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Potawatomi leader’s entrepreneurial spirit and the Oregon Trail

Louis Vieux held a reputation as a keen businessman and Potawatomi leader in the 1800s. He ran a successful ferry along the Vermillion River on the Potawatomi reservation in Kansas where he charged Oregon Trail travelers $1 per outfit to cross, sometimes making upward of $300 per day. Before removal west, Vieux and his family were prominent fur traders in the Great Lakes region. They continued pursuing the trading business after removal to Council Bluffs in present-day Iowa, and the family’s business ideals followed them to the Potawatomi reservation in northeastern Kansas. Even today, Vieux’s influence is not forgotten. The small, rural Kansas town of Louisville bears his name, and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center highlights his impact in its gallery West of the Mississippi.

Louis Vieux’s business understanding and leadership qualities played a key role in Tribal politics throughout the 19th century.

“You really can’t talk about that time in the Tribe without talking about Louis Vieux because, quite frankly, he managed to make the most of it,” said Dr. Kelli Mosteller, Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center director. “Yes, there are a lot of other Tribal members who were great business people, but when you talk about who encompassed it the most, it is Louis Vieux.”

Born in 1809 near the Great Lakes, Vieux survived the removal west as well as the hardships that followed while the Potawatomi attempted to gain footing as woodland people on the prairie.

“His life kind of bookends these really dramatic, heartbreaking but pivotal moments in our history,” she said. “He does make a historical figure who helps wrap up this piece of our history.”

Westward expansion

“When they finally made the final move to Kansas, Louis Vieux had his homestead on the banks of the Vermillion River and set up as not only the ferry operator across there — as he saw how many emigrants were moving through heading west — he also supplied a barn, hay and feed as well as supplies for the soldiers who were moving from Fort Riley to Fort Leavenworth,” Dr. Mosteller said.

According to the Kansas Historical Society, approximately 300,000 people passed through the state along the Oregon-California Trail. Because of the Potawatomi reservation’s location, many Tribal members, including Vieux, took, advantage of the economic opportunities the wagon trains could provide.

“He was very intentionally settling where he settled because that’s where the natural ford of the river was anyway,” Dr. Mosteller said. “Building his home was not just happenstance. He saw that opportunity.”

The reservation’s location also served as one of the last chances for travelers to restock supplies before crossing the Rocky Mountains. Vieux often purchased items travelers no longer deemed as necessary to resell for profit, continuing his family’s trading legacy.

“The trail was the center of his business. Without the Oregon Trail, there would have been no reason to have a ferry operation on the Vermillion to the extent that he had,” she said.

Business committee

In addition to entrepreneurial opportunities in Kansas, Vieux served on the Tribe’s business committee and represented Potawatomi in Washington D.C. on numerous occasions.

“As we were being pressured to sign treaties, leaders like Vieux tried to negotiate what those treaties would entail,” Dr. Mosteller said. “Oftentimes, it was trying to get the federal government to follow through on promises made in past treaties.”

He also helped oversee and coordinate annuity payment processing by working with fellow Potawatomi to ensure all Tribal members received their funds, food and supplies.

“Often the (annuity payments) were delayed and not everything that was promised was delivered,” Dr. Mosteller said. “There was a lot of work that had to go into just getting the government to follow through on the agreements they had already entered into, much less the pressure to then enter into further agreements.”

Citizenship

In the 1860s, a group of Potawatomi businessmen and leaders, including Vieux, saw the chance to become United States citizens and obtain land allotments as ways to provide permanence and stability.

“He understood how to negotiate a deal. He could speak both languages. He was an articulate individual,” Dr. Mosteller said. “He dealt with a lot of people moving through and government officials, so he was able to really be a good spokesperson for the Tribe.”

Vieux was the first signatory on the Treaty of 1861, which established the Citizen Band of Potawatomi, later named the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. The Citizen Band included those who wished to receive allotments and the chance to become U.S. citizens, whereas the Prairie Band included those who refused allotments, deciding rather to hold their land in common.

Some Citizen Band were able to achieve success through allotments, but others were not. Federal policies, like taxation and a lack of follow through on treaty obligations, negatively impacted many Citizen Potawatomi. Because of this, just six short years after signing the 1861 Treaty, Citizen Band leaders were looking for ways to save the Tribe and its people once more. The Treaty of 1867 provided an opportunity to sell Tribal lands in Kansas and purchase a new reservation in present-day Oklahoma. However, after obtaining the new reservation, not all made the move south. Numerous Citizen Potawatomi, including Vieux and fellow businessman and Tribal leader Joseph Napoleon Bourassa, stayed in Kansas.

“They were not part of that group that became disenfranchised and lost their land and had nowhere to go,” Mosteller said. “But Louis Vieux also had children who opted to move down because they saw conditions that were right for them.”

Vieux passed away in 1872, the same year Potawatomi began moving to the Tribe’s reservation in present-day Oklahoma. However, his descendants have continued his legacy of Tribal service and leadership in Kansas, Oklahoma and beyond, including Olympian Jim Thorpe, Vieux’s grandson.

Although the Citizen Potawatomi headquarters have remained in Oklahoma for almost 150 years, the Nation’s connection in northeastern Kansas continues today with Tribal resources, elder housing, events and more on Citizen Potawatomi land in Rossville, which is approximately 20 miles from Vieux’s homestead.

Learn more about his Tribal influence and this era in CPN history by visiting the CPN Cultural Heritage Center’s gallery West of the Mississippi. Find the CHC online at potawatomiheritage.com.