Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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Potawatomi Removal

In the centuries before the removal era, the Potawatomi (or Bodewadmik, the Keepers of the Fire) lived in the areas around the southwestern and southeastern shores of Lake Michigan and the accompanying river valleys. As the time of the removal era approached, the leading Potawatomi villages clustered around the St. Joseph and Tippecanoe River Valleys in southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana. After passage of the Indian Removal Act (1830), the United States forced the removal of most Potawatomi to lands west of the Mississippi, but a small number of Potawatomi communities persuaded federal officers to allow them to remain.

There are at least 11 Potawatomi nations in the United States and Canada today. The Pokagon Band of Michigan and Indiana, the Huron Nottawaseppi Band of Michigan, and the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Michigan are the three federally recognized tribes that successfully avoided removal to the West during the removal era. The Michigan Potawatomi form one-third of the Three Fires Confederacy with the Michigan Ottawa and Chippewa Native groups. The Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation are federally recognized Potawatomi communities that the United States removed to the west of the Mississippi River. The Hannahville Indian Community of the upper peninsula of Michigan and the Forest County Potawatomi Community of Wisconsin are other federally recognized tribes that the United States removed to the West, but they returned to the Great Lakes region to join with other disparate Potawatomi. The remaining four Potawatomi nations are located in Canada, and many of their citizens are descendants of American Potawatomi who fled removal by settling in Canada with relatives.

The Potawatomi had been signatories to several land cession treaties before the removal era. Of note, they had been major players in the Treaty of Greenville (1795) in which dozens of tribal communities ceded large swaths of land north of the Ohio Valley. Many Potawatomi participated on the side of the British during the War of 1812, often at the urging of the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa and his half-brother, Tecumseh.

As the removal era approached in the 1820s, the Potawatomi had loosely divided into the "prairie" and "woodland" (or "wood") Indians. The prairie Potawatomi lived in the more southern Tippecanoe River Valley and could be characterized by their refusal to "civilize" under American pressure. The wood Potawatomi generally lived in the more northern areas near the St. Joseph River Valley and had made efforts to "civilize." During the early 19th century, American efforts to "civilize" Native Americans meant numerous changes to the Native way of life: the conversion to Catholicism or Protestantism, the adoption of a more organized agrarian and trade-oriented economy, and an increased recognition of Anglo-style private property structures. The prairie Potawatomi had resisted the efforts to engage in these civilization projects, whereas the wood Potawatomi had cleared land, built stick houses, converted to Christian religions, and begun to live like the Americans. This set the stage for the partial removal of the Potawatomi.

The biggest stumbling block to the removal era was successful "civilization" by Native Americans. American policy favoring civilization assumed, in part, that Native peoples would not or could not become civilized under the terms asserted by the Americans. However, some tribal communities did exactly what the Americans pressured them to do. From the perspective of the wood Potawatomi leadership (or wkamek), the United States had no call to remove a "civilized" Potawatomi community. They had conformed to the American way and did not pose a threat or problem, unlike the prairie Potawatomi communities, who continued to rely more on hunting for sustenance and refused to convert to a Christian religion. Ironically, this situation likely was more perception than reality, as large Potawatomi "gardens" in the southern Great Lakes provided massive sources of food to Potawatomi, neighboring tribal communities, and non-Natives throughout the region.

This dichotomy came to a head in 1826 when the United States began negotiations to plan and construct the Michigan Road, a federal road that would connect Logansport in north-central Indiana to southwestern Michigan. The road would cleave the Potawatomi communities. The wood Potawatomi generally saw the Michigan Road as an opportunity to cement their status as civilized Indians, retaining their autonomy as communities while increasing their ability to participate in trade with the Americans and provide access to supplies generally unavailable in their communities.

The wood Potawatomi negotiated successfully with federal officials, in particular Secretary of War Lewis Cass, who sought the complete cession of all remaining Potawatomi lands and their removal, and persuaded the United States to construct the Michigan Road in a way that would link the northern Potawatomi villages. When Indiana and Michigan state government officials attempted to control the construction of the road in complete violation of the terms negotiated by the Potawatomi, federal officials, especially local Indian agent Thomas McKenney, preserved Potawatomi interests even after the 1830 Indian Removal Act. The village of Potawatomi Leopold Pokagon became a crossroads of sort, connecting the Michigan Road to the Chicago Road running east-west and the Fort Wayne Road. In 1829, the Catholic Church constructed the first contemporary chapel at Pokagon's village, further cementing his community's claims to civilization.

In 1833, the United States called all of the Potawatomi communities to Chicago for a final removal treaty. The prairie Potawatomi of the Tippecanoe River Valley reluctantly agreed to cede all of their remaining claims to land and remove west. The wood Indians strenuously objected to removal and were partially successful. Leopold Pokagon, it is told, went into a tent with the American treaty commissioner to negotiate the removal of his villages and came out of the tent armed with treaty annuities and a treaty right to remain in place. Other wood Potawatomi communities had less success, such as the one led by the leader named Menominee, who, along with other chiefs, was placed in a wood cage by American military personnel before they captured his entire community and forced them west in 1838.

Menominee's people were preceded by a party that left Indiana in the summer of 1837. The party, with George H. Profitt as conductor, left the enrolling camp on Crooked Creek near Monticello on August 23, 1837. Their journey took them through Monticello and Lafayette to Danville, Illinois. There they turned south to Georgetown and from there went west-southwest to Vandalia and west to Alton. Finding the ferry out of commission, they went south to St. Louis, where they crossed the Mississippi River and then crossed the Missouri River at St. Charles. From there they went west through Warrenton, Danville, Fulton, and on to Independence, Missouri, and into the western territory, arriving at their destination on the Osage River on October 23.

In August and September, the party endured heavy rains, bad roads, and excessive heat, which at times forced them to stop for a period in the middle of the day. It took them over a month to cross Missouri, where swollen streams and lack of ferries or bridges held them up for days at a time.

Health of the party was generally good, despite the steady diet of beef and flour or bacon and flour, rations of which were issued to the people at intervals along the way. There were illnesses, but the party reached the West having suffered only one death.

The most devastating removal for the Potawatomi occurred in the summer and fall of 1838. Artist George Winter, who was with the Potawatomi at the time of their departure, called the roundup "a deceptive (in a moral point of view) and cunning cruel plan." John Tipton called a meeting of the chiefs and headmen at Twin Lakes near Plymouth, ostensibly as a friendship gesture, but, in an act similar to the tactics used by Gen. Thomas S. Jesup with the Seminole, he took them prisoner and held them hostage while squads of militia scoured the countryside, forcing the Potawatomi into a holding camp. With militia guarding the chiefs, the party departed on September 4, 1838, with the prison wagon carrying the chiefs at the head of the column, followed by baggage wagons and then people following on horses and afoot.

Their journey from September 4 to November 4 took them from Twin Lakes to Rochester, Logansport, Lafayette, and Williamsport, Indiana; Danville, Sidney, Springfield, Jacksonville, and Quincy, Illinois; Palmyra, Huntsville, Carrollton, Lexington, and Independence, Missouri; and to their final destination at Potawatomi Creek in eastern Kansas, then known as the "western territory."

The militia guard remained with the party as far as Danville, Illinois, where they were dismissed and the guard of 16 army dragoons (mounted infantry) continued with them. Part of their duty was to guard the camp to prevent whiskey peddlers from entering. Also at Danville, Tipton was relieved of his duty, and William Polke became the conductor who continued with them during the remainder of their journey. At Danville, too, on September 16, Father Benjamin Marie Petit joined the train. By then, illness had placed its mark on the people. The baggage wagons were being used to carry not only baggage but also women and children too weak to walk. The children, particularly, were debilitated by the heat and were described as listless and depressed. Father Petit vouched for the chiefs, and from Danville on, they were no longer treated as prisoners of war but could move about the camps.

When they departed Danville, the train was headed by a dragoon carrying a U.S. flag, followed by a military officer. Then came the baggage wagon, the prison wagon still being used by the chiefs, then one or two chiefs on horseback. Behind them was a line of 250 to 300 horses carrying men, women, and children, traveling in single file. Flanking both sides of the column were dragoons, who hastened stragglers on. The baggage wagons, carrying baggage and the debilitated, brought up the rear. The wagons were topped by canvas ostensibly to protect the sick from the excessive heat, but it most likely exacerbated their condition.

Illness had set in early in the journey, the people becoming weak and fatigued by fever, diarrhea, scrofula, and the excessive heat. At the worst point, about 300 were ill. On several occasions, the sick had to be left behind with others to take care of them until they were well enough to catch up. It was not until the advent of cooler weather in October that their general health began to improve. Still, deaths were frequent. Most were buried Christian fashion, leaving a trail of little crosses over three states.

Throughout September and early October, the people suffered from heat and dust as they struggled over the landscape. Water was scarce. By the time they approached Springfield, Illinois, sickness and traveling conditions had taken their toll. Polke asked them to clean up and dress up before they went through the town "to ensure a good appearance," and he bribed them with a promise of tobacco to do so. At Jacksonville, people turned out in large crowds to see them. They were a spectacle, Polke said, that was "as great a rarity as a travelling Caravan of wild animals."

The last leg of their journey was less grueling than their earlier trek. Their health improved as the weather turned cool. However, at times they faced cold weather, snow, and rain. In October, Polke issued shoes to the destitute because the weather was too cold for them to march barefoot. Also, the conductors began to loosen their grip on the people. Their diet was primarily beef and flour and, at times, potatoes, issued at regular intervals. The men were given the freedom to hunt and supplement their diet with game, which they greatly preferred. Also, they were granted permission to stop and observe the Sabbath.

Others joined the party while they were on the road. Agents had enrolled 714 at the outset, but Polke counted 756 people at the end of the journey. Sixty-eight escaped along the trail, and 39 died on their 62-day trek. These numbers stand in stark contrast to the single death in the 1837 removal. They earned for the trek the name the Potawatomi gave it in later years—the Trail of Death.

On September 29, 1838, the American military at the order of Cass began the forced march of more than 800 Potawatomi from their gathering point at Twin Lakes, Indiana, through Springfield, Illinois, and on to western Iowa and northwestern Missouri, where the United States had established interim reservations. Dozens of young children died along the way, with fewer than 700 people surviving the Trail of Death. Further devastating removals to Kansas and Oklahoma followed.

In 1841, American military personnel at the urging of Michigan officials informed Pokagon that they would commence the removal of the Pokagon band to the west. He contacted Associate Michigan Supreme Court Justice Epaphroditus Ransom, who issued a legal opinion that the 1833 treaty guaranteed the Pokagon band protection from removal to the West. Pokagon walked on later that year.

On July 28, 1851, the United States, acting through private contractors instead of the military, initiated the removal of over 600 Potawatomi from Dodge County, Wisconsin. During the trek to Kansas, a cholera outbreak struck the group, killing several. Perhaps as many as 300 Potawatomi from the area did not join the march, remaining in Wisconsin or fleeing to Canada.

Matthew L. M. Fletcher

Further Reading
Clifton, James A. The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potawatomi Indian Culture 1665–1965. Lawrence, KS: Regents Press, 1977; Edmunds, R. David. The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979; Cleland, Charles E. Rites of Conquest: The History and Culture of Michigan's Native Americans. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992; Secunda, Ben. "The Road to Ruin? ‘Civilization' and the Origins of a ‘Michigan Road Band' of Potawatomi." Michigan Historical Review 34 (2008): 118–149.

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