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