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Wednesday, May 21, 2008 09:25 pm

Walking with ghosts

Along the Potawatomi Trail of Death

Untitled Document “We soon found ourselves on the grand prairies of Illinois, under a burning sun and without shade from one camp to another. They are vast as the ocean, and the eye seeks in vain for a tree. Not a drop of water can be found there — it was a veritable torture for our poor sick, some of whom died each day from weakness and fatigue.” — Letter of Father Benjamin Marie Petit to Bishop Simon William Gabriel Bruté de Rémur, Nov. 13, 1838
Riding my bicycle through the rolling countryside on a beautiful summer evening, I decided to take a short break at the New Salem United Methodist Church, just west of Springfield on the Old Jacksonville Road. As I admired the small old white wooden sanctuary and strolled along the grounds, I spotted a couple of markers. One, a plaque mounted on a boulder, noted that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had camped here in 1861, but it was the second, a small granite marker, that sent a chill down my back: It identified this location as the McCoy’s Mill Encampment on the Potawatomi Trail of Death. I was standing in the general vicinity where 800 American Indians had passed in the fall of 1838 as they were tragically — and, some claim, illegally — removed from their homes and hunting grounds in northern Indiana. They were forced on a 600-mile journey that took them through Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri to their newly designated home along what became known as the Pottawatomie Creek, near today’s town of Osawatomie, Kan.
I was familiar with the Trail of Tears, the removal of the Cherokees, but remarkably, after living in Springfield nearly 30 years, this was the first that I had heard of the Potawatomi Trail of Death.
First, a little background on frontier America and the mindset of our government in that era. In 1830, the population in the U.S. was 6.5 million; within 10 years it had climbed to 8.6 million, according to the U.S. Census. As families moved west, toward the Mississippi River, the only things in their way were the people who were already living there. One tribe, known as the Potawatomi, was an East Coast tribe that had settled in the Great Lakes Region in the early 1600s, inhabiting areas stretching from Green Bay, Wis., to Chicago, eastern Illinois, northern Indiana, southern Michigan, and northwestern Ohio. The Potawatomis relied on hunting, farming, fishing, and trading to sustain themselves. In the early 1800s, numerous treaties were signed with various tribes and their chiefs, allowing the U.S. government to take control of their lands — lands that were the traditional hunting and fishing grounds of American Indians. The treaties allowed individuals to purchase and to settle the lands once used by the tribes. As a result, various conflicts between settlers and American Indians erupted around the country. Arguments were made in Washington, D.C., that many of the treaties were illegal or had not been signed by the proper tribe officials who claimed jurisdiction over the lands. With the growing U.S. population and continuing conflicts between some tribes and settlers, a solution was needed by the U.S. government. Along came a plan for the young and growing nation: the Indian Removal Act, signed on May 28, 1830, by President Andrew Jackson. This act gave the government the authority to compel the relocation of American Indians east of the Mississippi River to areas west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their lands that they once occupied, hunted, fished, and lived on. This allowed the settlers to move in and purchase the land and opened up vast lands to be developed in the Eastern states. In Jackson’s Second Annual Message to Congress, delivered on Dec. 6, 1830, he outlined the policy of the government on the removal of the Indians: “It will separate the Indians from immediate contact with settlements of whites; free them from the power of the States; enable them to pursue happiness in their own way, and under their own rude institutions; will retard the progress of decay, which is lessening their numbers; and perhaps cause them gradually, under the protection of the Government, and through the influence of good counsels, to cast off their savage habits, and become an interesting, civilized, and Christian community.”
So U.S. policy in regard to American Indians at that time was clear: The government thought that it was important for them to become civilized in the way the government thought best. That brings us to the Potawatomi. Irving McKee’s examination of the removal, The Trail of Death: Letters of Benjamin Petit, describes how the Potawatomi were first exposed to Christianity: “The first white men to befriend the Potawatomi were Jesuit missionaries, and it was in these ‘black robes’ that they placed their greatest trust.”
When Father Benjamin Marie Petit, a missionary from France, came to Indiana in 1837, he was assigned by Simon William Gabriel Bruté de Rémur, the Roman Catholic bishop of Vincennes, Ind., to serve the Potawatomi Indians. As it turned out, Petit not only served them closely over the next year but was also witness to the conflict between the Indians and the U.S. government. Petit was allowed to travel with the Potawatomi on their journey from Indiana to Kansas during their removal, and during that time he wrote numerous letters to Bruté in which he offered a fascinating account of the forced march to Kansas. Another contemporaneous account is the journal kept by J.C. Douglas, who chronicled the forced march for William Polke, the conductor of the removal of Indians from northern Indiana. Along the Trail of Death, the group ran into water shortages, sickness, death, heat, exhaustion, and grief. One bright moment was the group’s passage through Springfield, according to Douglas’ journal. On Sept. 28, 1838, he wrote: “Judge Polke, the Conductor, on the occasion of passing through a village of the character of Springfield, requested I-o-weh, one of the principal chiefs, so to arrange and accouter the Indians as to insure a good appearance.”
The next day, Douglas writes: “In order to pass Springfield at as early an hour as possible, we rose before light, and at 8 o’clock were on our way. The Indians amongst whom a degree of pride was excited, arranged themselves into line with an unusual display of finery and gaudy trumpery marched through the streets of Springfield. The wayfares were covered with anxious spectators, so indeed as to threaten for a time to impede the progress of Emigration. We passed clearly through however, and that too without the detention of a single Indian.”
In 1838, the population of Springfield was a booming 2,500 people, as noted in The Sangamon Journal. At that time, the Old State Capitol was under construction. A marker at the entrance to the parking garage on the south side of the Old State Capitol states: “Jared P. Irwin, a stone mason working on the construction of the Old State Capitol building, recorded in his journal that he saw the Indians marching by.”
The next encampment after Springfield was McCoy’s Mill, about 1.5 miles northwest of where the marker is located at New Salem Methodist Church. The Potawatomi made it to their new home in Kansas on Nov. 4, 1838. Their two-month trek took them through four states. Petit continued praying with his flock and burying the dead. In a letter to Bruté on Nov. 13, 1838, Petit reported that of the 800 Indians who left Indiana no more than 650 arrived in Kansas. About 30 had died; others escaped. Petit stayed with his flock for two months and then was summoned back to Indiana. On his return trip he became ill, and he died in St. Louis in February 1839. Today his body lies in a chapel on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. The Potawatomi did not stay put in the Osawatomie area long, and ultimately they left for Sugar Creek and other locations in Kansas. Some eventually moved to Oklahoma.
Shirley Willard, of Rochester, Ind., has been active with the Fulton County Historical Society since 1963. She is credited with helping keep the story of the Trail of Death alive. In the mid-1970s, she recounts, her son was in the Boy Scouts “and was looking for a historic trail to work on to get their Bicentennial badges.” A few miles from the Willard’s house in northern Indiana, along Mud Creek, was the site of the first death on the Trail of Death. Willard’s son put a marker there. George Godfrey of Athens, Ill., has also helped promote awareness of the Trail of Death. In 1988, Godfrey wrote a letter to the Citizen Potawatomi Nation newspaper, HowNiKan, suggesting that the 150th anniversary of the Trail of Death be commemorated. His letter got Willard’s attention, and Godfrey and Willard began working together on caravan journeys, research on the march, and installation of trail markers. In fact, Godfrey, whose ancestry is part Potawatomi, was instrumental in researching the march and encampments across Illinois. Beginning 20 years ago, Willard and Godfrey started laying the foundation for a series of markers to be installed at or near the campsites along the length of the march. “Today there are 78 markers along the length of the trail,” Willard says. “The markers were installed with donations at no expense to taxpayers, and 30 markers were installed with the help of local Boy Scouts.”
Willard was also responsible for organizing a commemorative caravan that traveled the route. The Indian Awareness Center, a branch of the Fulton County Historical Society, sponsors this caravan every five years; all are welcome to join the trek or meet it at its stops. Today the memory of what the Potawatomi endured on the Trail of Death lives on with the help of Willard, Godfrey, the Fulton County Historical Society, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, and others. The Trail of Death has also been designated a regional historic trail by each state it passes through. “Our plan is to have Trail of Death highway signs erected along the entire length of the march,” Godfrey says.
For additional information on the Trail of Death, contact the Fulton County Historical Society in Rochester, Ind., at 574-223-4436 or go to www.htctech.net/~fchs. Other resources include www.potawatomi-tda.org; the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, www.potawatomi.org; and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, www.pbpnation.org. For information on the 2008 Trail of Death caravan, contact the Fulton County Historical Society, or George Godfrey, who is the 2008 caravan coordinator, at pggg-92@sbcglobal.net. The 2008 Trail of Death Caravan will take place Sept. 22-28 in conjunction with the Fulton County Trail of Courage Living Historical Festival.
Walt Zyznieuski is a regular contributor to Illinois Times.
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