When Names Aren’t What They Seem

I discovered that family names can be invented, forgotten and even lost in the branches of the family tree.

My visit this summer to St. Louis yielded a family tree one of my relatives spent years describing. Irma Miller published the tree in her book French-Indian Families in America’s West in an effort to track her Lakota heritage.

She discovered that we descend from the family of Bull Bear, an Oglala leader of the Bear People. The family spreads like wide branches of a tree, revealing family names like Bear Robe, Lessert and Artichoker on the Lakota side and the Tinkers, Herridges and Revards on the Osage side.

Perhaps because my grandmother’s family was resolutely Osage, she never mentioned the Lakota relatives, maybe because the stories had been lost. Her great grandmother Emilie Chatillon was raised by friends after her Oglala mother, Bear Robe, died. Emilie, who married an Osage, spoke a mixture of French, Lakota and English, making it difficult for folks to understand her, according to Miller’s account.

My sisters and brothers are eager to learn of my discoveries and Miller’s book reveals a bushel-full of French relatives on both sides of my mother’s family.

But the weird thing is that some of the names are transient while others were purloined and then stick.

For example, Emilie’s grandfather was born Jean Baptiste Maurice. As was customary, he took the name of the place where he was born, in 1729, in Châtillon, France. So he went by Jean Baptiste Maurice Chatillon.

The Maurice name faded but Chatillon stuck.

And the name Bull Bear survives: you can find relatives with the surname Bull Bear in South Dakota.


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, Francis Parkman, Henri Chatillion, Indian, Lakota and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to When Names Aren’t What They Seem

  1. Judy Dorn says:

    Very interesting. The Maurice name did not die. My mother was a Maurice. The family was very prominent in Ste. Genevive, Mo. They were also in St. Louis. I have been doing my research on the family and came across the Indian connection. I went back to St. Louis last year ( I was born there) and went to the Chatallon Demeil House. I didn’t know much aboiut the Chatillon part of my family. I would like to know more about the Indian part of my family.
    Thanks, Judy


    • How good to hear from you, and thank you. My contact at the museum, Mary Stiritz, knows a lot of the Chatillon history and is a warm, approachable person if you’d like to contact her. Thanks again, Cindy


  2. This is rather random but my grandmother is a Bear Robe.


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