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.