The Omaha tribe began as a larger woodland tribe comprising both the Omaha and Quapaw tribes. This tribe coalesced and inhabited the area near the Ohio and Wabash rivers around year 1600. As the tribe migrated west, it split into what became the Omaha and the Quapaw tribes. The Quapaw settled in what is now Arkansas and the Omaha tribe, known as U-Mo’n-Ho’n (“upstream”) settled near the Missouri River in what is now northwestern Iowa. Another division happened, with the Ponca becoming an independent tribe, but they tended to settle near the Omaha.
The first European journal reference to the Omaha tribe was made by Pierre-Charles Le Sueur in 1700. Informed by reports, he described an Omaha village with 400 dwellings and a population of about 4,000 people. It was located on the Big Sioux River near its confluence with the Missouri River, near present-day Sioux City, Iowa. The French then called it “The River of the Mahas.”
Tribal territory of Omaha and other tribes
In 1718, the French cartographer Guillaume Delisle mapped the tribe as “The Maha, a wandering nation”, along the northern stretch of the Missouri River. French fur trappers found the Omaha on the eastern side of the Missouri River in the mid-18th century. The Omaha were believed to have ranged from the Cheyenne River in South Dakota to the Platte River in Nebraska. Around 1734 the Omaha established their first village west of the Missouri River on Bow Creek in present-day Cedar County, Nebraska.
Around 1775 the Omaha developed a new village, probably located near Homer, Nebraska. Ton won tonga, also called the “Big Village,” was the village of Chief Blackbird. At this time, the Omaha controlled the fur trade on the Upper Missouri River. About 1795, the village had around 1,100 people.
Around 1800 a smallpox epidemic, resulting from contact with Europeans, swept the area, reducing the tribe’s population by killing approximately one-third of its members. Chief Blackbird was among those who died that year. Blackbird had established trade with the Spanish and French, and used trade as a security measure to protect his people. Aware they traditionally lacked a large population as defense from neighboring tribes, Blackbird believed that fostering good relations with white explorers and trading were the keys to their survival. The Spanish built a fort nearby and traded regularly with the Omaha during this period.
After the United States made the Louisiana Purchase and exerted pressure on the trading in this area, there was a proliferation of different kinds of goods among the Omaha: tools and clothing became prevalent, such as scissors, axes, top hats and buttons. Women took on more manufacturing of goods for trade, as well as hand farming, perhaps because of evolving technology. Those women buried after 1800 had shorter, more strenuous lives; none lived past the age of 30. But they also had larger roles in the tribe’s economy, as the later women’s skeletons were buried with more silver artifacts than those of the men, or of women before 1800. After the research, the tribe buried the ancestral remains in 1991.
When Lewis and Clark visited Ton-wa-tonga in 1804, most of the inhabitants were gone on a seasonal buffalo hunt. The expedition met with the Oto Indians, who were also Siouan speaking. The explorers were led to the gravesite of Chief Blackbird before continuing on their expedition west. In 1815 the Omaha made their first treaty with the United States, one called a “treaty of friendship and peace.” No land was relinquished by the tribe.
Semi-permanent Omaha villages lasted from 8 to 15 years. They created sod houses for winter dwellings, which were arranged in a large circle in the order of the five clans or gentes of each moitie, to keep the balance between the Sky and Earth parts of the tribe. Eventually, disease and Sioux aggression from the north forced the tribe to move south. Between 1819 and 1856, they established villages near what is now Bellevue, Nebraska and along Papillion Creek .