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Potawatomi Trail of Death

Menominee was chief of one of the largest of four Potawatomi communities in northern Indiana and Michigan in the early 19th century. A treaty protected the lands of the four communities near the confluence of the Yellow and Kankakee rivers.

As white settlers began to move west, they wanted access to fertile lands like these held by the Potawatomi. Under pressure from the federal government, the other three chiefs agreed to sell their part of the lands in exchange for lands in the west. Menominee refused, he wanted to protect his people from forced removal. Yet, the Treaty of Tippecanoe in 1832 sold the Potawatomi lands without Menominee’s approval.

The President does not know the truth. He, like me, has been imposed upon. He does not know that you made my young chiefs drunk and got their consent and pretended to get mine. He would not drive me from my home and the graves of my tribe, and my children, who have gone to the Great Spirit, nor allow you to tell me that your braves will take me, tied like a dog.
—Chief Menominee wrote to Abel C. Pepper, federal agent, 1838

Potawatomi Indians at St. Mary's Mission in Pottawatomie County, 1867As the government prepared to remove some of the Potawatomis, Menominee served as an inspiration for those who refused to go. They gathered in a nearby camp to protest the move. Father Deseille at the local Catholic mission supported Menominee’s efforts, but was removed for interfering. White squatters were allowed to move into the area in August 1838. After violence erupted between the Potawatomis and the squatters, the Indiana governor ordered the arrest of Menominee. On September 4, 1838, the mounted militia removed 859 Potawatomi people at gunpoint. They were forced to walk more than 600 miles to Kansas. Father Benjamin Marie Petit accompanied the Potawatomis on the trail and kept a journal of his experience.

A witness described the scene of removal:

The whitemen were gathering thick around them, which was but a sad necessity for their departure. Still they clung to their homes. But the flames of the torch were applied—their villages and wigwams were annihilated.

On November 4, 1838, the Potawatomi Trail of Death ended in Kansas. The two-month trek on foot proved too difficult for some of the Potawatomis. They had too little food to eat and they were exposed to typhoid. The journey claimed the lives of 42 people, half of those who died were children. A few people escaped; 756 arrived first at Osawatomie in Miami County. There they expected to find shelter from the coming winter. No housing had yet been built.

The Catholic Church had established the Sugar Creek mission in Linn County and many of the Potawatomis moved there. The elderly French-born Sister Rose Philippine Duchesne came in 1841 to teach Potawatomi girls at the reservation. She worked at the mission until she became too feeble to serve. The Potawatomis named her Quahkahkanumad, which stood for “Woman Who Prays Always.” She was canonized in 1988.

In 1848 the mission was moved to Pottawatomie County. Today the St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park is located on the site of the former Sugar Creek mission. Six hundred Potawatomis are buried at the site.

Selected one of the 12 Notable Events in Kansas History in 2011.

Entry: Potawatomi Trail of Death

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: October 2012

Date Modified: April 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.