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Trail of Death

Many are acquainted with the Trail of Tears, the forced migration of 15,000 Cherokees from the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma in 1838. But another deadly exodus of Native Americans began in Indiana that same year. Part of the Algonquian group of Indians, Potawatomi people were living in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana at the start of the nineteenth century. The federal government, however, was uneasy with the Native presence within the existing states, and encouraged relocation to the territories west of the Mississippi acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. This process of relocation, achieved through the negotiation of land-exchange treaties, was formalized in 1830, when, after bitter debate, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act.

The federal imprimatur, however, was no guarantee of justice; the land-exchange deals were rarely equitable, binding, or consensual. Federal agent Abel Pepper was responsible for getting tribal members in northern Indiana to sign these “Whiskey Treaties,” so-called for the alcohol used as encouragement. Although Pepper made deals with several Potawatomi tribes to cede their lands in the mid-1830’s, he encountered resistance from a group led by Chief Menominee, whose village was situated near Twin Lakes in what is now Marshall County.

Apprehensive about an uprising, in 1838 Indiana Governor David Wallace charged General John Tipton with eradicating this last Potawatomi stronghold. Having elicited the help of a hundred volunteers overnight, Tipton called for a meeting with Menominee, at which he informed his people of their prisoner status and announced plans for their deportation out west. Having rounded up all Potawatomi within a 50-mile radius, Tipton restrained Menominee and two fellow chiefs and placed them in a jail wagon. Led by Tipton, and subsequently William Polke, 850 Potawatomi left Twin Lakes on horseback and in carts for a two-month trek to Kansas.

Rotten meat and scarce water, along with an outbreak of typhoid fever claimed 39 lives along the way, including many infants. Another casualty was the French priest, Father Benjamin Marie Petit, who ministered to the refugees, obtained certain comforts for them, and chronicled the trip in his journal .

The ignominious trek that has come to be known as the Trail of Death ended after 660 miles in Osawatomie, Kansas on November 4, 1838. “We have now arrived at our journey’s end,” a Potawatomi named Pe-Pish-kay concluded. “The government must now be satisfied. We have been taken from homes affording us plenty, and brought to a desert – a wilderness – and are now to be scattered and left as the husbandman scatters his seed.”

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