A Frontier Marriage

Emilie Chatillon Lessert

Bear Robe and Henri’s daughter Emilie was raised by relatives but Henri resumed his paternal duties when Emilie was about 16, bringing her to St. Louis to meet her future husband, a French-Osage-Kanza man named Benjamin Lessert.

Benjamin, twin to Elenora, was also known as “petit Clement,” a French endearment referring to his father, Clement Lessert.

Clement’s family was from the Alsace region of France by way of Canada, and Clement spoke several languages. Historians note that he served as interpreter for the Kanza Indians. Benjamin’s mother, Julia Roy (also known as Royer), was French, Osage and Kanza.

After Clement died Julia looked to the Osage mission as safe harbor for her and Benjamin’s younger sisters and brothers. But the agent required proof of her heritage so she needed to secure permission from a council of Osage chiefs. Kah Tun Kah (Big Chief), Paw Hie Skah (Saucy Chief) and Cro Mah (Claremore) gave their blessing and Julia found a home among the Osage.

My relative Irma Miller wrote about the Clements and Lesserts in her book, French-Indian Families in America’s West, after digging through archives in the Midwest. She writes that Emilie told her grandchildren that she met Benjamin for the first time when she was helping serve supper to the men working at a trading post.

“She was very embarrassed as their eyes met above the heads of the other men at the rough wooden table,” Miller writes.

Henri hand-picked Benjamin for Emilie, and Miller notes that women at that time “accepted all things and did not question the talk of men. Their world revolved around beading, cooking food and making their man comfortable.”

But Miller and others like to think that Emilie and Ben were mutually smitten.

The custom of the time was what Miller calls a Frontier Marriage, when two who intend on marrying “would live as man and wife until the marriage could be formalized.”

Their marriage certificate is archived at St. Mary and St. Joseph Parish in St. Louis, and Mary Stiritz made a photocopy of the records for me during my visit to Missouri last week.

The spidery script notes in Latin and French that Benjamin Lessert and Emilie Chatillon were married on 3 January 1859. The document notes that Benjamin is the son of Clement Lessert and Julia Roy, and that Emilie is the daughter of Henri Chatillon and a mother from the Sioux tribe.

The mother’s name, however, remains a mystery, and Mary Stiritz wonders if the name is spelled phonetically amid the Latin and French scrawl. Emilie’s mother’s name looks like “Tchmertzchkiey” and confounds historians. Bear Robe in Lakota could be Mahto Tashina (her father, Bull Bear, was Mahto Tatonka). The same name appears on Emilie’s baptismal record.

It’s the “rosebud” of our family history.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, Henri Chatillion, Indian, Lakota, Osage and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Frontier Marriage

  1. I discovered your homepage by coincidence.
    Very interesting posts and well written.
    I will put your site on my blogroll.


  2. Rahul Gandhi says:

    Ya, it’s about perception.
    Rahul Gandhi


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