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TCU slugger came to play in the College World Series. He rediscovered his Native roots.

Cole Fontenelle (1).jpg
Posted at 5:47 PM, Jul 16, 2023

Omaha is the mecca for college baseball, a proud local history dating to 1950. But this year’s College World Series, without fanfare, featured a more distant history – a star player directly descended from Big Elk, the last full-blooded chief of the Omaha tribe.

The player, Cole Fontenelle of TCU, carries a prominent Omaha name:

Fontenelle Forest. Fontenelle Boulevard. Fontenelle Park. At least two schools named Fontenelle, as well as some businesses. The once-prominent Hotel Fontenelle in downtown Omaha is gone, as is the old Logan Fontenelle public housing project.

But first came the Fontenelle-Big Elk connection.

Lucien Fontenelle, a fur trader of French descent, came from New Orleans as a young man, operated a trading post and must have made a good impression on the chief – marrying his daughter, Meumbane, or Bright Sun.

So two centuries later, Big Elk is the sixth great-grandfather (great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather) of a ballplayer who, by the way, had a great-great season and CWS – well, at least good enough that the Los Angeles Angels picked him in the seventh round of this week's major-league draft, the 204th overall pick.

“I knew I had some Native American background,” Cole said, “but I didn’t know which tribe. My grandpa knows the history.”

After TCU qualified for the CWS in Omaha, grandpa Wayne Fontenelle of Bellevue, Washington, told him: “You’re returning to the land of the Fontenelles.”

He also told his grandson their family was related to the Omaha tribe, which Grandpa Fontenelle pronounces “o-MA-ha” because “that’s the way the tribe pronounces it.”

The timing of a Fontenelle’s appearance in the College World Series in this year seemed especially appropriate, even if unintended:

– Fontenelle Forest (just south of Omaha) is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Lucien Fontenelle’s trading post, which stood along the Missouri River on land that today is owned by the nonprofit forest.

– On Aug. 19, a 10-foot sculpture of Big Elk, from whose tribe the city of Omaha took its name, will be dedicated at Lewis and Clark Landing on Omaha’s riverfront.

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Idaho-based sculptor Benjamin Victor inspects his sculpture of Chief Big Elk at KANEKO, the piece’s temporary home since February. The clay will be cast in bronze and installed this summer at the renovated Lewis and Clark Landing on Omaha’s riverfront. Photo courtesy of KANEKO

“You couldn’t make up this story if you tried,” marveled Julie Fontenelle, Cole’s mother.

* * *

Lucien Fontenelle and Meumbane had several children, including the famed Logan Fontenelle, for whom the forest and other Omaha landmarks are named. Logan grew up speaking English, French and Omaha, and served as an interpreter in Washington, D.C., for negotiations in which the Omahas ceded land to the U.S. government for settlement.

The city of Omaha was founded in 1854. Today the tribe is based on the Omaha Reservation in Macy, Nebraska, about 80 miles north of Omaha, though some tribal members live in the city.

Among them is Natalie Fontenelle, whose friends and acquaintances often have asked, “Are you related to Fontenelle Forest?” Depending on their level of interest, she said, “I give a one-minute or a three-minute history.”

She and her late father attended a late 1990s reunion in Duluth, Minnesota, for descendants of Chief Big Elk.

Last month, she was excited to learn on Facebook that a distant cousin would play in the College World Series. She posted a video clip of him from a telecast, and Fontenelles from around the country reveled in Cole’s success that spread the family name.

“It really kind of got the family together,” Natalie said. “All of them were excited. I wasn’t really a baseball fan, but I loved every second of it.”

* * *

Logan Fontenelle and his wife had three daughters and no sons. He was killed by members of the rival Sioux tribe at about age 30.

Among Logan’s brothers was Henry Fontenelle (1832-1899). One of Henry’s great-great grandsons is Wayne Fontenelle, Cole’s grandfather. Wayne, a retired airport and seaport food inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, met his wife, Gale (of Japanese ancestry), during a stint in Honolulu. They eventually settled in the Seattle area.

They have four daughters and a son, Wade Fontenelle, a Seattle firefighter for the past 25 years. Wade played soccer at Seattle University, where future wife Julie (now a Microsoft library manager) played basketball. They naturally have athletic children – daughter Jade and sons Cole and Otis, whose birth name, bringing it full circle, is Lucien Fontenelle.

Grandpa Wayne, 83, couldn’t travel to Omaha for the CWS but was watching on ESPN when grandson Cole stepped to the plate in Game One and blasted a home run.

An ESPN sideline reporter mentioned briefly that Cole Fontenelle had learned recently from his grandfather that the family was related to the “o-MA-ha” tribe. The Fontenelles of Washington state began hearing from Fontenelles around the country.

On the team bus, Cole said, his coach surprised him by taking the microphone and reading a Wikipedia entry about Fontenelle Forest and the Fontenelle legacy.

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The Fontenelle family at Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue, Nebraska. The Fontenelles were in Omaha for the College World Series, which Cole Fontenelle, center, played in for TCU. Parents Wade and Julie Fontenelle, of Sammamish, Washington, joined their son on the trip to the forest, which shares the family name. Photo courtesy of Julie Fontenelle

TCU had a day off during the series, so Cole, his girlfriend Kate Welch and his parents headed to 1,500-acre Fontenelle Forest, which includes hills, marshlands, a hardwood deciduous forest and an extensive floodplain. The group enjoyed the nature center, the exhibits about Lucien Fontenelle’s trading post and the history of the area, and then hiked a trail.

But before they left, they stopped at the gift shop and bought Fontenelle Forest gear for themselves and relatives in the Pacific Northwest. Wade said with a chuckle: “We spent at least $500.”

* * *

Each June, eight of college baseball’s best teams qualify for Omaha and the nationally televised, double-elimination College World Series. TCU won two games and lost two, making it to the final four.

The Horned Frogs were eliminated 3-2 by Florida on a long hit caught at the outfield wall for the last out – with Cole Fontenelle on deck. LSU later beat Florida for the national championship.

Cole, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior switch-hitter from the Seattle suburb of Sammamish, led his team in batting average for the season (.352). He also led in doubles (21), slugging percentage (.639) and on-base percentage (.473). In the CWS, he had five hits in 11 at-bats with six RBIs.

On Sunday, he heads to the Angels’ camp in Tempe, Arizona, where he’ll sign for a projected $258,900 bonus and soon play in the Rookie League. It’s time to pursue his major-league dream, but he said he’ll always remember his Omaha experience.

He loved all the brick buildings, cobblestone streets and shops of the Old Market, as well as the big crowds at the ballpark. Omaha, he said, made all players feel like celebrities.

Learning more about his Fontenelle lineage and about the direct line to his ancestor Chief Big Elk, he said, made the experience even more memorable.

“It was surreal to play on ESPN and in front of 25,000 people,” Cole said. “And it was cool to see my family name all over town. Omaha was almost like two separate trips – the baseball trip and the family trip.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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