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November 13, 2014
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November 14, 2014

Chronicling the Potawatomi Trail of Death: Letter from Benjamin Marie Petit to Bishop Brute, November 13, 1838

This letter was taken from “The Trail of Death, Letters of Benjamin Marie Petit” by Irving McKee, the Indiana Historical Society, v. 14 (1941), p. 97-101. French-born Father Petit was a Catholic missionary who accompanied the Potawatomi on the Trail of Death. At the time of writing this letter, Father Petit had become ill, like many of the Potawatomi with whom he travelled. Having been recalled by Bishop Brute, Father Petit began a journey but was unable to continue and ultimately died in St. Louis, Mo. on February 10, 1839. 

Osage River, Indian Country
November 13, 1838

I arrived at South Bend [Indiana] on the 11 [September], about noon.  At once I began preparations for traveling, and I devoted part of the evening to hearing the confessions of several sick people who had asked for me -among them was the old mother of Black Wolf (Makkahtahmoway), one of the Chiefs.  The poor woman had been so much frightened by a discharge of musketry ordered by General Tipton when he arrested the savages – who were in council – that she buried herself in the woods, and remained hidden there for six days without taking nourishment.  Finally she found a dead pheasant and ate it.  She had received a terrible wound in her foot and could no longer walk.  Fortunately a savage who was looking for his horses, having noticed something moving in the bushes ran in that direction and found the poor fugitive.  He put her on his horse and transported her safely to a Frenchman’s house near South Bend, where I heard her confession.

The next morning I started out again for Logansport [Indiana].  I intended to rejoin the emigrants [Indians] at Lafayette at least, but they marched so quickly that I did not see my Indians again until Danville [Illinois].

They were walking on the right bank of the river [the Wabash], and the line of wagons continued on the left.  I tried several times to rent a private carriage to take my baggages and me to Danville – this was in vain.  Finally I had to go as far as Perrysville, where, leaving my luggage behind, I took advantage of the kindness of a Catholic, M. Young, who offered me one of his horses and accompanied me to Danville with some other persons who were drawn by curiosity.

It was Sunday, September 16.  I had only just arrived when a colonel, seeking a favorable place to encamp, appeared.  Soon afterward I saw my poor Christians [the Indians], under a burning noonday sun, amidst clouds of dust, marching in a line, surrounded by soldiers who were hurrying their steps.  Next came the baggage wagons in which numerous invalids, children, and women, too weak to walk, were crammed.  They encamped half a mile from the town, and in a short while I went among them.

I found the camp just as you saw it, Monseigneur, at Logansport – a scene of desolation, with sick and dying people on all sides.  Nearly all the children, weakened by the heat, had fallen into a state of complete languor and depression.  I baptized several who were newly born – happy Christians, who with their first step pass from earth to heaven.

The General [Tipton], to whom I introduced myself, expressed his satisfaction at seeing me, and, with a condescension I did not expect, he arose from his chair, which was the only one there, and offered it to me.  That night was the first I passed in a tent.

Early the next morning they heaped the Indians into the baggage wagons, and everybody mounted.  At our departure Judge Polke, chief conductor, came to present me with a horse which the government had procured from an Indian for my use along the way.  At the same time the Indian approached me and said: “My father, I give it to you, saddled and bridled.”

We departed for the next encampment, where several days’ rest was granted us.  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.

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.

…We soon found ourselves on the grand prairies of Illinois, under a burning sun and without shade from one camp to another.  They are as vast as the ocean, and the eye seeks in vain for a tree.  Not a drop of water can be found there – it was a veritable torture for our poor sick, some of whom died each day from weakness and fatigue.

Soon we began evening prayers together again, and the Americans, attracted by curiosity, were astonished to find so much piety in the midst of so many trials.  Our evening exercises consisted of a chapter of the catechism, prayer, and the hymn:

“In thy protection do we trust, O Virgin, meek and mild,” which I intoned in Indian and which was repeated by the whole audience with a vigor which these new Christians bring to all their religious acts.

Often throughout the entire night, around a blazing fire, before a tent in which a solitary candle burned, fifteen or twenty Indians would sing hymns and tell their beads.  One of their friends who had died was laid out in the tent; they performed the last religious rites for him in this way.  The next morning the grave would be dug; the family, sad but tearless, stayed after the general departure; the priest, attired in his sole, recited prayers, blessed the grave, and cast the first shovelful of earth on the rude coffin; the pit was filled and a little cross placed there.