REVIEW: Fort Osage–opening of the American West (1983)

A book by Rhoda Wooldridge

To prepare for a trip to historic Fort Osage in Sibley, Missouri, I actually tracked down an old book from around the time I was born, seemingly one of the only ones on the actual Fort Itself called Fort Osage–opening of the American West. I did this because I wasn’t sure if the tour guides would be present at all during the tail-end of the Covid-19 Global Pandemic, and wanted to ensure that I would enjoy my trip. I’m sure there are other books out there, such as diaries published from George C. Sibley (The fort’s commander), but tracking these down are equally crazy and likely written in a manner that is not as palatable as this paperback.

It’s a quick read at 140 pages, and doesn’t spend all that much time going into gross details about the people involved. You can tell that the contents were constructed from diaries and logs related to the operations of the Fort itself, as the narrative seems to be mostly about Mr. Sibley and his business transactions.

When Lewis and Clark, on their expedition of 1804 marked the promontory at the bend of the Missouri River near the present-day town of Sibley in Jackson county for the first site west of the Mississippi, our national hold on the West was feeble. The boundaries of the Louisiana purchase were undefined. England, with its large fur trading companies, was encroaching from the north; Spain was moving in on the southwest; and the Pacific coast was up for grabs to any country who would take it. Even Congress and men in Washington considered it a matter of not so quiet desperation.

The war of 1812 and the subsequent treaty of Ghent that followed the building of Fort Osage settles the danger of English encroachment on the old Northwest Territory. A treaty with Spain in 1819 defined the boundaries of the Southwest. These boundaries, which the opening of the Santa Fe trade in 1821 more or less obscured, became recognized boundaries. American trappers and traders looked forward to the West – to the Pacific in the north, the west, and the south. All this was opened with the building of Fort Osage in 1808 and there it stood for 16 years as a citadel between the Mississippi and the Rocky mountains.

Back of the book that I painstakingly transcribed since this book is so rare lol

There are some VERY interesting tidbits inside including descriptions of customs performed by the handful of Indian tribes mentioned. For example, at one point Mr. Sibley was confused as to why Kansas Indians had painted their faces black and were wailing in unison with tears streaming down their faces. He had assumed it was some kind of funeral rite, but was alarmed when his Osage advisor Sans Oreilles (lit “No Ears” in French) told him that they do this as a dark ritual as penance for something bad they are about to do. In this case, that was try to rob the trading post by cover of nightfall, a situation that got their tribe banned for a time.

Another interesting aside, was a story of the discovery of an Indian burial mound wherein the grave of an esteemed British officer had been buried by a tribe that Great Britain had ties with. He was mummified sitting upright in a chair in full-uniform and buried with grave goods befitting royalty. This puzzled everyone, and they wondered who this man was that he got such a lavish burial. How I wish they actually kept this as a verifiable record, as it sounds very cool.

The book is full of these little chapters, you can tell the author went through the original documents looking for interesting items, as the pages are peppered with them. Rather than being a dull slog through the everyday bookkeeping of a trading post (as I’m sure she read), we get the “greatest hits”.

It’s a shame this book isn’t available in digital format nor left in print at all since 1983, as it seems to be pretty good. The local publisher seems to only print books related to Alcoholics Anonymous and other rehabilitation plans, and whilst being a noble cause, its sad to see local history go by the wayside. Thankfully, this book doesn’t appear to be impossible to find. This copy was around ten dollars on Ebay, and I’ve seen brand-new and still shrink-wrapped copies up for grabs for around 20 dollars.

If you have an interest in frontier history or The War of 1812, this might be something to track down, but I’m sure people that live locally or around this area would likely enjoy it a bit more. While a bit outdated in vernacular and lacking any sort of footnotes, the book is far from a scholarly text in any way, but its enjoyable and helped me learn a lot more about the area I live, and some of the history of a time that most American schooling seems to entirely bypass.

This review is part of my 2021 series History Boy Summer, which you can read more of following this LINK.

3 comments

  1. […] To prepare for Fort Osage, I actually tracked down an old book from around the time I was born, seemingly one of the only ones on the actual Fort Itself called Fort Osage–opening of the American West by Rhoda Wooldridge. I know there are diaries published from George C. Sibley out there, but I’m sure these will be even harder to get, or be chained to a library. Its lack of Footnotes aside, the information seems to be a narrative of the aforementioned diaries of the various people involved, so it’s got to be pretty accurate, and its a quick read. If you’d like to read my full review of this book, please click HERE. […]

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