1967: It was found in the south part of the city, in the attic of the oldest part of a mid-19th century mansion. Thanks to a grassroots groundswell, the mansion survived the routing of the new Interstate Highway – I-55 – but just barely.
During restorations to preserve this structure representing local history, and to make it into a museum, an electrician found a large bundle of buffalo leather. Something was preserved inside, wrapped carefully in the skins. Miraculously, the contents were nearly perfectly preserved – despite six score years – as they were otherwise unprotected from the wild temperature and humidity swings of the mid-Mississippi basin climate.
1846: America’s vast western plains
Her name was Mathó-shina (Bear Robe), short for “She who wears a Bear Robe.” She was the daughter of one Lakota chief and sister to another. She was young – probably mid-20s – a mother and a wife; with bright, dark piercing eyes that hinted at great intelligence and determination.
There, on American wind and storm-swept western plains, in a large tipi made of buffalo skins and lodge pole pines harvested by her father, she lay dying of a lung infection. Witness accounts that have reached us today say that there is no reason she should be alive, lingering among her people and family for so many, many days … breathless, not even speaking. Yet she did. She tenaciously clung to life … waiting … waiting. Her father had sent out a search team; she was waiting for their return.
Henri Chatillon was one of those adventurous souls who had roamed the west for nearly twenty years since leaving his home in Carondolet, Missiouri (now a neighborhood on Saint Louis’ most south-eastern extent) where he had been born to a famous French family. He left home at age 15 to trap and hunt for furs. He worked for both himself and eventually for large enterprises like the American Fur Company.
Over that time, he had learned the languages of many of the plains’ tribes; and there was enough cross-over that he could communicate and be friendly with virtually all of them. Never underestimate what a determined, yet largely illiterate person, can accomplish.
That year, 1846, two young easterners, Francis Parkman and Quincy Adams Shaw – both recently out of Harvard – were passing through Saint Louis en route to “the west.” They wanted to see the buffalos, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Who knew how long the buffalos would survive, or the west would remain pristine? It was the sort of a “rite of passage” journey that two young twenty-somethings who had a privileged life and zest for adventure might undertake. It was also ignorant. They had no idea what they were doing or getting into.
Fortunately for them, Chatillon was briefly back home and they crossed paths in St Louis. Probably out of mercy – or pity – Chatillon agreed to be their guide. And off they went, mostly along the Oregon Trail, toward the great Rocky Mountains.
Somewhere out on the plains a young Lakota man on horseback found them. He had an urgent message for Chatillon. Your wife is dying.
The small group immediately terminated their tour and headed off, toward eastern Wyoming, to find Bear Robe’s tribe.
They arrived to find her still struggling for each breath, struggling for life … and still lacking the energy to talk.
Chatillon was tired and very sad – upon arrival he also learned that their young child had just died. Strengthened by love, devotion and duty, he spent that entire night awake with his wife. Inexplicably, she regained the strength to speak with him.
They spoke of many things that night, but all of it we cannot know. The next morning, Parkman and Bear Robe’s father came into the tipi to find Chatillon holding her … and just in time to see the death rattle of her final breath.
I’ve long thought that death, for many people, can be pushed off until some special event is reached. And, as a corollary, that people who have nothing to look forward to (or have to wait a long time for something “special”) might experience a higher death rate.
It turns out there has been some research to suggest that this is true. I’ve listed a few citations. The most likely days to die are: your birthday  ; right after Christmas (or New Years’)  ; and I postulate other major family events, like weddings.
With regard to special relationships – like courtship and marriage – I suspect that if our experience is a valid data point, then having something to look forward to is just as important to the relationship as it is to life itself.
Looking forward. It means a lot.
During a whirlwind courtship (49 weeks from first date to engagement) Audrey’s and my relationship fell to tatters at least twice. Each time it was resurrected by having something to look forward to.
First, we had committed (both financially and training) to climb Mount Rainier together. Although we had fallen on rough times, the fact that we were looking forward to the climb – and achieving it – brought us closer together, even if only for one more time. Neither one of us would back out. It was a time of re-connecting.
Second, a few months later, in November, I needed a knee surgery and “wisely” scheduled it the day before Thanksgiving, so that I could recover with minimal time off work. OK – not so wisely. Not wise at all: when you have surgery, you need someone to drive you home. Every friend I contacted had conflicting commitments.
I needed Audrey, even though we were on the “outs.” So, I called her and we had something to look forward to, even if it was post-surgery rescue. Yes, she rescued me – and our relationship. Picking me up from the hospital and taking me to her parents’ house for the turkey and stuffing festivities. Again, it was a time of re-connecting.
Thinking back, it’s always been that way. There have always been “rough patches” here and there. But we endure. And largely because we always have had some major event or trip to look forward to. For that, almost all the credit goes to Audrey.
When things are rough, there’s no sense looking around – or looking backward – to find where any blame might lie. Best to keep your eyes and attention forward.
My suggestion is to make whatever you are looking forward to not general (like retirement, or take a trip), but specific: Climb a certain mountain, bicycle a specific location, make a specific person feel special on a specific date, tour a special place.
For a long and rewarding life anyhow.
Here’s looking forward to many more adventures and uplifting life experiences for all of us. It’s a simple thing we can do to keep us going.
Joe Girard © 2018
Epilogue and afterthoughts:
After Bear Robe died, Chatillon returned to St Louis and settled down. In gratitude, Parkman gave him his Hawken rifle – a true prize possession.
Chatillon commissioned a painting of Bear Robe. It was soul-piercing. It showed a handsome sad-eyed man in quiet, mournful reflection gazing into space – and a beautiful squaw looking down, trying to offer consolation.
Henri Chatillon found a new wife, and had a house built on the main road half-way between St Louis and Carondelet.
Chatillon’s new wife had no interest in his past life, including his past wife. Now having a full life to look forward to with his new bride … Chatillon tenderly wrapped the painting and the rifle in his best buffalo leathers. He “buried” the bundle in the attic of his new house; and he buried the memories of his past life in his heart – only to be brought out in private solitary moments, and never to be spoken of again. With some anguish, he let go of his past.
Parkman wrote of his adventures out west in a book that became wildly popular: “The Oregon Trail”, published in 1849. It provides much of what we know of Chatillon and Bear Robe. It’s still in print and available for a reasonable price.
About 10 years later, Chatillon sold the house to the DeMenil family, who enlarged it into a magnificent mansion. You can get a guided tour of the Chatillon-DeMenil mansion — and learn some fascinating St Louis, mid-west and western history — March 1 through December 31 most weekdays and weekends.
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Citations and bibliographical kind of stuff:
 The Birthday Effect: https://www.thisisinsider.com/death-more-likely-near-your-birthday-statistical-physiological-psychological-reasons-2018-9
 Post holiday deaths: Giving up. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4063122/The-tragic-reason-deaths-spike-Christmas-Researchers-say-sick-big-day.html
 The Holiday Effect: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/12/22/mystery-of-spike-in-deaths-between-christmas-and-new-years-gets-curiouser-and-curiouser/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.e668a673f266