Trail of Death Caravan Ends at Kansas
By Shirley Willard, Fulton County Historian

The last day of the caravan was my 67th birthday. I forgot it was my birthday but it was the first thing Bill said when he woke up in our camper: Happy Birthday. Charles and Vicky Hasenyager, Scout leaders, came to lead our caravan to the IHOP for breakfast and visit the Trail of Death marker they had made but never got erected at Grandview. The caravaners who stayed in a motel went on ahead and met us at IHOP. The dreaded Grandview Triangle is now a Trapezoid but the traffic is still terrible - it made us late getting to IHOP. About the time we were finished eating, the IHOP wait staff brought me an ice cream cupcake and sang Happy Birthday, compliments of Sister Virginia. The TD plaque was in Hasenyager’s truck and has not been erected yet. Charles brought two Boy Scouts, Ben and Jake Fichman, to meet me and have me sign their Eagle Scout applications so they can erect the marker at the park in Grandview.

Last Trail of Death marker - Sister Virginia Pearl and Bob Pearl sprinkle tobacco to bless the new Father Petit memorial at St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park south of Osawatomie, Kansas. (Photo by Larry Prichard)

Roy and Julie Slavin, Kansas City, led us to the next TD marker on a country road near the Kansas - Missouri state line. The metal plaque had been stolen but was replaced this year by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and members of the Navarre family. But the farm is for sale, and Hasenyager suggested that we move it, boulder and all, to the Stilwell town park. That seems like a good idea. Leaving there and heading to Paola, Bill and I got separated from the rest of the caravan (we did not turn west when we should have, but they did) and we caught up with them at Paola’s town park. Dagmar Thorpe was waiting to meet us, and so was a crowd of Paola folks. Dagmar is the granddaughter of Jim Thorpe, World’s Greatest Athlete, and had planned to attend the Trail of Courage but couldn’t. Jim and Eileen Pearl, Jerry and Hildegard Pearl and other Kansas Potawatomi joined the caravan there.

On we went to Osawatomie, the end of the trail in the 1838 diary. When the caravan was there in 1998, we planted a tree by the Land Office Museum. It is growing good. The Osawatomie Historical Society, headed by Andrea Renick-Bell, served us lunch in the Old Stone Church.

Sept. 28, Sun. - Independence to Osawatomie - the end of the Trail and on to St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park in Linn Co., Kan., 92 miles. Visited 12 Trail of Death markers: Grandview, a rural site near Stillwell, Paola, Osawatomie, and eight at the St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park in rural Linn County, the site of the former Sugar Creek Mission, where the Potawatomi lived 1838-48. While there they were helped by an elderly nun whom they named “She Who Prays Always.” She was canonized in 1988. The caravan dedicated a new marker for Father Benjamin Petit, the priest who traveled with them and died in St. Louis on his way back to Indiana. His remains were taken to Notre Dame University in 1856 and are now beneath the Log Cabin Chapel.

Margaret Twardosz Colbert, Potawtaomi and a sister to Skip Twardosz and cousin to Bernadine Goff, head dancers at the Trail of Courage, had worked very hard getting the Father Petit memorial done. Bill and I had hauled boulders from Indiana and Illinois to Kansas for this memorial in 1995 but it had not been completed - it needed boulders from Missouri and Kansas and one from St. Louis where Father Petit died. Bud Lauer and the Knights of Columbus are going to bring the big boulders this fall, but on Sept. 28 we dedicated the little boulder Margaret had gotten from St. Louis and the two plaques with history of Father Petit and a map, like the ones in front of the Fulton County Museum. For the dedication ceremony, attended by about a hundred people, I told the history of the Trail of Death, Tom Hamilton told about Father Petit and Bob Pearl and Sister Virginia told about St. Philippine Duchesne. Tom’s ancestor, Abram Burnett, was the same age as Father Petit and a good friend. Burnett rode with Petit from Kansas to St. Louis, and had to hold him on the horse, as Petit was so weak and sick. Tom stated he thinks Petit should be declared a saint, and that he looks after the Potawatomi to this day. Margaret had painted an eagle on turkey feathers and gave them as gifts to those who helped with the memorial.

Next Father James White of Kansas City did Mass at the outdoor altar and cross in the Memorial Park, using Father Petit’s chalice. It was breezy and cool. Margaret hired Indian dancers from Lawrence, Kansas, to do a variety of dances, including jingle dress, fancy dance, grass dance, cloth and buckskin dances. The dancers were aged from 10 to 21 and were members of two families: Tapedo and Spottedhorse. The fathers beat the drum and a mother did the announcing.

As the final ceremony of the Trail of Death Caravan, Tom Hamilton presented a certificate of adoption to make Bill and me honorary Potawatomi for our many years of work preserving Potawatomi history. The certificate was signed by all the Potawatomi on the caravan, including 20 more who attended the dedication the final day. I was so thrilled and happy, I was speechless and started to cry. I could say nothing but thanks. Then everyone hugged and kissed us. The Knights of Columbus and Linn County Historical Society served supper.

That night after all had gone but the caravan campers, we talked about things we had heard and seen. Ginger told of a woman who lived near Liberty, Mo., who told her that every fall she and her husband and children heard the sound of horses and wagons going by. They couldn’t figure out where the sounds came from or what it meant. After our Trail of Death caravan came in 1988, the sounds never returned. They wondered: Could it have been the spirits of those on the 1838 trail, unable to rest until our caravan gave them recognition?

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This page updated Mar 27, 2011.