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November 4, 2020

Remembering the Trail of Death and its impact on the Potawatomi people

Nov. 4 marks the 182nd anniversary of the Potawatomi arriving to their final destination on the Trail of Death at the Sugar Creek reservation in present-day Kansas. The forced removal began on Sept. 4, 1828, at Chief Menominee’s village in Indiana. More than 850 Potawatomi made the journey, and 42 perished, mostly children and elderly. Written and visual records help chronicle this trying time in the Tribe’s history, and utilizing these resources help Tribal members and others acknowledge the tenacity and resilient spirit of the Potawatomi people.

“Statistics and studies have shown that whenever people experience repeated trauma after trauma, it starts to change their brain chemistry. It changes the DNA that they’re passing down to the next generations,” said Dr. Mosteller, Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center director.

“Think about the traumas these kids went through — all in one fell swoop: housing instability, seeing death first-hand and families being separated.”

Forced removals continue to negatively impact Native American communities today, but using resources — like those provided through the writings and sketches — to study about this tumultuous time in Potawatomi history and getting involved by learning the language and participating in Potawatomi culture are ways to acknowledge and heal.

George Winter’s images provide a visual reference of the Trail of Death.

Records

The Trail of Death was difficult, and the weather was harsh. Many Potawatomi lacked adequate footwear, and clothing and supplies were extremely limited. English artist George Winter captured sketches prior to and early in the removal as well as kept a diary detailing the events.

One of Winter’s diary entries included, “Soon the whole nation were seen moving down the hill sides, along the banks of the Eel river, on the way to their westward home. … Could the poor and degraded aborigine give his history to the world, it could but speak in emphatic language — the continual series of oppressions of the White man, from the day he first put foot upon the aboriginal soil.”

The CHC features Winter’s work along a wall in the gallery Forced From Land and Culture: Removal that provides a first-person view of the Potawatomi traversing through canyons and hillsides on the Trail of Death. A digital interactive also allows visitors a hands-on approach to learn more about the Potawatomi people before and during the Trail of Death through Winter’s drawings and paintings.

“I think there’s something very powerful about being able to look through those journals and diaries and that removal narrative,” Dr. Mosteller said.

A Catholic missionary, Father Benjamin Petit, accompanied the Potawatomi on the forced removal. His writings provide details regarding births, deaths, baptisms and the hardships faced along the 660-mile walk.

“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,” Father Petit said in a letter to Bishop Brute.

William Polke, the Trail of Death conductor, also kept a journal, which offers a day-to-day account. Some of his writings are available at potawatomi.org/trail-of-death.

660 miles

During the two months, the Potawatomi lost more than 40 along the way with no time to mourn or bury the dead. Sickness spread throughout the caravan, and at one point, more than 300 experienced illnesses that prevented the removal from advancing.

“When the children were sick, they couldn’t stop to let them rest and to do the things they needed to do,” Dr. Mosteller said. “Our ancestors knew how to take care of themselves and their sick relatives. … They were thrown in limbo and didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. That is mentally taxing.”

Once they reached Sugar Creek, the prairies of Kansas were vastly different than the Great Lakes environment the Tribe knew. The Potawatomi didn’t understand the land; traditional medicines didn’t grow; there was no access to familiar, staple foods; and the lack of water resources and trees available to build wigwams proved difficult. The Potawatomi had to figure out how to live on the Great Plains as a woodland people, which was no easy task.

“There were so many things lost between Indiana and Kansas,” she said. “The Seven Fires Prophecy says that we have that Seventh Fire — we talk about a time there will be when we go back along the path of our ancestors and pick up the things that they were forced to put down. This was a literal part of our ancestors. They were literally having to put things down.”

Disease also created challenges. When the Potawatomi arrived on the reservation west of the Mississippi, the cold November weather and constant illness proved deadly. After the taxing forced removal ended, cholera and other diseases tore through the community almost immediately.

A cemetery in what once was the thriving Potawatomi community known as Uniontown in northeast Kansas includes a mass grave of Tribal members that perished due to cholera. To kill the disease, officials burned the town twice, and eventually, the Potawatomi abandoned Uniontown. A large tree stands strong on top of the mass grave near where Uniontown once flourished.

CPN member and CPN District 4 Legislator Jon Boursaw said during a 2018 interview with the Hownikan, “It has been said that they were all buried in a circle with their heads pointed to the tree. Many more, possibly hundreds, are thought to be buried in the fields that surround the tiny cemetery.”

Today, cemeteries around northeastern Kansas hold hundreds, if not thousands, of Potawatomi who perished in the short years after arriving. To find out more about the Uniontown cemetery and mass grave, Boursaw has worked with experts from the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas to conduct ground penetrating radar research.

According to Boursaw, “(Dr. Blair Schneider) said it is the most data of any site she has surveyed, but she wants to go back and do further surveys to see if she can get a better analysis of what is there.”

Dr. Schneider plans to conduct more research throughout the next few months to provide more concrete details.

Importance of looking back

Using written and visual record helps ensure the legacy of the Potawatomi people and their determination to overcome is not forgotten. For those who descend from individuals removed the Trail of Death and other Potawatomi removals, research and utilizing the resources available can provide a sense of healing and understanding of who the Potawatomi people were, are and will be in the future.

“When you have those resources and those memories, it is your duty to stop and remember and reflect and honor our ancestors for the struggles that they went through because if they didn’t push through the next day, if they didn’t take one more step, if they didn’t hold their children close for one more night, we wouldn’t be here,” Dr. Mosteller said.

To learn more about the Trail of Death, tour the CHC’s gallery Forced From Land and Culture: Removal. The CHC’s Mezodan Research Library also has books and other records available to CPN members on a non-lending bases. Please note, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the public cannot access the library in-person. Call 405-878-5830 for more information and to connect with library staff. For online resources, visit potawatomiheritage.org or potawatomi.org/trail-of-death.