History trip commemorates 175 years ago

From Sept. 23-29, 2013, a commemorative caravan will retrace the Trail of Death, which took place 175 years ago. It was the forced removal of the Potawatomi from Indiana to Kansas in the fall of 1838. Every five years descendants of the Potawatomi join a group of historians and interested people to travel 660 miles from the Chief Menominee monument near Plymouth to the end of the trail at St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park in Kansas, following the route Menominee and his followers took on foot and horseback in 1838.

The caravan, led by George Godfrey of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Shirley Willard of the Fulton County Historical Society, will acknowledge 80 historical markers designating the original Trail of Death campsites every 15 to 20 miles. Rich Meyer, Millersburg, has created maps and will guide the caravan. All the markers have been erected by volunteers, including 30 Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, 4-H, historical societies, individuals, and Potawatomi families. Over 80 historical markers, mostly big boulders with metal plaques, have been erected at no expense to the taxpayer. Also the Trail of Death has been marked across Indiana and Kansas with Potawatomi Trail highway signs. Efforts to mark the trail with highway signs continues in Illinois and Missouri.

All 26 counties in the four states of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas have worked with the Fulton county Historical Society, Rochester, IN, to help preserve the history of the Trail of Death.

New Potawatomi Trail of Death Regional Historic Trail highway signs will be dedicated at Danville and Monticello, Illinois; from Brunswick to DeWitt, Missouri; and from Kansas state line to Sugar Creek Mission in Linn County, Kansas.

The original Trail of Death, which witnessed the deaths of 42 Potawatomi during its trying passage through summer heat, passed through six Indiana counties: Marshall, Fulton, Cass, Carroll, Tippecanoe, and Warren.

The Trail of Death route takes the caravan through Danville, Springfield, Jacksonville, Exeter and Quincy. It crossed Missouri on Old 24 through Palmyra, Paris, Moberly, Huntsville, Keytesville, Brunswick, Carrollton, Richmond, Lexington, Independence, and Grand View. A new historical marker will be dedicated this year at Heritage Park, Olathe, Kansas, research for which was done by Deb Sims, librarian for Spring Hill Middle School, Kansas. The trail winds down at Paola, Osawatomie and Sugar Creek Mission. The former mission is now the St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park, honoring St. Philippine who was canonized in 1988, the first female saint west of the Mississippi River. She was an elderly missionary to the Potawatomi in 1841 and was given the name of She Who Prays Always.

Another new historical marker is at Trading Post, Kansas, and will be dedicated Sept. 28 by the caravan members at 5:30 p.m.

On Sept. 29 they will go to St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park to walk the grounds where the Potawatomi spent the next 10 years. They will have Mass at 11:00, and share a potluck lunch hosted by Linn County Historical Society. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback will attend this special occasion. Then the caravan members will bid farewell to all, each person heading for home.

Caravan members include historians and Potawatomi who had ancestors on the Trail of Death. However, all interested persons are welcome to travel with the caravan, an hour, half a day, or all the way from Indiana to Kansas. Pre-registration is encouraged. See www.potawatomi-tda.org for schedule, registration form, 1838 diary, photos of all 80 historical markers, and more.

The Trail of Death Commemorative Caravan is sponsored by the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, a branch of the Fulton County Historical Society, Rochester, Indiana. Their goal of the caravan is to make the public aware of this history and to provide a setting for people to meet and greet Potawatomi, shake their hand, give them a hug. This earth needs more love and friendship, not bitterness and sadness. They hope for spiritual blessings during and after this journey, just as there have been during and after past caravans. The Trail of Death caravan traveled every five years: 1988, 1993, 1998, 2003, and 2008.

Shirley Willard, who is Fulton County Historian and a long-time leader in the movement to recognize Native American Indians in Indiana, says: “When I taught Indiana history in the 1960s, I noted the text made it sound like the Potawatomi just dropped off the face of the earth. ‘The last of the Potawatomi went west in 1838.’ They did not follow up with what happened to them in Kansas. The Bicentennial in 1976 was like a shot in the arm for history. We started the Trail of Courage and reached out to the Potawatomi. We found that they are a kind and loving people, very intelligent and friendly. They have become family to my husband and me.” And, she adds, “The caravan is both adventure and spiritual journey for all who participate.”

Schedule, list of motels and a registration form are on this website. Or contact Shirley Willard at 574-223-2352 or

Trail of Courage honors three Potawatomi speakers

The Fulton County Historical Society produces the annual Trail of Courage, a living history festival at the Fulton County Historical Society grounds four miles north of Rochester, Indiana on US 31 and Tippecanoe River. The Trail of Courage is the third weekend of September, which is Sept. 21-22, 2013. Since 1976 this festival has honored the Potawatomi by showing life in frontier Indiana when this was still Potawatomi Territory. It also features other nationalities who were here such as British, German, Scottish, Irish, and African.

Special this year will be three Potawatomi speakers who had ancestors on the Trail of Death, members of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, headquartered at Shawnee, Ok. Each year a different Potawatomi family is honored. Peggy King Anderson will represent the Honored Potawatomi Family this year, whose ancestor, John Anderson, was 13 years old on the removal. Peggy’s son designed the logo used by the Potawatomi Trail of Death Assn. on its highway signs that mark the Trail of Death. George Godfrey, Athens, Ill., wrote two books about his ancestor Josette Watchekee, and will sell them at the festival. Sister Virginia Pearl, Concordia, Kansas, will tell about her ancestor Theresa Slavin, who was a little girl on the Trail of Death.

Re-enactors set up historic camps and live the pre-1840 frontier era for the weekend. Children enjoy dipping candles, Indian and pioneer dancing, tug of war, tomahawk throwing contests, and shopping in the many tents and trade blankets for pioneer toys, necklaces and clothes.

Everybody enjoys the canoe rides on the Tippecanoe River. Adults and elderly love the history, joining the dances or memories of dancing long ago, talking to people representing the different nationalities from British and Scots to French to American, including American Indians.

Two stages feature music and dance, history programs and first person interpretations, such as Chief Tecumseh and Ben Franklin.

Foods cooked over wood fires include buffalo burgers, vegetable soup, barbecue, apple sausage, chicken - noodle soup, corn on the cob, turkey legs, and more. Also apple dumplings, ice cream and other old-fashioned desserts.

Admission is $7 adults, $3 children six to 11 years old, and free for kids 5 and under. Free admission can be earned by working a four hour shift at the museum and its village called Loyal, Indiana, or at the festival, ahead of time getting ready or cleaning up afterward. Call the museum at 574-223-4436, open Mon. - Sat. 9 to 5, closed holidays. See www.fultoncountyhistory.org for more information.

Kansas Governor to meet Trail of Death caravan
By Shirley Willard, Fulton County Historian

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback will meet the Trail of Death caravan on its last day. Sept. 29, at Sugar Creek, Kansas. The last day for the caravan will include Mass at 11 a.m. at St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park, the former St. Mary’s Mission at Sugar Creek in rural Linn County. This is the place where the Potawatomi from Indiana lived for the next 10 years. Sam Brownback grew up at Parker, Kansas, only a couple of miles from the Sugar Creek memorial park. He knew the history of the Potawatomi coming from Indiana in 1838 and so many died on the way.

Dan Noyes of Noyes Films will attend the Trail of Courage on Sunday Sept. 22, filming and interviewing. He will also travel with the caravan the first two days. The finished documentary will be made available to the Indiana Historical Society and possibly public television and other venues. Noyes was born in Indiana but now lives at Berkeley, California. He has 35 years experience as a journalist, including involvement in 10 documentaries on national television.

Remember Millie Pepion, the Haskell Indian Nations University student who organized the Trail of Broken Promises Walk in 2012? She is marrying fellow student and trail walker Lawrence Lowery III on Sept. 14 and they are coming on the caravan as their Honeymoon trip. Her uncle Stanley Perry will be driving. A chauffeur who is also a spiritual leader! They have offered to help give programs during the caravan.

Danville Township, Danville, Ill., bought 10 Trail of Death highway signs in 2009. They are now getting them erected, and we dedicate one at Turtle Run Golf Course.

The metal plaque at Sangamon River Crossing was knocked off the boulder in an accident. Cheri Hunter and Linda Morrell of the Stephen Decatur Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution fixed it.

We will give a program at Madison, MO, School, which had 230 students, K-12.

The caravan will dedicate new Potawatomi Trail of Death historic highway signs from Brunswick to DeWitt, MO at 10:30 Sept. 27; new historical marker (boulder with plaque at Heritage Park, Olathe, Kansas at 10 a.m. Sept. 28; and new marker (metal sign) at Trading Post, Kansas, 5:30 p.m.

As new information is added to the schedule, we will post it here on this website.

Come join us at Chief Menominee statue at 9 a.m. for “beginning of the caravan” ceremony. George Schricker, Plymouth, will sing the song he wrote about Menominee.

There are many other websites about Potawatomi. Today you can learn much history from the many efforts of historians and tribes to record the past.

CPN awards $1,500 to digitize videos of past Trail of Death caravans

The Citizen Potawatomi Nation has granted $1,500 to Susan Green, Rochester, Indiana, who owns Your Story Digital. Green will digitize videos and photos from past Trail of Death caravans, preserving them with professional equipment. She will also make an hour program for television and DVD’s available for sale.

There are 51 VHS videos in the Fulton County Museum from the caravans beginning in 1988. Copies will be placed in the FCHS museum and Citizen Nation archives.

Green is a producer, director, writer, editor and videographer and holds a Masters in Documentary Film and Digital Storytelling from Prescott College and the Sedona Film School in Arizona. As an activist for the International Indian Treaty Council in the 80s and major environmental organizations in the 90s, she began working with film. She won a college Emmy for her music video, Circle of the Path, a song that she wrote and recorded to honor the 500 year resistance of the indigenous nations of North America. She also made Mother Water, Dance of the Warrior Mouse, and edited National Geographic cinematographer, Ed George’s award-winning documentary, Chasing the Light.

Coordinating the Trail of Death across 26 counties
By Shirley Willard, Fulton County Historian

Down through the years, one of my responsibilities has been coordinating the placing of historical markers on the Trail of Death. It is 660 miles across four states and 26 counties. There are now more than 80 historical markers to show the campsites and other events mentioned in the 1838 diary, thanks to the many volunteers who worked on this project. Volunteers include Boy Scouts, Daughters of the American Revolution, local historical societies, youth groups, clubs, Potawatomi families and individuals.

If you have ever attended the opening ceremony at the Trail of Courage Living History Festival, you’ve heard me tell of getting involved in preserving the Potawatomi Trail of Death in 1976 as a Bicentennial event. Our son Allen and his fellow Boy Scouts erected a marker for the first death, a Potawatomi baby, at Mud Creek on Indiana 25 about six miles south of Rochester. Gov. Otis Bowen was the speaker at the dedication.

Fulton County Historical Society started its annual Trail of Courage that year too. Both the festival and the Trail of Death memorials have grown an almost unbelievable amount.

We saved the income from the Trail of Courage and were able to purchase in 1985 the 35 acres on US 31 which is now the home of the FCHS museum, round barn, village and festival grounds. The Trail of Courage grew from attendance of 1,400 in 1976 to between 13,000 and 18,000 today.

The Trail of Death caravan was started in 1988 to find and commemorate the original route taken by the Potawatomi as they walked, rode horses and wagons to Kansas in 1838. The route is fairly easy to find across Indiana, but not so much the further west. Volunteers are still doing research to find the true route.

Even though the Trail of Death markers are usually big boulders, they sometimes get moved. The one at Moberly, Missouri, was erected in a roadside park a mile east of Moberly. But the highway department did away with the park and moved the Trail of Death marker into Moberly. It now sits in Depot Park across the street from City Hall. We will dedicate it Sept. 26 at 5:30 p.m.

The marker at Stilwell, Kansas, was erected in 1998 at a rural crossroads on State Line Road and the plaque was stolen and replaced in 2003. Then the farm was sold and the new owner did not want the marker there. So the big boulder with metal plaque was moved this spring and is now in storage at the Johnson County Parks Department. They haven’t decided where to put it.

However, a new Trail of Death marker was erected in 2013 and will be dedicated by the Trail of Death Commemorative Caravan Sept. 28 at 10 a.m. This is a result of research done by Deb Sims, Spring Hill Middle School librarian, and William Maasen, Johnson County Park and Recreation District. The unsolved problem with the location is that in the 1838 diary, it states they camped at the North fork of the Blue River Nov. 2. Then on Nov. 3 it states they left their camp at Oak Grove. No one has ever found a place near there called Oak Grove in western Missouri or eastern Kansas. It might have mistakenly referred to Elm Grove. Several historians worked on this and concluded this park would be a more-nearly accurate location for the Trail of Death marker.

We learned from that to not place a marker on private property but to erect it in a public park if possible. It may not be on the exact Trail of Death but as near as possible.

The marker at Sangamon Crossing near Monticello, Illinois, was hit in an accident this year and was knocked upside down. The plaque was not much damaged so the local Daughters of the American Revolution got the land owner to use his tractor to turn the boulder right side up, and then the ladies re-attached it to the boulder. Thanks to Cheri Hunter and others in the Stephen Decatur Chapter DAR.

A lot can happen in five years. When we traveled the Trail of Death in 2008, we found a bridge was out and we wandered over gravel roads an hour trying to get back on course. This year Rich Meyers and his wife drove the route to make sure he could find every marker. He made a map using Google, which can be seen on this website.

If you want to come with us as we travel Sept. 23-29, you are welcome to join the caravan for an hour, half a day or all the way. Print out the registration form and mail it in.

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This page updated Sep 6, 2013.