History of 1838 Trail of Death

The Potawatomi Trail of Death starts at the Menominee statue south of Plymouth. There is a green sign on US 31 that points west, saying Chief Menominee Monument. You drive about 6 miles and come to Peach Road, turn north and go half a mile. The statue is there on the right (east).

Chief Menominee was the leader of the resistance and refused to sell his land and move west of the Mississippi River, per the treaty of 1836. He did not sign the treaty but was forced to go anyway. Hundreds of Potawatomi who did not want to leave Indiana moved to his village, which grew from 4 wigwams in 1821 to 100 wigwams and cabins in 1838.

Abel C. Pepper, Indian Agent for northern Indiana, secured cessions of Potawatomi reservations 1834-1837 via treaties at the Tippecanoe River north of Rochester, Yellow River near Plymouth, and at Logansport. These treaties were known as the Whiskey Treaties because whiskey was given to get the Indians to sign. An emigration of the Potawatomi in 1837, accompanied by George Proffit, traveled from Logansport, Indiana, to eastern Kansas. This group included the chiefs Kee-wau-nay, Ne-bash, Pash-po-ho and Nas-waw-kay. Upon arrival in Kansas, they issued a call for a priest. Father Christian Hoecken answered the call and established St. Mary’s Mission at Sugar Creek, near present- day Centerville, Kansas.

In the summer of 1838 squatters had settled on Potawatomi land in Marshall, Kosciusko, Fulton, Cass and surrounding counties. Fearing an uprising, they wrote to Indiana Governor David Wallace, asking him to come investigate. He came and talked to various white people and decided that the Potawatomi must go. On his way back to Indianapolis, he stopped in Logansport on August 27 and appointed General John Tipton to be in charge of the removal. Tipton immediately put out the call for 100 volunteers. He instructed the armed men to meet him at Chippeway, which was William Polke’s trading post on the Tippecanoe River north of Rochester. Tipton went to Polke’s house and dated his letters: Chippeway, Aug. 28, 1838. Sitting in the Polke house now preserved at the Fulton County Historical Society grounds, Tipton wrote orders and letters late into the night and planned the capture of the Potawatomi. He rode a horse with his mounted militia to Twin Lakes on August 30, having sent out a notice to the Potawatomi to meet with him. They met in Menominee’s chapel and during the meeting, Tipton informed the Indians that they were prisoners and were going to go west in a couple of days. Chief Menominee objected and was “tied like a dog.” Tipton sent squads of soldiers in all directions to collect all Potawatomi within about a 30 to 50 mile radius.

The march began September 4, 1838. Chief Menominee and two other chiefs, No-taw-kah and Pee-pin-oh-waw, were placed in a horse-drawn jail wagon and transported across Indiana, while their people walked or rode horseback behind them. Many of them had been baptized by Father Benjamin Marie Petit, a young priest from France, and they attended Mass in Logansport with Father Petit and Bishop Brute. The Bishop gave permission for Father Petit to accompany the Potawatomi so he went back to South Bend to pack his things and then caught up with them at Danville, Ill. General Tipton’s power expired at the state line so he turned the emigration over to William Polke, Rochester, Indiana, appointed to be federal conductor. Father Petit was placed in charge of the sick. Records indicate that Polke and Petit did all they could to help the suffering and dying but medicine in those days did not amount to much more than rest, tea and sugar. So many died along the trail that it became known as the Trail of Death. Father Petit said Mass every day and baptized the babies who died, in his own words, “who with their first step passed from earthly exit to the heavenly sojourn.” (The Trail of Death Letters of Benjamin Marie Petit, Indiana Historical Society, 1941, reprinted 2003 in Potawatomi Trail of Death.)

Father Petit wrote: “The order of the march was as follows: the United States flag, carried by a dragoon (soldier); then one of the principal officers, next the staff baggage carts, then the carriage, which during the whole trip was kept for the use of the Indian chiefs; then one or two chiefs on horseback led a line of 250 or 300 horses ridden by men, women, children in single file, after the manner of savages. On the flanks of the line at equal distance from each other were the dragoons and volunteers, hastening the stragglers, often with severe gestures and bitter words. After this cavalry came a file of 40 baggage wagons filled with luggage and Indians. The sick were lying in them, rudely jolted, under a canvas which, far from protecting them from the dust and heat, only deprived them of air, for they were as if buried under this burning canopy - several died thus.” One of the first things Father Petit did was to get the chiefs in the jail wagon released: “On my word the six chiefs who had till now been treated as prisoners of war were released and given the same kind of freedom which the rest of the tribe enjoyed.”

Across the great prairies of Illinois they marched, crossed the Mississippi River at Quincy, and they made their way though Missouri to enter Western Territory (Kansas) south of Independence, Missouri.

They arrived at Osawatomie, Kansas, on November 4, 1838, the end of the trail. There were supposed to houses ready for them as winter was coming on, but no houses had been built for them. The Potawatomi were very upset and asked William Polke to stay with them so he said he would leave his son with them. Polke then went back to Indiana. Father Petit stayed with them for a few weeks, as he was sick with the fever too. After placing the Potawatomi in the spiritual hands of Jesuit Father Christian Hoecken at the Sugar Creek Mission in Kansas, Father Petit set out to St. Louis. He was accompanied by Abram Burnett (Nan-wesh-mah), a full-blood Potawatomi who was the same age as Petit. Father Petit was very sick with sores all over his body. Burnett had to hold him on his horse part of the time. Petit died in St. Louis on Feb. 10, 1839. Burnett carried Petit’s chalice and other personal things to Vincennes to give to Bishop Brute. Petit was buried in St. Louis. In 1856 Father Edward Sorin, founder of Notre Dame University, took Father Petit’s body back to Indiana. Today Father Petit’s remains rest under the Log Chapel at the University of Notre Dame at South Bend, Indiana. Father Petit’s baptismal records and journals are in the University of Notre Dame Library. They were translated from French by H. Vernon Davis and Irving McKee of Culver Military Academy, Culver, Indiana, and published in the aforementioned book by the Indiana Historical Society.

1838 was the same year as the Cherokee Trail of Tears from the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma but the Cherokees had more deaths. There were 15,000 Cherokees who started west but about 4,000 died. Nearly every Indian tribe suffered a forced removal, even the western Indians. The Navajo removal in 1863 was known as The Long Walk. Many euphemisms exist but the Trail of Death is the real name for the forced removal of the Potawatomi from Indiana to Kansas.

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This page updated Jun 30, 2006.