Henri Chatillon's Heart of Lightness | HistoryNet MENU
In 1967 this painting of Henri Chatillon and his Oglala wife, Bear Robe, turned up in the attic of his St. Louis home.

Henri Chatillon’s Heart of Lightness

By John Koster
11/25/2015 • Wild West Magazine

They were Henri Chatillon’s treasured keepsakes, reminders of both an enduring love and a vital friendship that left its mark on literature. In 1967 an electrician discovered the leather-wrapped bundle beneath the attic floorboards of the Chatillon-DeMenil Mansion in St. Louis. The spindle of the bundle was a high-quality Hawken rifle from the 1840s. Wrapped around it was an oil painting of a handsome, dark-bearded, sad-eyed Frenchman and a beautiful American Indian woman in two profiles—one looking up to Heaven in search of mercy, the other down to Earth, offering consolation. The girl was Bear Robe, daughter and sister of notable Oglala Lakota chiefs. The Hawken rifle had belonged to Francis Parkman, author of the frontier classic The Oregon Trail (1849). The mournful Frenchman in the painting was Chatillon himself. Their shared tale is the story of the American West.

‘I have never in the city or the wilderness met a better man than my noble and true-hearted friend Henry Chatillon’ —Francis Parkman

Born on Sept. 16, 1823, Francis Parkman Jr., the eldest son of prominent Unitarian minister Francis Parkman, was raised in Boston and on his maternal grandfather’s estate at nearby Medford. The younger Parkman entered Harvard at 16, and at 20 he took a grand tour of Europe. In Rome he declined offers to convert to Catholicism, though he came to respect the Catholic Church. Returning to Harvard, he studied the law and wore down his eyesight to the point it gave him trouble the rest of his life. In 1845 cousin Quincy Adams Shaw, who had studied medicine at Harvard, proposed the postgraduates journey west the following spring to hunt buffalo and see the Indians before they “vanished.” Parkman jumped at the chance.

While they were prepping for Harvard, Henri (or Henry) Chatillon was learning the ropes as a hunter for the American Fur Co. A grandson of French naval officer Clément Delor de Treget, Chatillon was born on Dec. 3, 1813, in Carondelet, a Missouri River town his grandfather had founded in 1767.

Parkman wrote of his and Shaw’s meeting with Chatillon in The Oregon Trail:

On coming one afternoon to the [American Fur Co.] office, we found there a tall and exceedingly well-dressed man with a face so open and frank that it attracted our notice at once.…From the age of 15 years [he] had been constantly in the neighborhood of the Rocky Mountains, employed by the most part by the company to supply their forts with buffalo.…He had arrived in St. Louis the day before from the mountains, where he had remained for four years; and he now only asked to go and spend a day with his mother before setting out on another expedition. His age was about 30. He was 6 feet high and very powerfully and gracefully molded. The prairies had been his school; he could neither read nor write.…His manly face was a mirror of uprightness, simplicity and kindness of heart.

Perhaps out of kindness of heart Chatillon agreed to be their guide, for neither Parkman nor Shaw knew a thing about the Plains tribes. Their first hire had been a fur company employee named Deslauriers—“a Canadian, with all the characteristics of the true Jean-Baptiste. Neither fatigue, exposure nor hard labor could ever impair his cheerfulness and gaiety or his obsequious politeness to his bourgeois [boss].” Deslauriers was a capable follower—a muleteer and fry cook who drove a cart with tents, food, and gifts for the Indians. But fur company employees had recommended Chatillon as chief guide.

An old Delaware chief took their measure early and tacitly endorsed Henri Chatillon as the de facto leader. “Who’s your chief?” the Delaware inquired of Chatillon. The Frenchman pointed past muleteer Deslauriers to Shaw and Parkman. “No good!” the wise old chief declared. “Too young!”

Parkman thought himself something of a hunter, but Chatillon—who had killed at least 30 formidable grizzly bears—quietly disabused him. Needing meat one day, the guide borrowed Parkman’s new Hawken rifle, brought along his own timeworn muzzleloader and slipped up on buffalo grazing upwind about 150 yards away. He fired twice.

“You have missed them,” Parkman blurted. A moment later one buffalo dropped as a second staggered in its death throes. Chatillon had hit both through the lungs at 150 yards over open sights. “You see I miss him,” Chatillon said dryly.

Parkman was an inveterate snob, but he found Chatillon to be a better horseman and rifleman, adept in Indian languages and rich in common sense. The guide knew everyone important, white or Indian, and they all respected him. “The palpable superiority of Henry Chatillon’s experience and skill made him the resort of the whole camp upon every question of difficulty,” Parkman wrote.

He soon witnessed a gentler aspect of his rugged guide’s character. With the hunting party members lodged amicably among the Lakotas, one of Chatillon’s lackluster in-laws, an Oglala “dandy” known as The Horse—who “carried a dragoon sword in his hand, solely for display”—arrived with devastating news: Henri’s Lakota wife, Bear Robe, had taken deathly ill.

“She and her children were in the village of The Whirlwind, at the distance of a few days’ journey,” Parkman recalled. “Henry was anxious to see the woman before she died and provide for the safety and support of his children, of whom he was extremely fond. To have refused him this would have been gross inhumanity.”

Parkman and Shaw consented to the detour. En route, however, Parkman’s shaky health collapsed with what sounds like a digestive disorder complicated by hysterical blindness or day glare, and he missed the sad ending to the first marriage of Henri Chatillon. But Shaw described Bear Robe’s death to Parkman, as recorded in The Oregon Trail:

The woman lay in one of [the lodges], reduced to a mere skeleton. For some time she had been unable to move or speak. Indeed, nothing had kept her alive but the hope of seeing Henry, to whom she strongly and faithfully attached. No sooner did he enter the lodge than she revived and conversed with him for the greater part of the night. Early in the morning she was lifted into a [travois], and the whole party set out toward our camp.…Henry was riding with Shaw a few rods in advance of the Indians, when Mahto-Tatonka [sic], a younger brother of the woman, hastily called after them.…They reached her just in time to hear the death rattle in her throat. In a moment she lay dead in the basket of the vehicle. A complete stillness succeeded; then the Indians raised in concert their cries of lamentation over the corpse.…A fine horse was picketed not far off, destined to be killed that morning for the service of her spirit, for the woman was lame [incapacitated by her illness] and could not travel on foot over the dismal prairies to the villages of the dead. Food, too, was provided, and household implements for her use upon this last journey. Henry left her to the care of her relatives and came immediately with Shaw to the camp. It was some time before he entirely recovered from his dejection.

Henri’s infant daughter had also died. He entrusted their older daughter to the family of a fellow fur trader. A few days later two of Bear Robe’s brothers showed up to express their condolences to Henri, whom they accepted as an actual brother.

Parkman was an acute observer. He knew that many white men consorted with Indian women but took no responsibility for any half-blood offspring. The idea that a man whom Parkman respected actually acknowledged and cared about his mixed-blood children was a cultural watershed. Parkman had once used the term “squalid savages”—later borrowed by his intense admirer Theodore Roosevelt—to describe the American Indians. But Parkman, inspired by Henri Chatillon, soon dug deeper.

Bear Robe’s father, Bull Bear (Mato Tatanka), had died at the hands of rival warriors some five years earlier. “He was the father of Henry Chatillon’s squaw, a circumstance which proved of some advantage to us,” Parkman noted. “Mahto-Tatonka, in his rude way, was a hero.” His principal heir, Mato Tatanka the younger, was one of the brothers who had offered Chatillon condolences. “He had oftener struck the enemy and stolen more horses and more squaws than any young man in the village,” Parkman wrote. To the classically trained scholar he and the other young Lakota warriors were figures of Olympian stature. “Only on the prairie and in the Vatican have I seen such faultless models of the human figure,” he gushed. “With his free and noble attitude, with the bow in his hand and the quiver at his back, he might seem, but for his face, the Pythian Apollo himself.”

And Parkman experienced other revelations. One day he looked on as the Lakotas tended to a lost runaway black slave, with no thought of turning him in. The Lakotas routinely invited the white hunters to eat with them. Chatillon and Shaw sometimes left the enfeebled Parkman in the care of the Indians while they went hunting. Aside perhaps from overfeeding him, they did him no harm. For the rest of his life—though he criticized other tribes—Parkman bristled in print when others disparaged the Sioux as either stupid or cruel.

In his eyes the young Lakota women were “beauties,” their bashful if giggling flirtations generally chaste. As such flirtations were marriage-directed, and Parkman’s poor health made him appear shabby husband material, no romantic relationships seem to have developed. The author regarded older Lakota men as fairly profound. “The intellect of an Indian can embrace the idea of an all-wise, all-powerful Spirit, the Supreme Ruler of the Universe,” he wrote. “To him all nature is instinct with mystic influence.” In essence Parkman perceived them as transplanted German Romantics or New England Transcendentalists of the era.

The author’s impressions in The Oregon Trail percolated down to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose popular epic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855) was perhaps the single greatest antidote to the type of genocide proposed by William Tecumseh Sherman, who wrote after the 1866 Fetterman Massacre, “We must proceed with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination—men, women and children.” Public indignation kept this from happening in 1866, as it did 10 years later after the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Longfellow, a believing Christian and early abolitionist, actually knew little about the Sioux he had not learned from Parkman. And Parkman had learned from Chatillon, until he himself came to appreciate the Lakotas, befriend several and accept them as rough people of turbulent nature but Homeric mold. Parkman even took time to learn some of the Lakota language.

Chatillon’s influence on Parkman came at an opportune time. After the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1858, a decade after The Oregon Trail, anyone not of Anglo-Saxon heritage was assigned a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder. The Lakotas in Parkman’s writing, however, incontestably human and often physically and mentally impressive, come off not only far better than other Indians but also better than the Mormons, Missourians or hapless Mexicans that Parkman slams in The Oregon Trail.

Soon after returning Francis Parkman and Quincy Adams Shaw to civilization, Henri Chatillon himself settled in and made provisions for the future. Parkman recalled their parting in The Oregon Trail:

No one who met him in the streets of St. Louis would have taken him for a hunter fresh from the Rocky Mountains. He was very neatly and simply dressed in a suit of dark cloth.…We took leave of him with much regret.…Shaw had given him a horse at Westport. My rifle, which he had always been fond of using, as it was an excellent piece, is now in his hands.”

The rifle did not remain in his hands long. Within a year of the hunting party’s return to St. Louis, Parkman submitted The Oregon Trail to The Knickerbocker literary magazine in 21 installments (1847–49), and the subsequent book became a bestseller, bringing its author and his former guide fame. Meanwhile, Chatillon had commissioned the painting of himself and Bear Robe, with spiritual overtones, from an unknown St. Louis artist. In October 1848 he married first cousin Odile Delor Lux, a widow as he himself was a widower. Odile had earlier purchased 21 acres in St. Louis, and the couple built a sturdy four-room brick farmhouse. At some point Parkman’s gifted Hawken rifle made its way to the attic. The Chatillons lived in comfort in the booming city, selling off some of their extra acres when they needed cash. In 1856 they sold the remaining acres to doctor and land speculator Nicholas DeMenil, who transformed the modest brick farmhouse into a Greek Revival mansion.

Perhaps Chatillon relegated the painting of Bear Robe to the attic because his second wife would not have approved—or perhaps because the spirit of Bear Robe would not have approved. While multiple wives were common among her people, Lakotas hold any form of cousin marriage in horror. Regardless, Chatillon’s feelings for Bear Robe appear never to have conflicted with his affection for Odile. After the couple sold the house, Chatillon had considered leading a hunting expedition to Fort Laramie, but he changed his mind, turned the party over to Jim Bridger and returned with Odile to Carondelet, his birthplace.

Years earlier Henri had lost his infant daughter, perhaps because the dying Bear Robe could not nurse due to what sounds like tuberculosis. He had left older daughter Emilie in the care of fur trader Joseph Bissonette and family. Henri reclaimed Emilie when she was 17. On New Year’s Eve 1858 he saw her baptized in Carondelet at Saints Mary and Joseph Catholic Church, and at the same church three days later he gave her away in marriage to Louis Benjamin Lessert. Ben, who earned Chatillon’s approval as a reliable son-in-law, had first met Emilie during a stop at Bissonette’s trading post in what would become Wyoming. Their reportedly happy 46-year marriage produced three children. Henri’s marriage to Odile remained respectable but childless.

Chatillon died in 1873 in St. Louis. Exact dates differ, and his grave marker has since gone missing. But his real memorial is in the pages of Parkman’s The Oregon Trail. “He was a proof of what unaided nature will sometimes do,” wrote the author. “I have never in the city or the wilderness met a better man than my noble and true-hearted friend Henry Chatillon.” Longfellow’s literary output, in particular “The Song of Hiawatha,” also gave words to the message Parkman had absorbed from Chatillon and his mournful love for Bear Robe and concern for their daughter, Emilie: “Every human heart is human.” WW

John Koster is a special contributor to Wild West and the author of Custer Survivor. For further reading he recommends The Oregon Trail, by Francis Parkman. Originally published in the October 2015 issue of Wild West.

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