Rev. Benjamin Marie Petit was born in the city of Rennes, France, on April 8, 1811. He was recruited by Bishop Simon Brute to come to America and be a missionary to the Indians in Indiana. Petit arrived as the Catholic missionary to the Potawatomi Indians in northern Indiana in November 1837, replacing Father Louis Deseille, who had died among the Potawatomi. By June 1838 Petit had learned much of their difficult language and their culture, and had instructed and baptized many. Father Petit wrote to this mother in France: We were orphans, they said to me, and as if in darkness, but you appeared among us like a great light and we live.
A man of small stature, he became their beloved Chichipe-Outipe, which is Potawaomi for Little Duck. He wrote many letters home to his family in France, describing everything he encountered, including his broken-down old horse, and kept an account of the money he spent. Thus we know that he purchased a black straw hat for $1.25 on June 13, 1838. He carefully recorded the baptisms and marriages he performed. These records are now in the University of Notre Dame Library at South Bend, Indiana.
The Indians begged their Father Black Robe to accompany them on their forced removal from Indiana in September 1838. His superior, Bishop Brute of Vincennes, Indiana, finally consented in time for him to join them enroute at Danville, Illinois. From then on he ministered to their needs, both spiritual and material on their march to Kansas territory. Often throughout the entire night, around a blazing fire, before a tent in which a solitary candle burned, 15 or 20 Indians would sing hymns and tell their beads. One of their friends who had died was laid out in the tent; they performed the last religious rites for him in this way. The next morning the grave would be dug; the family, sad but tearless, stayed after the general departure. The priest attired in his stole, recited prayers, blessed the grave, and cast the first shovelful of earth on the rude coffin; the pit was filled and a little cross placed there.
Petit described the march as follows: The United States flag, carried by a dragoon; then one of the principal officers, next the staff baggage carts, then the carriage, which during the whole trip was kept for the use of the Indian chiefs; then one or two chiefs on horseback led a line of 250 or 300 horses ridden by men, women, children singled file, after the manner of savages. On the flanks of the line at equal distance from each other were the dragoons and volunteers, hastening the stragglers, often with severe gestures and bitter words. After this cavalry came a file of 40 baggage wagons filled with luggage and Indians. The sick were lying in them, rudely jolted, under a canvas which, far from protecting them from the dust and heat, only deprived them of air, for they were as if buried under this burning canopy - several died thus. He mentioned that by 8 oclock they were usually in the saddle and headed west.
After General John Tipton went back to Indiana, he left the emigration in the charge of William Polke, Rochester, Indiana. Polke placed Father Petit in charge of the sick. They did the best they could but lacking modern medicine, they could give them only tea and sugar and rest. There were doctors hired to accompany the emigration, but the Potawatomi preferred Father Petit. He baptized the dying children, among then newly born who with their first step passed from earthly exile to the heavenly sojourn, according to one of his letters, which were published as a book, The Trail of Death Letters of Benjamin Marie Petit, by the Indiana Historical Society in 1941. (This book is out of print but the whole is included in the new book, Potawatomi Trail of Death - Indiana to Kansas, published by Fulton County Historical Society, Rochester, Indiana, in 2003.) In them he vividly describes the hardships and the anguish of my poor Christians, under a burning noonday sun, amidst clouds of dust, marching in line, surrounded by soldiers who were hurrying their steps and the heartbreak of the Indians as they buried their loved ones and marched on. Across the great prairies of Illinois they marched, crossed the Mississippi River at Quincy, and they made their way through Missouri to enter Kansas territory south of Independence, Missouri. Forty-two Indians died on the march, mostly children. Father Petit blessed each grave and conducted Mass each day. He was himself at times sick with fever, probably the dreaded typhoid that killed so many of the Indians.
After placing the Potawatomi in the spiritual hands of Jesuit Father Christian Hoecken. S. J., at the Sugar Creek Mission in Kansas on November 4, 1838, Father Petit again fell sick with fever and painful open sores. On January 2, 1839, he started by horseback back to Indiana, accompanied by Abram Nan-wesh-mah Burnett, a full-blood Potawatomi friend who was the same age. Petit again took ill on the journey. With three open sores draining his strength, he rode east from Jefferson City, Missouri, in an open wagon, the roads rough and the rain frequent. He reached the Jesuit seminary at St. Louis University on Jan. 15. The fathers gave him all the medical attention and care they could, but he grew weaker and weaker. Father John A. Elet, then rector - president of St. Louis University, later wrote that he placed a crucifix to Father Petits dying lips and twice he kissed it tenderly. He lay in agony and finally expired 20 minutes before midnight, February 10, 1839, a martyr to his duty and his extraordinary devotion and love for his Potawatomi family. He had lived but 27 years and 10 months.
Father Petit died in the Jesuit seminary building at 9th and Washington streets, and was buried in the old cemetery at 7th Street and St. Charles Avenue. In 1856 the cemetery was moved to make way for downtown St. Louis. At that time, Father Edward Sorin, founder of Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana, came and took Father Petits body back to Indiana. Father Petits remains rest under the Log Chapel at the University of Notre Dame.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. If it should please God to send me death, I accept it in all love and submission to his amiable Providence and I hope that his mercy will have pity on me at the last moment. I commend myself to Mary now and at the hour of my death. From Father Petits will, written August 17, 1837, at Vincennes, Indiana.
Today some of the Potawatomi pray to Father Petit and feel that he is a saint. It is certain that he is regarded by all as a very good man who gave his all for his flock.
See the Potawatomi Trail of Death book section of this web site to purchase the entire reprint of Father Petits letters.
Father Benjamin Marie Petit, from an oil portrait by George Winter, frontier artist, in 1838. With permission of Mrs. Cable Ball, Lafayette, Indiana, in July 2005 the painting was photographed by John McCullen, Vincennes, Indiana, and manipulated on his computer to go in his new book. The Last Blackrobe of Indiana and the Potawatomi Trail of Death: Reverend Benjamin Petit and the Potawatomi Removal by John William McMullen is now available from the Potawatomi Trail of Death Assn. For more information click here.
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