Once neighbors in the Great Lakes region prior to colonial contact, the Potawatomi and Kickapoo people have a great deal in common. These connections have been seen in food, housing and other customs, extending even to ancestors.
Today, those close connections remain after both nations fought to survive displacement from the Great Lakes and the federal government’s continued hostile incursions through Indiana, Kansas and finally arriving in present-day Oklahoma.
A home in the Great Lakes
Author A.M. Gibson noted in The Kickapoos: Lords of the Middle Border, that the word Kickapoo comes from the Algonquin Kiwigapawa, which means “he moves about.” The Kickapoo traveled to Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, parts of Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, eastern Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and northern Mexico.
The traditional homelands of the Potawatomi and Kickapoo were bordered on the east and north by the Great Lakes, on the west by the Mississippi River and on the south by the Ohio River.
Both nations lived in a similar manner in villages where they planted crops and conducted tribal affairs, Gibson wrote. They spent autumn and winter away from the village hunting. Their weapons, methods of raising war parties and conducting warfare, as well as marriage and family customs, contain similarities. They also had similar methods of preparing food, and their clothing and implements looked alike. Dances, ceremonies and feasts followed a common pattern.
The Cultural Heritage Center displays some of these items, and visitors get a sense of how Potawatomi ancestors lived prior to colonial contact, said CHC Senior Curator Blake Norton.
Trees provided a variety of useful materials. Some trees were stripped and used to make baskets, Norton said. Bark stripped from a tree was used as roofing material. Other trees were cut down and used as poles to construct a frame to build a home. Some were best for fire wood for cooking or heating the home.
In the Great Lakes area, Potawatomi and Kickapoo people likely used birch bark, he said. Birch can be stripped without compromising the tree’s health, providing a renewable resource for many years.
“For birch bark, you can peel the outer layer,” Norton said. “If done correctly, it will layer over and be fine.”
Whatever the tree, the process to strip the bark is time and labor intensive, he said. Depending upon the product needed, the process can involve soaking the bark for days to make it pliable. For some species of tree, the thickness of the bark, with added water saturation, can become heavy and challenging to harvest.
French contact leads to conflict among nations
According to Gibson, the Kickapoo were first mentioned in 17th century historical accounts, at which time they lived in lower Michigan. By 1654, French explorers documented meeting the Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Sauk and Fox tribes in southeast Wisconsin. The Iroquois, fighting a war with colonialists in the northeast, fled west, displacing many Kickapoo, Potawatomi, Sauk and Fox from their traditional homelands.
After exhausting most of the lucrative furs in the east, the Iroquois, supported by the British, moved west in hopes of occupying the Great Lakes and controlling the untapped valuable resources, Norton said.
As these nations moved into present-day Wisconsin, they entered territories largely occupied by the Winnebago and Menominee nations. Outmatched militarily, tribes in the lower lakes fled north and became refugees in Wisconsin, near present-day Green Bay and Milwaukee, he said.
All this movement led to war, trading disputes and disease epidemics from encroaching Europeans. After the Iroquois were defeated and a peace treaty signed in 1701, some tribes returned to Michigan. Instead, the Kickapoo claimed land in Illinois and western Indiana.
With the support of other Algonquin allies, the Potawatomi and Kickapoo flourished in their new home, Gibson wrote. In 1768, the Kickapoo and Potawatomi territories were next to each other extending from northeastern Illinois, toward southeastern Wisconsin, alongside the western shore of Lake Michigan.
CHC records indicate Antoine Ouilmette was born in 1760. He married Archange Chevalier, who was the granddaughter of Potawatomi headman and warrior Naunongee. Archange was born in 1764. Their grandson, Lewis Wilmette Jr., married Wam-be-quah (Susan Masquas), a Kickapoo woman. They had Louis L. Wilmot, who married Hazel Trombla.
Treaties and dispersal
After making 40 treaties with the U.S. government between 1795 and 1854, the Potawatomi began to move to Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and eventually Oklahoma while the Kickapoo stretched across Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and northern Mexico.
A number of Potawatomi joined the Kickapoo as they moved south, eventually stopping in Eagle Pass, Texas. Today, descendants of that group are known as the Kickapoo Tribe of Texas. They worked to establish new communities, yet harassment from government entities continued.
“A group of Texas Rangers attacked an encampment while all of the young men were away hunting,” Norton said. “With just the women and elderly there, the (Rangers) began raiding the camp. After an elderly man, left to guard the camp, was killed, the women armed themselves with pots and pans, attacked and killed the raiding Texas Rangers. Fearing that reinforcements would arrive, the dead Rangers were buried and the camp fled. ”
Battles between Tribes and Texas Rangers in Dove Creek and other locations resulted in a tremendous loss of life for the combined Potawatomi and Kickapoo groups. Survivors faced tremendous government resistance when trying to reclaim the remains of their loved ones from locations in Texas, Norton said.
Kennekuk emerges as a leader
With their ties going back many generations, the Kickapoo and Potawatomi stood together to face the continuing threat of European incursion.
As settlers began to squat upon their homelands, Kickapoo turned to Kennekuk, known as the Kickapoo Prophet. He urged the Kickapoo and Potawatomi to work together to resist efforts by the U.S. government to remove tribal nations from their homelands. His approach encouraged members of both Nations to pool their resources, and he treated Kickapoo and Potawatomi equally. In response, the U.S. government cut off annuity payments to Potawatomi who refused to move to their reservation along the Kansas River. But many Potawatomi remained with the Kickapoos anyway. Eventually, the group took up agriculture near present-day Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.
Unfortunately, Kennekuk died from smallpox in 1853, and without his strong leadership, the community dwindled in size. With westward expansion continuing, the land the community sat on continued to shrink. From a size of 768,000 acres, it dwindled to 150,000 and eventually was only six square miles.
Caught in the midst of Kansas’ own Civil War battles between pro and anti-slavery factions, the group finally moved to Oklahoma.
A shared legacy
The CHC’s Ancestors portal allows Tribal members to research their families’ ties within the community. Norton said the Tribal rolls from the 1872 and 1887 allotments reveal the foundation for the community that exists now in Pottawatomie County.
“We focus on Potawatomi heritage, but it’s interesting to learn about the mixed ancestry of our tribal families,” Norton said.
One of the world’s greatest athletes is descended from the Vieux family, and shares Potawatomi and Kickapoo ancestry: Jim Thorpe.
Shissahecon, (Cheshawgan) was a prominent leader among the St. Joseph Potawatomi. His father, Nanaquiba, and brothers, Topinabee and Chebas, were very respected and important to tribal history as well, Norton said. It is believed that one of Nanaquiba’s wives was Kickapoo and understood to be the mother of Shissahecon.
Shissahecon’s daughter, Ches-HawGan, or Charlotte, married Louis Vieux, Sr., who was descended from prominent Potawatomi and Menominee families. Together, Lewis and Charlotte had Jacob Vieux, born in 1835.
Jacob Vieux married Elizabeth Goslin. Elizabeth’s father, Keoduck, was Kickapoo. Her mother Massaw was considered a chieftess among the Indiana Potawatomi. Massaw’s father, Wassato, was also a respected leader.
Together, Jacob and Elizabeth had Charlotte, Charles, Ellen and Mary and Angeline.
Charlotte Vieux was born in 1863. She married Hiram P. Thorpe. Together, they had twin boys: James Frances (Jim) Thorpe and Charles in 1887. Jim and Charley were originally enrolled on the Citizen Potawatomi rolls at Sacred Heart, but their father forced them to relinquish and enroll with the Sac and Fox, Norton said. Charlotte and Hiram also had Minnie, Frank, George, Mary, Adeline and Edward. The family lived near present-day Prague, Oklahoma.
While at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, Jim discovered his athletic talents by breaking the school’s high jump record and participating in Carlisle’s hockey, lacrosse, ballroom dancing and football programs.
Sac and Fox tribal member and Citizen Potawatomi and Kickapoo descendant Jim Thorpe is widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest athletes. He was the first Native American to earn an Olympic gold medal at the 1912 games in Stockholm, Sweden. Following his Olympic career, he went on to become the highest paid Major League Baseball player in 1913. He became a star on Indiana’s first professional football team in 1913. Jim Thorpe walked on March 28, 1953.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center provides resources to keep the Tribe’s history safe and accessible for generations to come. One key way the Nation does this is through the CHC’s archives and family interviews. If interested in assisting preservation efforts by providing copies of Citizen Potawatomi family photographs, documents and more, and to schedule family interviews, please contact the CHC at 405-878-5830. Schedule interviews online at portal.potawatomi.org. Learn more about the Family Reunion Festival at cpn.news/festival, and find research resources online at potawatomiheritage.com.