Remembering the 4th grade
A significant portion of my readers are, or were, Missouri residents. I think that most of these people remember the 4th grade Missouri History unit. Part of that unit was usually a field trip to Fort Osage. Even though we have all been there, myself included, I bet only a few can remember what role the fort played in Missouri’s history. Today we rectify that problem.
Fort Osage, sometimes called the “guardian of the Louisiana purchase” was built under the direction of William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame). The fort was built in 1808 on a high bluff overlooking the Missouri river with the purpose of providing an outpost to soldiers and civilians who might need to travel west of the Mississippi river. There were not a lot of these travelers as the United States effectively stopped at Fort Osage at this time. While it was strategically placed overlooking the Missouri River, the fort never really served a true military purpose as there were no large-scale armies maneuvering around the Missouri countryside in the early 1800s.
Instead, the fort was built primary for the purpose of conducting commerce with the Native Americans who populated the area. This “business”, and other like across the west was called the “United States Factory Trade House”. The soldiers stationed at the fort were there mainly to protect the factory. The factory was simply a “government sponsored trading post” which catered to Native American traders who brought in furs to be traded for “white man” goods such as blankets, guns and farming equipment. In the early 1800s the Osage was the dominant tribe living in this area. Other tribes such as the Kansa, Omaha, Sauk and Fox also frequently visited the Factory to trade.
The fort was closed during the War of 1812 because the soldiers were withdrawn and sent to fight back east but was reopened shortly after the war ended. Under the leadership of George Sibley, the “Factory” at Fort Osage became the most successful trade houses in the United States. Over time, independent white trappers on the western edge of the US began to resent and complain about the low prices and perceived unfair government advantages that the factories had over them. By 1822, a year after Missouri officially became the 24th state, the Fort Osage Factory was closed.
The Fort Osage that visitors see today is a reconstruction of the original fort. In 1822 when the fort was closed, the wood from the fort was taken by residents building in the nearby town of Sibley, named after the George Sibley. For $8 admission visitors get to see a nice museum, a short film about the fort and of course the fort itself. About two-thirds of the fort has been reconstructed and visitors are given a nice map to show what was and was not reconstructed.
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