On the morning of Sept. 4, 1838, 859 Potawatomi were forced at gunpoint from their homes in northern Indiana and sent on foot and horseback to the “Unorganized Territory” of Kansas to begin a new life.
The march became known as the Trail of Death because 42 Indians died along the way. Hundreds fell ill during the two-month journey across Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. A few escaped and returned to Indiana. Most settled around a Catholic mission in eastern Kansas called Sugar Creek.
Their story is not as well known as the Trail of Tears, when more than 4,000 of 15,000 Cherokees died on a similar march from Georgia to Oklahoma. But it occurred for the same reason: to make room for pioneer families in search of fertile cropland.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson had signed the Indian Removal Act, which gave the president power to negotiate treaties by which Indians would give up their lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for lands to the west. The removals were supposed to be voluntary, but some tribes did not want to go.
In Indiana, Chief Menominee of the Twin Lakes region led the resistance. He accused the federal government of using false means to get younger tribal leaders to sign treaties and plying them with whiskey that clouded their thinking.
“I have not signed any of your treaties, and I will not sign any,” Menominee declared. The Treaty of Tippecanoe in 1832 sold the lands in Marshall, Kosciusko, Fulton, Cass and surrounding counties without his approval.
“He didn’t want to go west,” says Shirley Willard, Fulton County historian and former longtime president of the Fulton County Historical Society.
White settlers complained to Gov. David Wallace about the continued Potawatomi presence and asked him to act. In the summer of 1838, he appointed Gen. John Tipton to head a removal effort.
That was the beginning of the end for Native American tribes in Indiana. In late August, Tipton, with about 100 armed militia, traveled to Twin Lakes and rounded up all Potawatomi within a 30-mile radius. Chief Menominee was tied up like a dog and forced to go west with the others.
Benjamin Marie Petit, a priest from France assigned to missionary work in northern Indiana, accompanied the Potawatomi on the 660-mile trek and kept a journal of the experience. He wrote about the hardships they endured “under a burning noonday sun, amidst clouds of dust, marching in line, surrounded by soldiers who were hurrying their steps.”
A similar fate awaited the Indiana Miami, most who were forced to move west in 1846.
“By the end of the pioneer era,” writes historian James Madison, “there were only scattered Indian people in the state, many of mixed ethnicity, many moving farther from their native cultures, many prudently choosing to hide their Native American connections.”
By the 20th century, Hoosiers began to see Indian removal as a regrettable chapter in state history that unjustly discriminated against Native Americans. In 1909, the state erected a monument to Chief Menominee’s memory about a mile south of Twin Lakes.
Since 1976, the Fulton County Historical Society has remembered the Potawatomi removal with a living history festival each September. Every five years, descendants of the Potawatomi join historians and others in a caravan to travel from the Chief Menominee monument to the end of the trail at St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park in Kansas. Historical markers and highway signs note key locations along the route.