The Oto Indians were part of the Southern Sioux tribes who lived along the Missouri River near the present-day border of Missouri and Nebraska. They were buffalo-hunters and farmers who lived in oven-shaped, earth-covered houses grouped into towns.
Smallpox had depleted their numbers, so the Oto Indians combined with the neighboring Missouri Indians, and their villages totaled about 250 people.
Many of the Otos and Missouris were away hunting buffalo when the Lewis and Clark expedition reached their towns in July 1804. The Corps sent out two men to search for the Indians but came up empty. The captains decided to proceed up the river.
On August 2, a small group of Otos and Missouris arrived at the Corps camp site, which Clark had named Council Bluff across and downriver from what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa. The leading chiefs were still away hunting, but Lewis and Clark invited six or seven lesser chiefs to a council the next morning.
On August 3, with great ceremony, Lewis and Clark held the first formal meeting between representatives of the United States and western Indians. The Indians observed as the soldiers marched in full regalia and demonstrated their skills with weaponry. The Corps show of decorum and military strength would establish the routine for subsequent councils.
During the council, the Indians were told they were the children of a new great father who would provide them with trade and protection in place of their unreliable commerce with the French and the Spanish. It was a speech Lewis would deliver to numerous tribes throughout the journey.
The Otos were advised to make peace with other Indian tribes in order to bring the trade Lewis promised. He also urged the chiefs to send a delegation east to visit President Jefferson. When Lewis concluded, each chief received gifts including a peace medal and face paint. But the captains also sought a council with the leading Oto chief, Little Thief. Lewis had the chiefs take gifts and a copy of his speech to Little Thief in hopes the leader would meet them further up the river.
On August 18, Little Thief and the main Missouri chief, Big Horse, met with the Corps. Lewis gave his speech, and Little Thief agreed that peace would benefit everyone. He asked the captains to negotiate peace between the Otos and the Omaha Indians. But Little Thief also noted that most important to the Otos was the price and quality of trade goods.
Before departing, Little Thief indicated he would go to Washington in the spring. In March 1805, a delegation including Little Thief and one Missouri chief met in Washington, D.C., with President Jefferson, who promised trade goods and told them he hoped for peace.
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