the Kansas.

Hidatsa Group:

Caddoan Tribes

The ancient habitat of the many small tribes which evidently later became confederated, thus forming the principal groups of this linguistic stock, was in the southwest, whence the Pawnee and Arikara, and those gathered under the name of the Wichita, moved northward.

The Caddo proper, the name of a tribe later applied to the confederated group of which they formed the principal member, formerly occupied the valley of the Red River of Louisiana, the many villages of the several tribes being scattered along the banks of that stream and of its tributaries in northern Louisiana, southwestern Arkansas, and eastern Texas. Although usually included in the same linguistic group with the Pawnee, Arikara, Wichita, and others, several notable authorities are inclined to regard the Caddo as constituting a separate and distinct linguistic group. This may be established and recognized in the future.

The Caddoan family is less clearly defined than either of the preceding, but evidently consisted of many small tribes grouped, and forming confederacies. Those to be mentioned later include:

Although the latter are included in the same linguistic group with the Arikara, Pawnee, and others as mentioned above, they are regarded by some as constituting a distinct linguistic stock.

During the years following the close of the Revolution, the latter part of the eighteenth century, many tribes, or rather the remnants of tribes, then living east of the Mississippi, sought a refuge in the Nest beyond the river. Many settled on the streams in the southern part of the present State of Missouri and northern Arkansas, and, as stated by Stoddard when writing about the year 1810: “A considerable number of Delawares, Shawanee, and Cherokees, have built some villages on the waters of the St. Francis and White Rivers. Their removal info these quarters was authorized by the Spanish government, and they have generally conducted themselves to the satisfaction of the whites. Some stragglers from the Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaws, who are considered as outlaws by their respective nations, have also established themselves on the same waters; and their disorders and depredations among the white settlers are not unfrequent.” [2] And at about the same time another writer, referring to the same region, said: ” Below the Great Osage, on the waters of the Little Osage, Saint Francis, and other streams, are a number of scattered bands of Indians, and two or three considerable villages. These bands were principally Indians, who were formerly outcasts from the tribes east of the Mississippi. Numbers have since joined from the Delawares, Shawanoes, Wayondott, and other tribes towards the lakes. Their warriors are said to be five or six hundred. They have sometimes made excursions and done mischief on the Ohio river, but the settlements on the Mississippi have suffered the most severely by their depredations.” [3]

No attempt will be made in the present work to describe the habitations or settlements occupied by the scattered bands just mentioned.

It is quite evident that during the past two or three centuries great changes have taken place in the locations of the tribes which were discovered occupying the region west of the Mississippi by the first Europeans to penetrate the vast wilderness. Thus the general movement of many Siouan tribes has been westward, that of some Algonquian groups southward from their earlier habitats, and the Caddoan appear to have gradually gone northward. It resulted in the converging of the tribes in the direction of the great prairies occupied by the vast herds of buffalo which served to attract the Indian. Until the beginning of this tribal movement it would seem that a great region eastward from the base of the Rocky Mountains, the rolling prairie lands, was not the home of any tribes but was solely the range of the buffalo and other wild beasts, which existed in numbers now difficult to conceive.

Biographies of Artists in this book:

The references brought together and presented on the preceding pages will reveal the nature of the dwellings and the appearance of the camps and villages which stood, so short a time ago, in the region between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains. First encountered in the southern part of the country by the Spanish expeditions led by De Soto and Coronado before the middle of the sixteenth century, and by the French who entered the upper and central portions of the Mississippi Valley during the latter part of the seventeenth century, all types of structures continued to be reared and occupied until the latter half of the nineteenth century, while some forms are even now in use, although it is highly probable that within another generation these, too, will have disappeared.

Various writers during the eighteenth century mentioned the tribes of the Upper Missouri Valley, but all accounts prepared at that time are rather vague, as was their knowledge of conditions on and in the region bordering the Great Plains. And not until after the transfer of Louisiana to the United States, and as a result of the several expeditions sent out by the Government to explore the newly acquired territories, did the various groups of tribes, with their peculiar characteristics, become known with a degree of certainty. But with the transfer of Louisiana conditions rapidly changed. Hunters and traders soon penetrated the wilderness where few had gone before. Fort Crawford, at the mouth of the Wisconsin; Fort Snelling, just below the Falls of St. Anthony; and Leavenworth on the Missouri, were established before the close of the first quarter of the century. Towns were built farther and farther beyond the old frontier and on April 18, 1851, Kurz wrote in his journal:

“St Joseph, formerly the trading post of Joseph Robidoux, is at the foot of the Blacksnake hills, on the left bank of the Missouri. The streets are crowded with traders and emigrants on their way to California and Oregon. Many Indians of the tribes of the Pottowatomi, Foxes (Musquakee), Kikapoo, Iowa, and Oto are continually in the town. In summer the Bourgeois, or Chiefs, the clerks and Engagés of the fur companies enliven the streets. St. Joseph is now what St Louis was formerly-their gathering place.” Thus the Indian in his primitive state was doomed, as were the vast herds of buffalo which then roamed, unopposed, over the far-reaching prairies.

In studying the various types of structures it is interesting to learn how the natural environments influenced the form of dwellings erected by the tribes of a particular section. Thus in the densely timbered country of the north, about the headwaters of the Mississippi and far beyond, the mat and bark covered wigwams were developed and employed practically to the exclusion of all other forms of habitations. But on the plains, and in the regions bordering the great buffalo ranges, the skin-covered conical tipis predominated, although other forms were sometimes constructed by the same people. The earth lodges as erected by certain tribes of the Missouri Valley were the most interesting native structures east of the Rocky Mountains, and these at once suggest the Rotundas, or great council houses once built by the Cherokees and Creeks east of the Mississippi.

In treating of the habitations and villages of the several tribes references have been made, incidentally, to the manners and ways of life of the people who once claimed and occupied so great a part of the present United States.


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  1. Bushnell, Native Villages and Village Sites East of the Mississippi. 69, Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington, 1919, pp. 92-94.
  2. Stoddard, Sketches . . . of Louisiana, pp. 210-211. Philadelphia, 1812.
  3. Cutler, Jervis, A Topographical Description of the State of Ohio, Indiana Territory, and Louisiana, p. 120. Boston, 1812.

MLA Source Citation: Web. 14 April 2014. - Last updated on Nov 3rd, 2013

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