THE TRUE LOGAN FONTENELLE
Not long ago accounts were published of
the presentation of a portrait and the placing of a tablet
to the. memory of Logan Fontenelle in the Foutenelle Hotel,
Omaha. The spirit which prompts the commemoration of
historic persons and events is commendable; but the exercise
of this praiseworthy spirit should, of course, be governed
by intelligence and devotion to truth. The posthumous honor
of an historical personage is not enhanced but rather
suffers detraction by inaccurate or wholly false
that it is commonly reported and believed among the white people that he was a chief of the Omaha, but they say it is not true and they cannot account for the story current among the white people. And this assertion by present living persons of the Omaha tribe who knew him all his life is in accordance with other accounts left on record by contemporaries and fellow tribesmen of his who died years ago.
In Contributions to North American Ethnology (VI, 458), there is a narrative by Two Crows of a war expedition in which he took part against the Yankton Dakota in 1854. In this narrative he refers to the departure of the chiefs to Washington "to sell land" and states that Louis Sanssouci and Logan Fontenelle went along as interpreters. In the same volume there is a narrative by John Bigelk of an attack by the Dakota on the Omaha near Beaver Creek, north of the Loup River, during the summer buffalo hunt of 1855. This Bigelk was an elder in the Omaha Mission Church and a nephew of the Big Elk mentioned by Long and other explorers. Near the end of the narrative (p. 464) he refers to the killing of Logan Fontenelle thus: "They killed the white man, the interpreter, who was with us." He calls Fontenelle a white man because he had a white father. This was a common designation of half-breeds by full-bloods, just as a mulatto might commonly be called a "nigger" by white people, although as much white as black by race.
In the United States Statutes at Large (X, 1046), the following names, appear as signatures of the treaty: Logan Fontenelle, Joseph La Flesche, Standing Hawk, Little Chief, Village Maker, Noise, Yellow Smoke. These seven signatories are designated in the instrument as "Omaha Chiefs". I have asked old men of the Omaha tribe to name for me the chiefs who went to Washington to make the treaty in 1854. In answer they have given me the following names: Two Grizzly Bears, Joseph La Flesche, Stand-
ing Hawk, Little Chief, Village Maker, Noise, Yellow Smoke. It will be seen that the name Two Grizzly Bears in this list does not appear in the official list of signers of the treaty. The other six names are the same as those appended to the treaty. Again, in Two Crows' account of his war party of 1854 he mentions Two Grizzly Bears as one of the chiefs about to go to Washington "to sell land." Thus a discrepancy appears between the list of signers of the treaty given in the statutes and the list as always given by Omaha of their chiefs who went to Washington "to sell land." Perhaps that discrepancy is explained by the following statements. It is said that when the delegation appeared in Washington, Logan Fontenelle being with them but not accounted for to Manypenny, commissioner of Indian affairs, he asked who this man was and what he was doing there, and Two Grizzly Bears answered for him and said "I brought him here to interpret for me." So the commissioner was satisfied. This may well be the reason why the name of Logan Fontenelle appears on the treaty instead of that of Chief Two Grizzly Bears. Thus it would seem that Fontenelle in playing Aaron to Two Grizzly Bears Moses has had appropriated to himself whatever fame and honor should properly pertain to the latter, while his own proper place and honor have been entirely neglected by those who in this day purpose to commemorate his public service.
I have stated before that the living members of the Omaha tribe who by personal knowledge are qualified to answer the question uniformly say that Logan Foutenelle was never a chief. I have also shown that after the death of Foutenelle he was spoken of by Two Crows as "the white man, interpreter", and not as a chief. And if one knows anything about the social, political and governmental organization of the Omaha tribe he will see at once, on exercising the slightest degree of thought, that it must be true that he could not be a chief. The Omaha tribal organization consisted of two half tribes; and each of these half
tribes comprised five subdivisions or gentes. Each gens had its own duties and privileges in the tribe. The gentes of one half tribe shared among them the rituals pertaining to matters connected with the earth and earthy elements, while the gentes of the other half tribe were the keepers of the rituals pertaining to the sky and the upper world, the winds, clouds, rain, lightning, and all things above the earth's surface. Each gens had its chief and each of the two half tribes had its head chief, thus holding the tribe, while fully functioning together, in harmony with the greater and lesser powers of the earth and heaven. For the proper balance and harmony of tribal functions, official place, and duties thereto pertaining, were constitutionally hereditary. Man and wife were never of the same gens, and children belonged to the gens of the father. Sons succeeded to the duties and station of their fathers. Hence it plainly follows that the children of a white man have no proper place in the tribe to which their mother may belong, unless they or their father have been adopted into the tribe and given a place in some gens. Otherwise they stand outside the scheme of things in the tribal constitution. Logan Fontenelle was a half-breed, the son of a white man. That is the reason Two Crows, in the quotation cited above, refers to him as a "white man."
But, it may be asked, was there no way by which a white man or a white man's half-breed son could attain to a place under the tribal constitution? Yes, there was a way; that was by adoption. Under the Omaha law a son by adoption acquired all the privileges, duties and responsibilities of a son by generation. Captives from other tribes at war were many times adopted to take the place of sons lost by death. Other considerations, as affection or expediency, sometimes procured adoption. But Logan Fontenelle was never adopted into any Omaha family. All his life he remained the son of his father, Lucien Fontenelle, a Frenchman. And no one has ever claimed that he was ever counted out of his father's family.
But there is one notable instance of the adoption of a half-breed into the status of a member of a gens of the Omaha tribe with all the rights and duties thereto pertaining. That was the case of Joseph La Flesche, whose tribal name was Iron Eye. He was a Ponca half-breed, the son of a Frenchman by the name of Joseph La Flesche who married into the Ponca tribe where he was stationed in the fur trade. This Ponca half-breed was adopted by Big Elk, chief of the Wezhinshte gens of the Omaha tribe. This Big Elk was the one mentioned by Long and other travelers. The adoption of young Joseph La Flesche by Big Elk gave him by Omaha law a status such as he would have had if he had been born in that family, and in the course of time and by due process of law the young Joseph La Flesche, after the death of his adopted father, Big Elk, succeeded to his place as chief of the Wezhinshte gens.
But it has never been claimed, nor would it be true to say, that such a process was followed in the case of Logan Fontenelle. It is not even claimed that any Indian, any member of the Omaha tribe, ever adopted him. He always remained in the status of a son of his own father, a white man.
So it cannot be maintained that Logan Fontenelle was a chief of the Omaha tribe, but it is sufficient to give to him the proper honor due him for his service as an intermediary for both races whose blood flowed in his veins. It is much better to commemorate his name for the important place which really was his than to try to build up a fictitious place which cannot be logically or historically maintained.
In explanation of the appearance of the name of Logan Fontenelle as a chief signatory to the treaty of 1854 it may be said that he was the only member of the delegation who could read or write. None of the others could know the nature of the instrument, nor how the witness of their names was actually attached to it. Also the United States
officers, the Commissioner and others, were ignorant and indifferent to the constitution and laws of the Omaha tribe. They did not know nor care about these things; their only concern and care was for the formality of concluding the treaty
With the scholar's sensitiveness
touching congruity and historical consistency and truth, Mr.
Gilmore was offended at the investiture of Logan Fontenelle
by white men with a tribal relation and character which he
was convinced the young halfbreed did not and could not
have. Always there have been races or nations endeavoring to
subjugate other races or nations for their own uses.
Unfortunately, such has been a rule and road of progress,
and it has been an incident of this purpose to propitiate
likely leaders of the subjugated people with honors and
emoluments. The white subjugators from the first played off
this trick of diplomacy upon the Indians. Thus the journal
of the Lewis and Clark expedition informs us that at the
Council Bluff "Captain Lewis and Captain Clarke held a
council with the Indians, who appeared well pleased with the
change of government, and what had been done for them. Six
of them were made chiefs, three Otos and three
councils with the tribe; but these are distinct from the regular chiefs. In 1878 the writer found three of this kind of chiefs among the Omahas. They had been appointed by the United States about the year 1869.--Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, p. 358.
In the "comprehensive monograph of the Omaha tribe," which occupies nearly all of volume XXVII of the report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, the dispute as to whether Logan Foutenelle was a chief or not is accounted for.
Contact with the traders had a disturbing influence on the politics of the tribe. The traders lent aid to those chiefs and leading men who favored schemes for barter, and these Indians used the favors shown them to enhance their own importance in the tribe. The following narrative, compiled from stories told by old men of the tribe, illustrates this state of affairs:
The great-grandfather of a chief who was living twenty-five years ago visited the trading post at St. Louis, and on his return assumed an air of importance, saying that he had been made a great chief by the white men. He began to appoint "soldiers" and ambitious men sought his favor. He made Blackbird a "soldier" and took him to St. Louis. (This was the Blackbird the apocryphal story of whose burial on horseback on the bluffs of the Missouri is told by Lewis and Clark.) Blackbird was a handsome man and the white people made much of him, showing him more attention than they did his companion. When Blackbird returned to the tribe he declared he had been made a chief by the white people. Blackbird was an ambitious man, who loved power and was unscrupulous as to how he obtained it. The traders found him a pliant tool. They fostered his ambitions, supplied him with goods and reaped a harvest in trade . . . The romantic picture of his interment on horseback must be credited to grateful traders, as must also be the bestowal of his name on the hills and creek where later the Omaha built a village when they moved to their present reservation. It is a fact that horses were frequently strangled at funerals and their bodies left near the burial mound, which was always on a hill or at some elevation, but they were never buried alive or interred with the body. It is one of the humors of Indian history that a relic hunter should have picked up a horse's skull on one of the Blackbird hills and preserved it in a museum in memory of this fanciful entombment . . .
The interference of the traders, and later of Government officials, in tribal affairs, caused two classes of chiefs to be recognized--those whose office was due to white influence and those who were chiefs according to tribal right and custom. The first were designated "paper chiefs", because they usually had some written document setting forth their claim to the office; the second class were known simply as "chiefs." This conflict in authority as to the making of chiefs was a potent factor in the disintegration of the ancient tribal life."
Logan Fontenelle does not appear among the names of Omaha chiefs in the reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Regarded as an Indian, he was not a chief, and he seems to have evinced no qualities by which Indians are held to be distinguished either among Indians themselves or among whites. He was a good fellow, with the full habits of his kind; and he seems to have been a useful intermediary between the
constantly clashing races whose mixed blood vexed his veins. Owing to his youth, the short term of his chieftainship--about two years--and the weakened, dispirited condition of the tribe, it would have been surprising if he had manifested unusual, much less heroic mettle. Much stronger qualities than he possessed might have remained undiscovered and undeveloped in that prosaic and otherwise unpropitious environment. The very circumstances of his death preclude his glorification or idealization as an Indian. No true Indian would have been caught so ingloriously napping by so ubiquitous and always to be expected a foe.
It is this baseless, untrue idealization, I take it, which Mr. Gilmore deprecates in adverting to the Omaha incident. The greatest of the three Omaha chiefs called Big Elk was truly a chief, by, for, and of the tribe itself, and was truly an Indian with a character and prestige fit for commemoration or idealization. The other two also possessed such distinguished qualities though not as pronounced. The name, too, would have been far more striking and distinguishing than Fontenelle, though not so attractive otherwise.
When riper knowledge and taste demand that the picture of Fontenelle shall be realistically and historically true, it might be made over with a few bold strokes of the brush to represent Lucien, Logan's French father. He was a very prominent figure in the fur trade of our plains, and to accommodate that important business he--with Andrew Drips--erected the first fairly permanent business building in Nebraska--at Bellevue. Furthermore, his career is flavored with a real romance; for he possessed the superior merit of high birth and social status and the moral courage to flout them. Such a transfer would turn historical caricature into historical truth and justify the retention and perpetuation of a pretty name.
A statement of the case for Logan Fontenelle, for publication herewith, was solicited from a member of his family, but the reply was confined to a stout assertion that status in the tribe descended through the female, as well as the male line.
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