From Trading Trappers to Tall TreesOct 22, 2023 02:04AM ● By Claudia Moomey
The fur trade was an unstable and dangerous industry, with challenges such as war, robbery, and the unpredictability of wild animals presenting all too common occupational hazards. The early 19th century also saw an increase in deadly diseases and illnesses, one of the most infamous of which was cholera, which claimed the lives of both Native Americans and new European settlers. The instability of the fur trading business greatly affected the fur companies established at this time, and though there were many, most would be unsuccessful due to these factors and competition from other companies attempting to monopolize the trade.
One family, however, made a lasting impression. Lucien Fontenelle left a wealthy New Orleans family in 1816 at the age of 16 to join the fur trade. He married a woman from the Omaha Indian tribe, with whom he frequently interacted. Known as Bright Sun, she was the daughter of Chief Big Elk, the last full-blooded Omaha Native.
It is also around this time that French Canadian explorer Manuel Lisa reorganized the Missouri Fur Company after the war of 1812 had caused it to dissolve. During an expedition with several of his men along the Missouri River, he is said to have paused on a hillside to admire the view of the prairies of Nebraska. With this act, he effectively named the area “Bellevue” after he saw the expanse and exclaimed, “la belle vue!”, meaning “a beautiful sight” in French. After Lisa’s death in 1820, Joshua Pilcher, a business partner of Lisa, took over the Missouri Fur Company and continued in the fur trade. Not long after, though, the company suffered a major blow when they were attacked and robbed by Natives of the Blackfoot tribe. This ultimately bankrupted the business.
A few years later, Fontenelle joined Pilcher on an expedition to the Rocky Mountains. This trip was unsuccessful, spurring Fontenelle to return home. Fontenelle had a stake in the Missouri Fur Company before its failure, and it was yet again reorganized to represent the American Fur Company, for whom he worked at the time. The purpose of the post was both to maintain friendly relationships with the surrounding Native tribes, which included the Omaha, Pawnee, Oto, and Missouria, and to serve as a pitstop for trading items such as weapons, tools, and jewelry. Since Lucien and his family were so involved at the trading post, it became known as the Fontenelle Trading Post before Lucien sold it to the United States government for use by the Missouri River Indian Agency. Toward the end of his life, Lucien Fontenelle contracted cholera. He was buried on the Bluffs overlooking the Missouri River, in the present territory of Fontenelle Forest.
Fontenelle and Bright Sun of the Omaha tribe had a son named Logan, who later became an Omaha Tribe Chief himself. He established himself in the communities of both the Omaha Natives and the Europeans of his father’s acquaintance through his role as an interpreter. Logan met a tragic end, however, when he was killed by members of the Sioux tribe while out on a hunt in 1855. He was buried alongside his father near the Missouri. It is for Logan Fontenelle that the forest is officially named, and there is a marker in the forest with a brief biography of its namesake.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the 20th century, and the Fontenelle Forest Association has been established, begun by A. A. Taylor, a Bellevue College professor. Beginning as a private non-profit organization, Taylor and his associates developed a great passion for preserving the natural land in Nebraska. After the signing of a bill by the governor of Nebraska, the organization was officially sanctioned. The association gradually claimed more land over the years whilst struggling against habitat destruction by an influx of large US companies. Deforestation and forced channelizing of the Missouri River were major blows to the surrounding wildlife, which the Nature Center, built in 2000, is now attempting to reclaim with their Great Marsh and Hidden Lake.
The Fontenelle Trading Post was established in the years 1822-1823. In 2023, the Fontenelle Forest Nature Center celebrates its 200-year anniversary. Fontenelle Forest boasts beautiful nature sights and hiking trails accessible to the public and, according to their mission statement, aims to preserve the land to the best of the association’s ability, and “inspire current and future generations to care for the natural world.”
To commemorate the anniversary of its establishment, the Fontenelle Forest Nature Center is presenting a new exhibition entitled “Nebraska’s Deep Roots,” which displays several artifacts from the time period excavated by History Nebraska in 1972 and 1973. This exhibition “tells the story of how the Fontenelle Trading Post came to be and what a trading post during the 1800’s may have looked like,” and includes a speaker series and various related activities such as trail hikes and archaeological dig simulations for kids. The exhibition is open from April 2023 to December 2024, so there is still plenty of time to experience the natural beauty of the land while unearthing its rich history.