Willards Adopted at End of Trail of Death Caravan
By Shirley Willard, Fulton County Historian

We first got involved in Trail of Death history in 1976 when our son Allen Willard and his Boy Scout troop erected a historical marker at Mud Creek on Indiana 25 for the first death, an Indian baby, for his Eagle Scout award. I was president of the Fulton County Historical Society and we founded the annual Trail of Courage Living History Festival in 1976. I first met a member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi in the early 1980s and I invited him, Jerry Lewis, to speak at the Trail of Courage. The Citizen Band was called the Mission Band when they lived in Indiana in the 1830s; they were forcibly removed from Indiana to Kansas in 1838. In 1861 they signed a new treaty making them U.S. citizens, thus creating the Citizen Band. My husband and I got deeply involved with the Potawatomi in 1988 when we worked closely with several Potawatomi families to plan things to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Trail of Death.

Shirley and Bill Willard were presented with a certificate of adoption making them honorary Potawatomi, signed by the Potawatomi on the caravan. (Photo by Larry Prichard)

The plan included planting cedar trees for all who died on the Trail of Death. Bill Wamego re-enacted the march by riding in a horse-drawn jail wagon down Rochester’s Main Street. Chief White Eagle officiated in planting a Great Peace Tree - an ancient Indian ceremony of planting a pine tree on top of crossed tomahawks to “bury the hatchet.” And we formed a partnership with George Godfrey, Tom Hamilton and other Potawatomi to organize a caravan to travel the 660 mile trek from here to Osawatomie, Kansas, on the original Trail of Death route. We formed committees in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas to research and find the original route. We then organized and traveled on the first Trail of Death Commemorative Caravan in September 1988.

During that first caravan, the group decided to travel again in five years and to get a historical marker at each camp site every 15 to 20 miles. So for the past 15 years I have put in a lot of time making long distance phone calls, seeking and pleading for people to erect Trail of Death historical markers. Finally this year we got it all done. There are now 74 historical markers on the Trail of Death Regional Historic Trail. We got it declared a Regional Historic Trail by getting the four state legislatures to pass resolutions in 1994. All the markers were paid for by donations at no expense to tax payers. Over 30 were done by Boy Scouts. Others were sponsored by county historical societies, Girl Scouts, clubs, individuals, and Potawatomi families who had ancestors on the Trail of Death. Three were sponsored by Pokagon Potawatomi and three were sponsored by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Tom Hamilton and Sister Virginia Pearl, Potawatomi who had ancestors on the Trail of Death, talked on the phone for two hours and planned a special ceremony to honor Bill and me at the end of the 2003 caravan. This is what happened at the end of the trail at the St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park.

As part of the dedication of the new Father Petit memorial, Margaret Colbert had hired a group of Lawrence, Kansas, Indian dancers, aged 10 to 21, to perform. After the Indian dances, Sister Virginia asked the dancers to form a line for a presentation. I supposed she was going to give them something. But Tom Hamilton came up with a green folder and proceeded to describe how they were going to adopt a special person and her husband, who had worked for so many years to preserve Potawatomi history. From the green folder he took certificates with our names, and we were asked to come forward. I was so thrilled and happy I was speechless and started to cry. Then everyone hugged and kissed us. It was a marvelous and spiritual ending for the fourth caravan, marking the end of an era. Ginger kept saying when we come again in 2008, and I kept saying we are willing to travel with another caravan but someone else will have to plan it. When you get to be a senior citizen, or as the Indians say, an elder, you never know what your health will be five years from now. And we want to turn it over to the younger generation.

A cook-out and potluck supper was held in the wooden “trading post” at the St Philippine Duchesne park. I gave copies of the Rochester Sentinel which featured the Trail of Courage to many people and invited them to come next year. Most of the people left when it got dark, but the four camping vehicles and Margaret Colbert in a motor home spent the night there. We gathered in the trading post, using a light cord from Prichard’s truck, and talked about all that we had experienced. We recalled Bill Wamego, Father George Mathieu, Mike Lewis, Ivan Nunemaker, Harrison and Rachel Crabill, Bill Baldwin, and others who had traveled with us in previous caravans and “walked on” (an Indian expression for died). Eric and Susan Campbell, Hawaii, who joined us in Independence, MO, spent the night in our camper so we could visit longer. They had traveled on the caravan in 1993 and 1998, but health problems prevented it this time. Susan and I had compiled and written the new book, Potawatomi Trail of Death, sending chapters back and forth via e-mail. It was so good to be able to talk in person to her again.

The 2003 caravan was a great success in many ways, with spiritual rewards, lots of good eats, unbelievable surprises, meeting old friends and telling new people the true history of what really happened. But it was marred by several wrong turns as we discovered that computer maps and even tourist directories have mistakes. And we made our own mistakes by misreading maps or turning too soon or too late. So Bill is re-making the computer maps and we will go in our car to make sure they are totally accurate. Then the maps will be published for those interested in traveling the Trail of Death Regional Historic Trail. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation will publish a book about the 2003 caravan so I am working on that. It will come out next year.

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This page updated Mar 27, 2011.