A band of Potawatomi Indians had made their home near Twin Lakes in Marshall County, Indiana, a bit south of Plymouth. In 1838, 100 wigwams and cabins dotted the land in their village. They had converted to Catholicism; they were learning to farm the land. They wanted to coexist with the white settlers who had come. But the government wanted the Potawatomi lands, and had pressured other Potawatomi chiefs to sign treaties giving their lands away. Menominee refused. So in late August of 1838, the government began rounding up Potawatomi as prisoners and bringing them to Twin Lakes, 858 in all. On September 4, 1838, the collected Potawatomi were forced to leave their land. They marched from Twin Lakes to the nearby Michigan Road, and then south along the Michigan Road to Logansport. From there, they were marched west to Osawatomie, Kansas, where they arrived on November 4. More than 40 died of illnesses contracted along the way, which led to the journey being named the Trail of Death.
In 1909, a statue of Chief Menominee was placed near the Potawatomi village at about the place where the Trail of Death began. It was unveiled by Menominee’s granddaughter to serve as a memorial of what had happened. On September 18, 100 years later, the statue was rededicated, and many Potawatomi came to take part. Several spoke, telling the history of the Trail of Death.
I have Potawatomi ancestry. My great great grandmother – my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother – is said to have been full Potawatomi. I had never explored this part of my heritage before, had never thought much about it. But when my cohort on the Michigan Road byway project, who was involved with the rededication, invited me, I knew I had to go.
I found the ceremony to be unexpectedly saddening as I heard the story of these people, with whom I share blood, being forced off their land. Yet I felt no immediate kinship to the many Potawatomi who traveled from all over for the event. I recognized that I have traveled the path of a white man; that my German ancestry has been more vital to me and has shaped me in concrete ways. Yet I feel as though I’ve missed something important all these years, a connection to a people who wanted to live peaceably and, by the time of the forced migration, sought to follow the same God I serve. I realize that I feel connected to these Potawatomi because they were fellow believers, and it is through this connection that the story of the gross injustice they suffered moves me.