According to oral tradition documented for several tribes of the Degiha branch of the Siouan language family, as well as initially sporadic accounts by Europeans — from the 16th and 17th century on — the Degiha tribes (Omaha, Ponca, Osage, Kansa, Quapaw) migrated from their ancestral homeland and reached their latest homelands some time probably between the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. There will have been certain time variations between tribes regarding their final locations. About the position of their ancestral homeland there appear to be two hypotheses: one sees it west of the Great Lakes, the other at the mouth of the Ohio River. Initially, the Degiha cognates seem to have been a single tribe, according to Ritter (2002) called arkansa or alkansa by the Illinois tribes. Another account apparently well-supported by linguistic evidence states the name of the ancestral tribe as hõʔgɑ or hãʔgɑ.

Degiha Migration

Map showing the more or less hypothetical migration routes and separation points of the Degiha tribes. (Ritter 2002)

It is not known what circumstances dislocated the hãʔgɑ and made them change their habitat of woodland for the great plains - it was speculated that climate change might have played a role like the cold and dry period culminating around 1200 A.D. and ending around 1400 (the Little Ice Age).

Ritter relates that according to Ponca told history, the tribes travelled down the Ohio to the Mississippi. There they separated to the "downstream people" (which were the later Quapaw) and the "upstream people" (see the map). The greater group travelling upstream remained for some time in the area of today's St. Louis before they continued westwards and upstream along the Missouri to the mouth of the Osage River. There the next separation took place. "The Omaha and Ponca crossed the Missouri River and left the Osage and Kaw [Kansa, note by S.B.] behind." Ritter (2002: 275). They went north to the sacred pipestone quarries in Minnesota, but were driven away by Dakota and drifted south-west where they encountered further trouble with Dakotan tribes.

From the point of the separation from the Osage and Kansa the story related by Ritter becomes rather detailed, but only concerns the Omaha and Ponca, therefore I will create a separate post for the Omaha and Ponca migration history.

Ethnohistoric evidence and dating

"The earliest ethnohistoric data available on the Degihas involves the infamous expedition of Spanish conquistador Hernando DeSoto, who reportedly met the Quapaw on the lower Mississippi in 1541 (Fig. 3). Because the expedition specifically names the Quapaw it is widely assumed that the Quapaw were already 'alone,' placing the initial separation of the cognate tribes well before 1541." (Ritter 2002: 277)

Dated Source Report
1541 Hernando deSoto The Quapaw already separated from the other Degiha on the lower Mississippi.
1673 Louis Jolliet, Father Jacques Marquette Omaha (and possibly Ponca) and Ioway on the Des Moines River.
1695 Pierre-Charles Le Sueur The Omaha near the Missouri River, joined by the Ioways.
1701-1702 Le Sueur / [Mildred Mott Wedel] The Omaha residing in a large village on the Big Sioux River. 1,200 Omaha families + 300 Ioway and Otoe families living at the site.
1702/1703  Guillaume de l'Isle Map placing the Omaha near the mouth of the Big Sioux River in north-western Iowa.
1718 Guillaume de l'Isle / [James Howard and Raymond Wood] Map locating the Omaha near the Ioway north of the Missouri River ‒ probably the Big Sioux River. A separate group identified north as "Wandering Omaha". "Howard and Wood believe this last group was very likely the Ponca, which if true is the first recorded mention of the Ponca as a separate tribe by outside observers." (Ritter 2002: 278)
1720 [O'Shea and Ludwickson] The Omaha established Bad Village on Bow Creek in northeastern Nebraska.
1750 [O'Shea and Ludwickson] The first Ponca villages near the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers.
1758 [O'Shea and Ludwickson] Omaha population dropped by 800 vs. their number in the year 1700, which could be the roughly the number of Ponca who may have departed.
1786 [James Henri Howard] A French map identified the Ponca on the Missouri River, near Ponca Creek and the Niobrara River.
1789/1793 Jean Baptiste Monier Traded and lived with the Ponca. He was the first European who actually was in a Ponca settlement and left a written account.
1794 Jacques Clamorgan Located the Ponca "on the bank of the Missouri about thirty leagues above the village of the Maha [Omaha] nation."
1794-1795 Jean Baptiste Trudeau Opened a trading post that came to be known as the "Ponca House" on Ponca Creek near the Missouri.


Archaeological evidence

According to Ritter (2002: 279, based on Fletcher & LaFlesche 1911), "during their migration they used skin tents held in place by a circle of stones that was left in place when the tents were taken down. Some Omaha informants reported having seen the 'tent circles' east of the Missouri, but subsequent attempts to locate them in the early twentieth century were inconclusive."

The Blood Run and Rock Island archaeological sites are located about 16 kilometres (10 miles) south-east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and some 64 km (40 miles) south-west of the sacred pipestone quarries. Archaeological evidence from the two sites indicates they may have been inhabited between 1500-1700 A.D., which coincides with ethnohistoric evidence, such that the Blood Run / Rock Island sites are probably at the site of the main Omaha/Ponca village from the 1690s to maybe 1714. (cf. Ritter 2002)