Native American Heritage Month



Pictured: My great-grandmother, Eva Agnes Herridge, and her older sister, Mary. Photograph taken around the early 1890s by P.A. Miller. Agnes was born in South Dakota and settled in Oklahoma–in Stillwater and Fairfax (one of the Osage villages)–with her family

For thirty days we honor American Indians after the United States sanctified November as Native American Heritage Month.

I hope you don’t mind if I start my first blog in November looking at my family tree on my mother’s side.

Perhaps the most noteworthy record comes from an East-Coast denizen—who, in his mid-twenties—embarked on an adventure to Indian Country in 1846 and wrote a book that became a best-seller.

The writer, Francis Parkman, hired my ancestor—Henri Chatillon—to guide him on his journey over the Oregon Trail.

Parkman wrote about his adventures in segments for Knickerbocker magazine in 1847 and then published The Oregon Trail as a book in 1849.

Parkman described meeting my ancestor in beatific terms:

His age was about thirty; he was six feet high, and very powerfully and gracefully molded. The prairies had been his school…

He could neither read nor write, but he had a natural refinement and delicacy of mind such as is rarely found, even in women. His manly face was a perfect mirror of uprightness, simplicity, and kindness of heart; he had, moreover, a keen perception of character and a tact that would preserve him from flagrant error in any society.

Henry [also known as Henri, the French spelling] had not the restless energy of an Anglo-American. He was content to take things as he found them; and his chief fault arose from an excess of easy generosity, impelling him to give away too profusely ever to thrive in the world.

Yet it was commonly remarked of him, that whatever he might choose to do with what belonged to himself, the property of others was always safe in his hands. His bravery was as much celebrated in the mountains as his skill in hunting; but it is characteristic of him that in a country where the rifle is the chief arbiter between man and man, Henry was very seldom involved in quarrels….

I have never, in the city or in the wilderness, met a better man than my noble and true-hearted friend, Henry Chatillon (Parkman, 1849).

The Oregon Trail

Parkman recalls meeting Native peoples throughout the months-long trek, most often describing them in unkind terms: animals and savages.

But when Chatillon received word that his wife—Sni Mahto (Bear Robe)—has become mortally ill—Parkman softens his stance:

The squaw of Henry Chatillon, a woman with whom he had been connected for years by the strongest ties which in that country exist between the sexes, was dangerously ill.

She and her children were in the village of The Whirlwind [a Sioux headman], at the distance of a few days’ journey. 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, 1849).

Bear Robe—daughter of the Kiyuska warrior Mahto Tatonka (Bull Bear)—died during Henri’s visit.

Henri entrusted their surviving daughter, Emilie (or, Emily), to friends who raised her along with their own children.

Pictured: Henri Chatillon (left) hired an artist to capture Bear Robe’s life and death on a canvas painting that was discovered in the 1960s: hidden in the rafters of the home he shared in St. Louis with his second wife, Odile Delor Lux. Credit:

The Sioux and Osage Connections

As Emilie approached the age to marry, Henri arranged a meeting between Emilie and Louis Benjamin Lessert—an entrepreneur and son of French and Osage families.

They wed, and, within the year, their first child was born: Julia—my great great grandmother.

Although Lessert was Osage, Irma R. Miller (a relative) writes that he embraced his wife’s kinship with the Sioux, and they carved out a life on the reservation at Pine Ridge where he managed a general store.

Indeed: many of the Lessert descendants today are enrolled with the Sioux and only a few of us—my family included—are Osage citizens.

But Lessert found the reservation system at Pine Ridge untenable under the leadership of Valentine McGillycuddy, who served as overseer from 1879 to 1882.

Lessert accused McGillycuddy of starving the residents at Pine Ridge, Miller writes.

Turns out Lessert was right: McGillycuddy cut so many corners that in a few years he was able to impress Washington by saving $50,000–funds that were earmarked to feed the Sioux, according to the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior (1886).

The United States government sent funds to McGillycuddy to secure food, clothing, warmth and shelter on the reserve, and yet the items seldom appeared.

Miller says Lessert and his family were kicked off the reservation for questioning McGillycuddy’s authority.

Lessert would later move to Nebraska, where he raised cattle.

He and Emilie had five children: Susan, Benjamin, Ollie and Samuel—who identified, like their mother, as Sioux—and the eldest, Julia, who married an Englishman—Edward Herridge—and brought her family to live with the Osages.

Julia and Edward raised one son and four daughters, including my great-grandmother, Eva Agnes Herridge Grove.    

I’m posting a picture of Agnes and her sister taken by a Kansas photographer who likely made his living “travelling the small towns” and “setting up a temporary studio for a day or a week,” according to a blog in 2021 by the writer of “Cabinet Card Photographers.”

Photographers would shoot an image and paste it onto a 6-1/2 by 4-1/4-inch “cabinet” card.

The cards needed no frame, and they could be placed on tables, desks or cabinets in family homes. 

I have the original cabinet card of Agnes and Mary, which I reckon is at least 130 years old.

Feels good to hold it close.


1 November 2022

I honor the Native Peoples on whose ancestral homelands we gather here in the Pacific Northwest




























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.
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