Potawatomi Trail of Death

Potawatomi Kee-Waw-Nay Village

Potawatomi Kee-Waw-Nay Village

In September 1838, 859 Potawatomi Indians were forced from their homeland near Plymouth, Indiana and made to march 660 miles to present-day Osawatomie, Kansas At gunpoint, the tribe began the march on September 4, 1838. During the two month journey, 42 members of the tribe, mostly children, died of typhoid fever and the stress of the forced removal. When they arrived in Osawatomie, Kansas on November 4, 1838, there were only 756 of the tribe, as many had also escaped along the journey.

Native American tribes began to be forced from their homelands in 1830 when the Indian Removal Act was passed by the Federal Government. As more and more European immigrants arrived in the United States, the government determined that more room was needed for them; therefore, pushing the Indians to unpopulated lands west of the  Mississippi River. The the Indian Removal Act was specifically enacted to remove the Five Civilized Tribes from the southeast, but it would later lead to multiple treaties with other tribes east of the  Mississippi River.

Negotiations with various Potawatomi bands began in 1832 to move them from their homelands in Indiana to lands in Kansas. While many of them complied over the next several years, Chief Menominee and his band at Twin Lakes, Indiana, refused to sign the treaties.

By August, 1838, most of the Potawatomi bands had migrated peacefully to their new lands in Kansas; but, Chief Menominee’s band stayed at their Twin Lakes village. Hundreds of others who did not want to leave their homeland joined Menominee’s band, which over time grew from 4 wigwams in 1821 to 100 in 1838. As a result, Indiana Governor David Wallace ordered General John Tipton to mobilize the state militia to forcibly remove the tribe.

On August 30th, General Tipton, along with 100 soldiers, arrived at the Twin Lakes Village and began to round up the tribe, burning their crops and homes to discourage them from trying to return. Five days later, on September 4th, the march began with more than 850 Indians and a caravan of 26 wagons to help transport their goods. Chief Menominee and two other chiefs, No-taw-kah and Pee-pin-oh-waw, were placed in a horse-drawn jail wagon, while their people walked or rode horseback behind them. Each day, the trek began at 8:00 a.m. and continued until 4:00 p.m., when they rested for the evening and were given their only meal of the day.

Father Benjamin M. Petit

Father Benjamin M. Petit

The tribe was accompanied by a young priest, Father Benjamin M. Petit. Along the way he ministered to the tribe spiritually, emotionally, and physically, tending to the sick. That fall there was a terrible drought and unfortunately, what little water they found was usually stagnant, causing many of them to get sick with what was probably typhoid. As more and more died along the way, Father Petit baptized the dying children, blessed each grave when someone died, and conducted Mass each day, though he himself also grew sick along the journey.

On November 13, 1838, while traveling along the Osage River in Missouri, he wrote a letter to Bishop Simon Brute, Vincennes, Indiana, describing the march.

“The order of march was as follows: the United States flag, carried by a dragoon; 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 to 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 forty 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.”

Across the great prairies of Illinois they marched, crossed the  Mississippi River at Quincy, Missouri made their way along the rivers in Missouri and entered Kansas Territory south of Independence, Missouri. When they arrived at Osawatomie, Kansas, on November 4, 1838, 42 of the 859 Potawatomi had died. Making matters worse, winter was coming on and there were no houses, despite the government promise. Obviously the Potawatomi were upset and Father Petit, who was very sick at the time, stayed with them for a few weeks. During this time, he made arrangements with Jesuit Father Christian Hoecken, who operated St. Mary’s Sugar Creek Mission, for the Indians to move to the site. Located about 20 miles south of Osawatomie, near present Centerville, Kansas, the mission had been established the previous year for a group of Potawatomi, including Chiefs Kee-wau-nay and Nas-waw-kay, who had relocated voluntarily.

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