Broken Treaties Potawatomi Descendants and Whites Join Forces to Commemorate a Little-Noted but Tragic Chapter in American History

Article excerpt

THEY WERE ROUNDED UP under false pretense, driven off the land they loved and marched across a sweltering prairie at gun and bayonet point. As they sickened in the heat, they were crammed into baggage wagons, where many of them died.

They were part of a tragic and little-known chapter in Midwestern history: the Trail of Death.

More than 850 Potawatomi Indians took part in the 660-mile forced march in 1838 from northern Indiana, through Illinois and Missouri and into what today is eastern Kansas.

The Trail of Death is overshadowed in history books by the famous Trail of Tears, the forced march of the Cherokee from the Southeastern states to Oklahoma during the fall and winter of 1838-'39. About 4,000 of the roughly 15,000 Cherokees died on that 116-day trek.

The Potawatomi Trail of Death took the lives of about 50 Indians, many of whose bodies are buried along the route. By trail's end another 150 had deserted. It was the best-documented of many forced marches of the Potawatomi that continued through the 1850s. Although smaller than the toll on the Cherokee march, the Potawatomi death talley still burns deep in the memory of descendants.

"If you go back and follow the trail, you can feel the presences of those who traveled it, and those who died there," said Susan Campbell, of Seattle, a descendant of one of the chiefs who made the journey.

Eight years ago, a small group of Potawatomi descendants and whites launched a campaign to commemorate the trail and find the campsites where the 19th-century marchers stayed. In April, the Missouri Legislature joined those of Illinois, Indiana and Kansas in declaring the Trail of Death a regional historic trail.

So far, the group has placed 30 historical markers at campsites, with 22 more to complete the trail. The next marker is set for dedication Friday near Springfield, Ill.

As whites and descendants of the Indians work to commemorate the trail, they struggle to confront the pain, racism and guilt that are the legacy of the events of 1838. But, they say, they also celebrate a story of dignity, faith and hope that all humans can learn to live in peace.

Shirley Willard, one of the whites leading the effort, is president of the Fulton County Historical Society, in Rochester Ind.

"We hope that as people travel the trail through the years, they will read the markers and say a prayer of peace for all mankind, especially peace between the white man and the Indians," Willard said.

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Peaceful And Powerful

The Potawatomi, or "Keepers of the Fire," were a hunting and fishing people numbering about 10,000 in the early 1800s. The culture was similar to other tribes of the Great Lakes region, including the Ottawa, Ojibwa, Kickapoo, Mesquakie and Shawnee.

The Potawatomi lived in about 50 widely separated villages in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana. Early in the European exploration of North America, the Potawatomi helped the French deal with Western tribes. French traders called them the "most docile and affectionate" of all the Western tribes.

"They were a far greater tribe than American history books give them credit for," said the Rev. William B. Faherty, a retired historian at St. Louis University and archivist of the Missouri Jesuit Province. The Potawatomi were peaceful, but fought hard when the need arose.

"They were a very powerful tribe," Faherty said. "They kept making treaties with the U.S. and these kept being broken."

As land-hungry white settlers flooded the Midwest, pressure rose on the U.S. government to act against the Indians. Through a succession of treaties from 1818 on, the Potawatomi ceded much of their land to the whites. Under President Andrew Jackson's Removal Act of 1830, the government began moving some Potawatomi bands to the west. The Trail of Death trek in 1838 was the final major "emigration," as the government agents put it. …

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