Friday, April 13, 2007
Escape from Death and a Sister’s Revenge: the Daughters of Omaha Chief Big Elk
The illustration shows the trading posts of the American Fur Company on the banks of the Missouri River in Bellevue, Nebraska. The double log cabin on the left is the original trading post, where young Peter Abadie Sarpy was first employed in the early 1820’s. Sarpy was the great grandson of Madame Chouteau, who founded St Louis. In 1829 Lucien Fontenelle built the two story hewed log house, where he and his wife, Meumbane, one of the daughters of Omaha Chief Big Elk and their young family lived. Fontenelle worked for the American Fur Company, the Wal-Mart of its day.
Another daughter of Big Elk, Mitahne, married Manuel Lisa. Manuel Lisa, the head of the Missouri Fur Company, established Fort Lisa in 1813, about 20 miles north of Bellevue, as a defensive outpost on the western frontier during the War of 1812. He married Mitahne in 1814. They had two children, Rosalie and Christopher. Lisa took Rosalie back to St Louis to be educated by Mother Duchesne. Mitane successfully managed to keep Christopher at Council Bluffs.
William Clark was president of the Missouri Fur Company. Meriwether Lewis’s brother Reuben was a partner. The Missouri Fur Company employed several members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, including John Colter and George Drouillard. Lisa died in 1820, and his employees continued as independent fur traders, moving down to Bellevue. Lucien Fontenelle, Joshua Pilcher, John Dougherty, Andrew Drips all became famous names in the fur trade. They established another trading post about half a mile north of the Sarpy/Fontenelle trading post.
The artist Karl Bodmer immortalized this post in his famous watercolor of 1833, Major Dougherty’s Indian Agency. The site of this trading post is located in today’s Fontenelle Forest. The Bodmer painting is part of the Joslyn Art Museum’s outstanding collection of early American Western art. Joslyn also owns the journals of Prince Maximilian and copies of the maps provided by William Clark for Prince Max; maps which were used in the Atlas of the Lewis and Clark Journals. Scholars and western history buffs have long waited for a modern edition of the Prince Maximilian Journals to be published. The first in a series of volumes will be published by the University of Oklahoma this summer. Prince Max and Bodmer journeyed all the way up to Fort Union at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers in 1833-34. Bodmer’s paintings are the finest visual and documentary resource for the Indian tribes and landscape seen by Lewis and Clark thirty years earlier.
When Maximilian made a journal entry for May 3, 1833, he provided part of the evidence for the story of "Escape from Death and a Sister’s Revenge." (Nebraska History, fall, 1983, vol. 64:3). The prince wrote about visiting the trading post in Fontenelle Forest, which Bodmer painted. As they left the Bellevue Agency they saw "Omawhah Indians, 3 in number, who were creeping along the beach. An older and a younger man, and a woman. They were wrapped in buffalo ropes. They young man had a bow in his hands and quiver with arrows, of hide. on his back. He was painted white about his eyes and the nose. The woman is the well-known Mitain ("n" as in French) of whom Say relates in Long’s journey that her white man left her and took her child with him, whereupon she followed him quite a distance and showed much loyalty. She was recently stabbed in the chest by the Ayawas and by chance was not scalped; her son, likewise wounded, is also on the path of recovery."
Henry Fontenelle, a son of Lucien Fontenelle wrote a letter to the editor of the Bellevue newspaper about what happened next (Nov. 19, 1875, letter on file at Historical Society of Douglas County). He wrote: "In writing of the former place and within a few steps of where Logan’s grave is reminds me of an incident happened when I was but an infant. The Omahs and Iowa Indians were at war to about the year 1833 or 4. a small party of the Iowas laid in ambush waiting when my mother’s sister with her son and a few others going home to the Omaha village on the Elkhorn river and four miles from the first Bellvue, on the road now to Omaha City, were attacked by the Ioways some of them killed my mothers sister pinioned with lances to the ground with her son and left to die, but where found next day and relieved on their torture, were cared for and made well again. soon after the cruel assaults, peace was made between the omahs + Iowas some of the Iowas during a friendly visit to the omahas were furnished whiskey became intoxicated and made boasts of their assault on my mothers sister and her son in her presence. it so enraged my mother she picked up a small handaxe and buried the (?) of one of the Iowa, the others fled in dismay.
Another version of this story was related by Mrs. E Anderson in "At Bellevue in the Thirties" (Nebraska State Historical Society, vol 19, 1918). She remembered: "One morning shortly after school was called, the two Fontenelle brothers were conning over their lessons, when the mother and a negro man dashed to the door and caught the little boys in their arms and ran out at the southwest corner of the fort across the bluffs to the trading post. And the news in the fort was that Fontenelle’s wife was killed by an Iowa Indian who was at the fort. There were a great many Iowa Indians there at that time; and they were for getting away from there in a hurry. In a short time they found it was right to the reverse. The woman had killed the man. The men ran out at the southeast corner of the fort; ran down the river road to the trading post; but she got there first. She and the children were locked up in the upper story. That night Mr. Fontenelle put her and her two children about of a boat and sent them up the river to her people. She came back the next summer. While up there a little girl was added to the family…."
This is what I find fascinating about history, trying to establish something of the truth from a variety of accounts. I recently gave a talk on Omaha Chief Big Elk at Sarpy County Museum in Bellevue, and then had the privilege of attending a day long event honoring Omaha Chief Big Elk and the present day Logan Fontenelle and members of his family, who are descended from Henry Fontenelle. Cousins Joyce Kramer and Wayne Fontenelle are in the process of writing a history of their family. Joyce has published a paper on their history already. The Fontenelle children were: Logan (b. 1825), Albert (b. 1827), Tecumseh (b. 1829), Henry (b.1831) and Susan (b. 1833). Lucien Fontenelle, their father, was the factor or manager of Fort Laramie in 1837-38, and took his family there to live with him. Fort Laramie is the subject of another famous painting by Alfred Jacob Miller, who painted it in 1837.
Wynema Morris and her mother were also present. They are descendants of Manuel Lisa and Mitahne’s son Christopher. Wynema requested the sources for the story I have just told, so I thought I would write it up in honor of Big Elk and all of his descendants, and share it with others on this blog.
During the day long event on April 11, 2007, a group of us visited three Bellevue Public Schools: Logan Fontenelle Middle School, Mission Middle School and Bellevue East High School. Representatives from the Omaha Tribe, the Strategic Air Command, the City of Bellevue, Bellevue Public Schools and Omaha Public Schools gave talks. Omaha Indian students came down from the reservation in Macy, Nebraska and partnered with Bellevue students to attend classes with them. Later we all went out in the rain and snow to dedicate a new bench and markers at the cemetery where Big Elk is buried. Bellevue students raised $3,000 for a beautiful granite bench and other grave site markers. They also cleaned up and restored headstones in the old Bellevue Cemetery overlooking the banks of the Missouri River where these long ago events took place.
Big Elk, Ongpatonga, was a famous Indian Chief and orator. Born in 1755, he ruled his tribe from 1811 until his death in 1846. I will write at another time of his famous funeral oration "On the Death of Black Buffalo" at the treaty signings at Portage des Sioux in July, 1815. He visited Washington, DC in 1821 with a delegation of Indians from the Council Bluffs area who were the first Indians to be painted by the official government painter, Charles Bird King. Dr Herman Viola, who is shown in a photo on my blog when I wrote about visiting DC last year and attending the Book Expo of America, is the author of a book called Diplomats in Buckskins about these Indian delegations.
The historic attractions of Bellevue are among some of the 800 destinations in my book Lewis and Clark Road Trips. Visit the Trip Planner on the Lewis and Clark Road Trips website to find links to websites and MapQuest maps.
Posted by Kira Gale on 04/13/2007 at 11:29 PM
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