2003 Trail of Death Caravan
660 Mile Trail of Death Caravan
By Shirley Willard, Fulton County Historian

For seven days I could not sleep because my mind would not shut off - all the pictures of the day’s events kept running through my head. My husband Bill and I led the Trail of Death Commemorative Caravan Sept. 22-28 from Indiana to Kansas to commemorate the 1838 forced removal of the Potawtomi Indians. Leading a caravan is a huge responsibility, but trying to be on time every hour to visit a different historical marker made it stressful. With 74 historical markers to visit, that meant we could not stay at most of them more than 15 minutes. Then I had to holler “Hitch up the horses - it’s time to move on.”

Trail of Death Commemorative Committee members, Bob Pearl, Sister Virginia Pearl, Shirley and Bill Willard, Tom Hamilton, pose by the pine tree they planted at Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1988, the first caravan. On the 2003 caravan they observed the tree has grown big and has been trimmed so it can be mowed underneath. (Photo by Larry Prichard)

We started out with 11 Potawatomi and Mike Dodson (member of Muscogee or Creek tribe), an employee of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The number of Potawatomi traveling with us grew as we reached Missouri and others joined us. By the end of the trail at Osawatomie, Kansas, there were about 30 Potawatomi, mostly members of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, whose tribal headquarters is at Shawnee, Ok. There were a few members of the Prairie Band Potawtomi from Mayetta, Kansas. So when the caravan disbanded, its participants went home in all directions - some as far as Minnesota, Connecticut and even Hawaii.

There were 24 of us at the beginning of the caravan, 12 Indians and 12 non-Indians, historians, authors, and others interested in history. The Potawatomi included George Godfrey, Severn, Maryland; Tom Hamilton, Checotah, Ok. and part of each year at Warsaw, Ind. - he took videos of the trip; Bob Pearl, Parma Heights, Ohio, and his daughter Janet Pearl, Columbus, Ohio; Sister Virginia Pearl, Pawnee Rock, Kan.; Mary Ann Dockry Harty, Guilford, Ct.; and her brother Patrick Dockry, Anoka, Minn.; Galen and Mickie Kabance, Pittsburg, Kan.; Wayne and Theresa McNary, Meriden, Kan. Mike Dodson, Director of Public Information for the CPN, came from Shawnee, Ok.

There were 12 Hoosiers: Bill and Shirley Willard, Rochester - leaders of the caravan; Larry and Rosalee Prichard, Lynn, Ind. - Larry is a descendant of William Polke the conductor on the Trail of Death; Carol Layman and friend Ilah Alsop, North Vernon, Ind. - Carol is the author of Isaac McCoy and the American Indians; Dolores and Si Grizzell, Winamac. Also Charles and Gretchen Meiser, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. - Charles is a former Rochester resident; Joan and Wilmer Harley, Rochester. The Meisers and Harleys (Harleys joined us at McDonalds) traveled with the caravan the first day across Indiana and then went back home.

Those pictures reeling through my mind were of wonderful surprises as the local people came out to meet us. Each stop was different. There were a few rural places where no one came and a couple that we drove by as we read the history on our CB radio, but most had friendly folk waiting for us. Many had met us in previous caravans, 1988, 1993 and 1998. We also talked to people who had never heard of the Potawatomi Trail of Death. Historical society members and local Boy Scout leaders came to help guide us across their county, which was greatly appreciated in western Missouri. We visited two places we had never had the time to stop at before: Indian Mounds Park at Quincy, and Fort Osage near Independence, Mo., which was founded by William Clark (of Lewis & Clark) in 1808. The Trail of Death overlays several historic trails, including Towpath Road near Delphi, Indiana; Lewis & Clark Trail along the Missouri River in western Missouri; and the Santa Fe Trail near Grandview, Mo. We were featured as speakers at a special program at the National Frontier Trails Museum at Independence, Mo. - over 100 people came to hear us.

There were many wonderful surprises: Lafayette TV interviewing us at Mrs. Evelyn Ball’s house, the waitresses who pooled their tips to pay for our breakfast at Independence, Ind.; the eagle dance performed by Rudy Vallejo at Mill Creek east of Quincy - Rudy has agreed to come and be Head Man Dancer at the Trail of Courage next year. Another surprise for me was when we were eating breakfast at IHOP in Grandview, Mo., and the waiters brought me a cupcake and sang Happy Birthday, courtesy of Sister Virginia Pearl. Each of our stops at Trail of Death markers was different: the campfire at Exeter where we passed the “talking stick” so everyone could have the opportunity to tell his/her thoughts, the big cook-out at Quincy and being interviewed for a PBS documentary at Springfield and Quincy, and lunch in the historic Old Stone Church with Osawatomie Historical Society in Osawatomie, Kansas.

We spoke to one school, Philo, Ill., and students who came to greet us from six other schools in Jacksonville and Perry, Ill. ; Huntsville, Brunswick, DeWitt, and Richmond, Mo. We gave them badges, either the 2003 Trail of Death Caravan badge with Father Petit’s picture or a Trail of Courage badge with Jim Thorpe’s picture. Mike Dodson brought rulers and pencils from the Citizen Potawatomi Nation to give to the 300 Philo School students.

When we finally arrived at the St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park in rural Linn County, Kansas, on Sunday Sept. 28, the weather was cool, windy and sunny. It was perfect for the 75 to 100 people who formed a big circle for the dedication of the new Father Petit memorial. Margaret Twardosz Colbert was in charge, having gotten the plaque made and brought a boulder from St. Louis where Father Petit died. The plaques were sponsored by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Margaret is a sister to Skip Twardosz and a cousin to Bernadine Goff, head dancers at the Trail of Courage this year. She had painted an eagle on feathers to give to those who helped with the project. Next Father James White of Kansas City celebrated Mass using Father Petit’s chalice. This was a special highlight of the trip, actually taking communion from the very silver cup used in 1838 and carried in Father Petit’s saddlebags.

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This page updated Mar 27, 2011.