The Potawatomi Trail of Death

potawatomi_1The excitement caused by the Black Hawk War was the beginning of the downfall of Native American tribes in Indiana. Although these Indians were perfectly quiet and peaceful and had nothing to do with causing the Black Hawk War, the white settlers of Indiana could not get used to their presence in the community.


As early as 1819 Congress had planned to civilize (Christianize) the Indians. A law of that year gave the President power to use $10,000 to pay the tuition of Indian children enrolled in mission schools. Several mission schools had been established in Indiana and were said to have done good work. However, there was no backing for this law and nothing of importance was accomplished.


In 1822 the system of registering traders with the Indiana government was abolished and a horde of irresponsible and depraved traders were allowed into the tribal areas of local Indians. These traders carried whiskey to the tribe and traded it for furs. They are, basically, categorized as petty thieves.


Various missionaries and other friends of the Indians soon began to plead to the government for help. Most of them agreed that it would be better to get the tribes moved beyond the frontier. It was a policy of the Jacksonian Democrats to get them out of the way of the white settlers. The law of May 28, 1830, permitted any tribe that cared to, to trade its land for lands beyond the Mississippi River. The law of July 9, 1832, which provided for a complete reorganization of the Indian service, also appropriated $20,000 to hold councils among the Indiana tribes in order to induce them to migrate beyond the Mississippi.


During the summer of 1833, and later, agents were busy along the upper Wabash and on the Eel River gathering up parties of Indians and transporting them to the West. A favorite plan was to give horses to a number of chiefs and pay their way out to the new country on a tour of inspection. If necessary, they were then bribed to give a glowing report of the country they had seen. The Indians were then persuaded to emigrate.


The best illustration of the hatred that the Indiana settlers bore toward the Indians is their treatment of the Potawatomies, whom they forcibly expelled form Indiana in the summer of 1838. The Potawatomies originally hunted over the region south of Lake Michigan, north of the Wabash, and west of the St. Joseph and St. Mary’s rivers.


They were usually hostile to the Americans when war was on. They led in the Indian massacre at Fort Dearborn, and in the attacks on Fort Wayne and Fort Harrison. Most of the warriors under the famous Prophet at Tippecanoe, as well as those who perpetrated the Pigeon Roost murders and harassed the White River border from Callonia to the Wabash above Vincennes during the following years, were thought to be Potawatomies. On the other hand, they had given the settlers the land for the Michigan road-a body of land equal to a strip a mile wide from the Ohio to Lake Michigan.


Few settlers penetrated their lake-region hunting grounds before 1830. Beginning as early as 1817, in a treaty at Fort Meigs, the government adopted the unfortunate policy of making special reservations for Indian chiefs who refused to join the tribe in selling land. As a result of this policy several bands of Potawatomies had special reservations in Marshall and adjoining counties. The treaty of 1832 took from the tribes its tribal lands, leaving Chief Menominee a reservation around Twin Lakes and extending up to the present city of Plymouth. Down around Maxinkuckee, Indiana, Chief Aubbeenaubee had a large reservation in Tippecanoe Township. In fact, Indians claimed and occupied the whole county except for the strip of land given for the Michigan road, stretching across the county north and south through Plymouth.


In 1834 a commission tried to buy the Indian land and succeeded in making a contract for most of it at fifty cents an acre. But on account of some individual reservations made in the treaty the government refused to ratify the purchase.


Colonel Abel C. Pepper, of Lawrenceburg, then Indian agent, succeeded, in 1836, in buying the Indians out at $1 per acre, giving the Indians the privilege of remaining two years on the lands. The Indians asserted that this cession was obtained by unfair means, but it seemed to have been accomplished as most others had been.


Anticipating the land sale that was to take place when the Indian lease expired, August 5, 1838, squatters began to enter the country and settle on the Indian land. They expected to hold their land later by the right of pre-emption. The Indians began to show their resentment as the time for their forced removal approached. They contended that the chiefs had no right to sell the lands, and went so far as to murder one of the chiefs who had “touched the quill.” General Morgan and Colonel Pepper were busy among them, trying to persuade them that the West was a much better place for them. Councils were held at Plymouth and at Dixie Lake, but the Indians were resolute.


Pioneers had already squatted on the Indian lands. On August 5th these squatters demanded possession of the Indian wigwams and fields. Many of the Indians had been persuaded to plant corn. They were told that the government would not sell their land until it was surveyed, and that could not be done before the summer of 1838.


The Indians refused to give possession and both parties resorted to violence. The fur traders in the region sided with the Indians and advised them to resist the squatters. The Catholic priest located in the Twin Lake Mission also advised them that the squatters had no right to demand their land, especially the crop of corn that was now growing.


A squatter name Waters, it seems, was especially persistent in demanding that the Indians give him possession of a quarter section of land he had laid claim to. About the middle of August some Indians battered down his cabin door with an ax. In return the squatters joined together and burned eight or ten wigwams.


tradersfeastThe pioneers along the frontier were expecting trouble. It had been only a few years since the scare of the Black Hawk War. The Miamis had been sullen all the season. Stragglers from the transported tribes were returning from the West and telling how their fellow tribesmen had suffered from cold and hunger out on the Plains. So, when word was received that the Indians were committing acts of violence, the government acted swiftly.


Colonel Pepper called all the warriors together in council at Twin Lakes on August 29, 1838. He could do nothing with them, however. The old men had lost control of the young warriors of their tribe. All flatly refused to leave, saying that both they and the President had been deceived. While they were sitting in council, John Tipton and his militia arrived. The government’s agents had been preparing all summer for the removal of the tribe, but, perhaps, would not have been done until the cool weather of the autumn.


As soon as Colonel Pepper of Logansport had heard of the first Indian refusal to move-and he heard as soon as a courier from the squatters could reach him, August 26, 1838-he at once sent a dispatch by mounted courier to Governor David Wallace asking for a good general and at least one hundred soldiers. He reported that the Potawatomies on Yellow River were in arms and an outbreak was expected at any moment. This message reached Governor Wallace on the next day. The same day he received word the Governor sent an order by courier to John Tipton of Logansport, ordering him to muster the Cass and Miami County militia and proceed quickly to the scene of trouble.


Tipton lost no time in enrolling the militia. They left Logansport at 1 p.m. August 29. At 10 p.m., they went into camp at Chippewa. Breaking camp at 3 a.m., they reached Twin Lakes and found Colonel Pepper and the Indians in council. Tipton at once stated his business, scolding the chiefs for the violence. The Indians made no excuses for the outbreaks and again refused to leave their homes. From the report it seems clear the whites were the aggressors and had done nearly all the damage. Tipton wasted no words, but established a camp on an island in the lake and detained all the Indian chiefs present, which numbered about 200. As all the leaders were present it was easy to control the rest. All were disarmed as soon as they were found.


Squads of soldiers patrolled northern Indiana in all directions looking for the Indians and driving them to the Twin Lakes area. Many, fearing harm to those chiefs at the council, came in to see what was wrong. By September 1st more than 700 were rounded up. All the Indian wigwams and cabins were destroyed. Their horses and their property were brought into camp.


Early on the morning of September 4th, Tipton commenced to load 13 army wagons with the Indians personal property. About 400 horses were found and kept on the island until Tipton was ready to start.


The procession left the Twin Lakes area on September 4th and dragged its mournful way south over the Michigan Road through Chippewa, traveling 21 miles before establishing camp. Father Petit, the missionary whom Bishop Brute had stationed there, had been allowed to gather the Indians into the little chapel and conduct a farewell mass before they started. The first day’s march was excessively tiring. No water could be found for drinking and the road was dusty. They traveled from 9 a.m. to sunset, the mounted militia prodding on the stragglers. The next day 41 Indians were unable to move. Others had to wait on the sick. Beef, flour and bacon had been ordered from Logansport, 46 miles away, but only a little had reached them.


On September 5th they reached Mud Creek. Twenty guards deserted during the day, stealing Indian horses on which to get away. On September 6th the Indians marched 17 miles, reaching Logansport, about 800 strong. They waited near the town three days for the government agents to make better arrangements for traveling. One-half of the militia was discharged and half were kept to accompany the Indians to the Indiana state line.


By this time the Indian children and old people were completely worn out. The children, especially, were dying in great numbers, not being used to such rigorous work. Physicians from Logansport reached the Indians on September 9th and reported three hundred unfit for travel. The march from this time was not so rapid. William Polke took a small detachment of troops and revisited the abandoned villages to see if any Potawatomies had returned. Several children died during the stay at Logansport.


On September 10th they started at 9 a.m. and skirted the north bank of the Wabash all day, reaching Winamac’s old village by 5 p.m. Food was very scarce. The priest was given permission to say mass every evening. They left Winamac at 10 a.m., marched seventeen miles on the 11th, and camped at Pleasant Run at 5 p.m.


The next day the haggard group forded the Tippecanoe River at 11 a.m. and passed Tippecanoe Battlefield at noon. Here, Tipton distributed $5,000 worth of dry goods, hoping to raise the spirit of the Indians.


Chief Wewissa’s mother died on the 12th at the extreme age of 100. She had asked to be killed and buried with her fathers at the Mission and the chief had decided to humor her, but the white authorities would not permit it.


On September 13th the group reached Lagrange on the Wabash, a short distance below Lafayette, marching eighteen miles. One hundred and sixty were under the care of Dr. Ritchie and his son, the attending physicians. They were almost entirely out of medicine. The children were dying at the rate of from 3 to 5 a day. On the 14th they reached Williamsport. On the 16th they reached Danville, Illinois. The heat and dust was getting worse. Large numbers of sick had to be left in the road. Horses were worn out and the guards were nearly all sick, and unable to proceed.


At Sandusky Point, Illinois, on September 18th, Tipton turned the command of the group over to Judge William Polke, who had been appointed by the national government to oversee the removal. Judge Polke, Father Petit, and an escort of fifteen men continued with the broken tribe to their destination on the Osage River in Kansas. The journey required about two months with the cost the lives at one-fifth of the tribe.


A few Potawatomies remained in Indiana scattered on small reservations in various parts of the State. The larger numbers of these were on the lower Mississinewa, around Maxinkuckee Lake, and around small lakes in Kosciusko County. The introduction of settlers, whiskey, and white culture practically annihilated a native culture. Northern Indiana has kept the many place names that have Native American influence, but has found no room for a modern tribe representation.


The Trail of Death, as it became known, was not one of the shining moments in Indiana history.

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