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Archive for Sunday, July 18, 2004

White migration ravaged Kansas Indians with disease

July 18, 2004

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A summer day in 1800 probably felt to a Kansa Indian very similar to how the early summer weather this year felt to Lawrence residents.

That's because what is known today as the "little ice age" was then in full flower, having begun in the mid-14th century. It would continue through the mid-1800s.

"The little ice age created a favorable climate," bringing with it cool weather and plenty of rain, said Jim Sherow, associate professor of history with an emphasis in environmental history at Kansas State University.

But the mild weather was enjoyed by relatively few people.

That's because from the time of the first European contact in 1525 until about 1700, the estimated 2 to 3 million Indians who occupied the grasslands in North America were reduced in number by 80 percent to 90 percent, ravaged by European diseases, Sherow said.

"It has always been one of the hardest things in archeology and history to give a good estimate of the population numbers" in the early 1800s, said Randy Thies, Kansas State Historical Society archeologist. "But the Kaw Indians, for example, are thought to have had around 2,000 people."

The state of Kansas was named for the Kansa or Kaw Indians, whose name means "people of the south wind." They were one of the major Indian tribes -- along with the Osage, Oto and Missouri -- in northeast Kansas in the early 1800s, said Dan Wildcat, professor of American Indian studies at Haskell Indian Nations University.

Thies said the Osage population probably numbered well more than 2,000 people given that the Kansa tribe split off from them. Another large tribe that had anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 people was the South Band of the Pawnee that lived in north-central Kansas, Thies said.

The Pawnee, Osage and Kaw were the main "village tribes" of the area, primarily agrarian and sedentary, Thies said.

"For most of these (tribes), the Kansa and the Pawnee especially, this would have been life in earth lodge villages," Thies said. Some of the villages would have been relatively large, he said, with up to 200 lodges.

The village tribes farmed in the river valleys adjacent to the villages, he said. Without the plows the Euro-Americans would bring to farming, the village tribes couldn't work the land in the uplands, Thies said.

What they did instead was "farm very successfully down in the river valleys where you could turn the ground over easily," he said. The main food crops cultivated -- a job handled by women -- were corn, beans, squash and sunflower. Men hunted and fought wars when required.

The village tribes hunted buffalo twice a year, Thies said, going west to hunt and sometimes staying gone for about a month and a half.

Next week, read about the arrival of Euro-Americans in early 1800s eastern Kansas.

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