Potawatomi Trail of Death Assocation formed 7-07

Dear Editor,
Since 1988 I have worked with a group of Potawatomi who had ancestors on the 1838 Trail of Death from Indiana to Kansas.

I read a letter in the HowNiKan, Citizen Band Potawatomi newspaper, in which George Godfrey said he thought something should be done to mark the 150th anniversary of the Trail of Death. I wrote to him and a partnership was born which continues to this day.

We did a number of things to commemorate the 150th anniversary in 1988, including planting a Great Peace Tree at the Trail of Courage Living History Festival at Rochester, Indiana; and planting a cedar tree for each person who died on the Trail. William O. Wamego and sons, whose ancestor was Chief Wamego on the 1838 death march, re-enacted the march through Rochester on Main Street by riding in a horse-drawn jail wagon, and our group traveled as a caravan of cars and trucks to retrace the original 660 mile route.

We formed committees to do research in each state and county to find the original route taken by the Potawatomi in 1838. We contacted all 25 counties and invited them to participate. Many of them did and we have been working with them ever since.


A little background history for those who have not heard of the Potawatomi Trail of Death. Chief Menominee refused to sign the treaty in 1836 which would sell his land for $1 an acre and require him and his band to move west in two years. He lived at Twin Lakes in north central Indiana, where Catholic missionary priests came and baptized them and helped them become farmers. But the Governor of Indiana, David Wallace (grandfather of Lew Wallace), sent General John Tipton with 100 volunteer militia to round up all the Potawatomi they could find in three days and march them to Western Territory, now called Kansas. They marched single file down Rochester’s Main Street September 5, 1838. That night the first death, a baby, occurred at their camp at Mud Creek. In Logansport they had their last Mass in Indiana, with Bishop Brute and Father Benjamin Petit. Petit had been their missionary priest for the past couple of years and was greatly loved.

George Winter, the frontier artist, sketched the Potawatomi and later made oil paintings. As they marched across Indiana, more Potawatomi died, mostly children and the elderly. Father Petit obtained permission to accompany them and caught up with the emigration at Danville, Illinois.

He baptized and performed funeral rites and helped with the sick. There was a terrible drought that fall, and what little water they found was stagnant so they got sick with fever, probably typhoid.

By the time they reached the end of the trek, 42 of the 859 Potawatomi had died. Father Petit died on the way back to Indiana, accompanied by his good friend, a full blood Potawatomi named Abram Burnett.

In 1850 Father Edward Sorin went to St. Louis and brought Petit's remains to Notre Dame University at South Bend, Indiana.

Today Petit’s remains rest under the Log Cabin Chapel at Notre Dame. Because of Father Petit’s letters, John Tipton letters, William Polke’s diary, and the George Winter pictures, all published in separate books by the Indiana Historical Society, the Potawatomi Trail of Death is very well documented.

I first got involved in commemorating this terrible event in 1976 when one of my sons placed a historical marker for the first death on the Trail of Death for his Eagle Scout award. I was president of the Fulton County Historical Society, and we started the Trail of Death Rendezvous in 1976 to honor the Potawatomi. We changed the name to Trail of Courage Living History Festival as it got better organized and we wanted to show the Potawatomi before the forced removal. This annual event continues and has grown to attract between 12,000 and 18,000 every fall.

Our first Trail of Death Commemorative Caravan in 1988 had 12 Potawatomi and several historians and other interested persons. The Trail of Tears Commemorative Wagon Train took place at the same time. We decided to get the Potawatomi Trail of Death made into a National Historic Trail like the Trail of Tears, but when I contacted the National Park Service, they said this was a regional not a national trail and that it would cost $200,000 for research.

We felt that was a waste of taxpayer’s money because we had already done the research. So we asked the four state legislatures of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas to pass resolutions declaring it a Regional Historic Trail. This was accomplished with help from the local people in each state.

We decided to travel as a commemorative caravan every five years; 1988, 1993, 1998, and 2003. I organized the caravans by telephoning and writing to people in each county.

In 2003 we published a book, Potawatomi Trail of Death – 1838 Removal from Indiana to Kansas, which has all the primary sources in one place, including Father Petit’s letters, William Polke’s diary, muster rolls, John Tipton letters, George Winter sketches of the Potawatomi who went west, St. Philippine Duchesne – missionary to the Potawatomi after they arrived in Kansas, biographies of families on the Trail of Death, index, bibliography, and map. This book has 440 pages and sells for $40 plus $6 shipping, available from the Fulton County Historical Society, 37 E 375 N, Rochester, IN 46975. Proceeds help pay for the Potawatomi Trail of Death Newsletter, mailing news of the caravans and meetings, historical markers, etc.

We set a goal of getting historical markers at each camp site every 15 to 20 miles. Using the 1838 diary we knew approximately where they camped each night. I called many, many people to get volunteers to erect the historical markers. Nearly 30 were erected by Boy Scouts for their Eagle awards, and several by Girl Scouts, local clubs, museums, individuals, and Potawatomi families. The Citizen Band Potawatomi, Pokagon Band Potawatomi tribal officers, and some individual members of the Prairie Band sponsored markers too. In 2003 during our fourth caravan we dedicated three markers to complete our goal. Another historical marker was erected at Logansport, Indiana, in 2004. There are now 76 Trail of Death historical markers.

At the end of the 2003 caravan, the Potawatomi adopted me and my husband Bill as honorary Potawatomi with a certificate made by Tom Hamilton, Citizen Potawatomi Nation member, on his computer and signed by all of the Potawatomi on the Caravan. In 2004 Don Perrot, Prairie Band member, gave my husband and I Potawatomi names as he felt directed in a dream to do so.

In 2005 we organized the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, which is a branch of the Fulton County Historical Society. It replaces our Indian Awareness Center, which had published newsletters and assisted with the commemorations. David Thomas Anderson, Seattle, Washington, a Citizen Potawatomi member, designed the logo. We publish a newsletter twice a year. Dues are $20 a year for individuals, $30 for group or family.

Officers of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Assn. are George Godfrey, Athens, Illinois, president; Sister Virginia Pearl, Pawnee Rock, Kansas, vice president; Dolores Grizzell, Winamac, Indiana, secretary; Shirley Willard, Rochester, Indiana, treasurer; Susan Campbell, Kalaheo, Hawaii, editor; and Board members Don Perrot, Tecumseh, Oklahoma; and Dora May Craven, Huntsville, Missouri.

We created a web site www.potawatomi-tda.org with the help of webmaster Dale Travis, Decatur, Illinois. It contains pictures of all the Trail of Death markers, donors, driving directions, GPS locations, the diary, and much more. It has about 200 pages.

In 2006 we started a new project of erecting historic highway signs similar to the Lewis and Clark Trail signs. The logo designed by David Thomas Anderson is used on the signs. They are being erected to help travelers follow the original route and find the Potawatomi Trail of Death historical markers and camp sites.

The Manitou Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution, Rochester, Indiana, sponsored five signs across Fulton County, which were dedicated September 15, 2006, by George Godfrey and DAR members.

Plans are for the Marshall County Tourism to erect signs across Marshall County, Indiana, soon. The Wabash & Erie Canal Center, Delphi, Indiana, is working on the signs across Carroll County. We hope to get highway signs erected on the whole 660 mile route with the help of local people in each county.
Apparently all of our efforts have helped to make the people of Indiana more aware of the Potawatomi Trail of Death.

Recently two more books have been published about the Trail of Death. The Last Blackrobe of Indiana and the Potawatomi Trail of Death by John William McMullen, Evansville, Indiana, were published in 2006.
Keith Drury, religion professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, Indiana, walked the Trail of Death in the summer of 2006. An accomplished hiker, he had walked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Rim and other trails. But the Trail of Death was a very spiritual experience. He published Walking the Trail of Death in 2007.

2008 will be time for another Trail of Death Commemorative Caravan. Bill and I decided to pass the responsibility of organizing the caravan to the younger generation as we are in our 70s.

George Godfrey, formerly a professor at Haskell Indian Nations University, has agreed to organize it this time. He recently retired and moved near Springfield, Illinois.

The day after the Trail of Courage Living History Festival September 20-21, 2008, the caravan will start on September 22 at 9:00 a.m. at the Chief Menominee statue at Twin Lakes south of Plymouth, Indiana.
We invite all interested person to come attend the Trail of Courage Living History Festival September 15-16, 2007.

Each year we honor a different Potawatomi family that had ancestors on the Trail of Death or who signed treaties in Indiana. The festival shows life in frontier Indiana 1832 when this was still Potawatomi Territory before the terrible forced removal. This year Gary Wiskigeamatyuk, Cypress, California, Prairie Band member, whose ancestor was Chief Abram Burnett, will present an eagle feather to the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association during the festival.

We will invite all the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, county museums, everyone who helped erect Potawatomi Trail of Death historical markers to come share this special honor. We got a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service for the Fulton County Museum to accept and display the eagle feather for educational purposes.

We wish the Trail of Death and other removals had not happened. I personally feel that Indiana would be a better place today if the Indians had not been forcibly removed.

For more information contact me or Godfrey at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Godfrey’s address is 24108 Burr Oaks Lane, Athens IL 62613, 217-636-8120.

Shirley Willard
3063 S 425 E,
Rochester, Indiana 46975
email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.