Trail of Death

History of 1838 Trail of Death

Potawatomi 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 four 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.

In the summer of 1838 squatters settled on Potawatomi land. 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. On August 30, Tipton met with the Potawatomi in Menominee’s chapel and 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 on 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.

Father Benjamin Marie Petit, a young priest from France, accompanied the Potawatomi and 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.”

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 and crossed the Mississippi River at Quincy, and they made their way through Missouri to enter Western Territory (Kansas) south of Independence, Missouri.

They arrived at Osawatomie, Kansas, on November 4, 1838, at 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.

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.