150th Anniversary of the Trail of Death 1988

In 1988 for the 150th anniversary of the 1838 Trail of Death, the forced removal of the Potawatomi Indians from Indiana to Kansas, committees were formed at Rochester, Indiana, and in Illinois. George Godfrey had written a letter to the HowNiKan, Citizen Band of Potawatomi newspaper, saying he crossed the Trail of Death every day on his way to work near Champaign, Illinois, and he thought something should be done to commemorate it. Shirley Willard, president of Fulton County Historical Society, Rochester, Indiana, read his letter and wrote to Godfrey and said she thought something should be done too. So they formed a partnership that continues to this day.

The committee in Fulton County planted 40 cedar trees along the highway beside the Trail of Courage grounds for 39 Potawatomi and Father Petit who died on the Trail of Death. Bill Wamego, member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi, decided to ride in a jail wagon down Rochester’s Main Street to re-enact the original imprisoned ride by Chief Menominee and two other chiefs September 5, 1838. His ancestor, Chief Wamego, was taken west on the 1838 Trail of Death.

Bill Wamego, Tulsa, Oklahoma, stands in front part of the “jail wagon” which was pulled by horses down Rochester’s Main Street on Sept. 17, 1988. Also in the wagon are Bill Wamego Jr. and cousin Danny Ferris. The driver and owner of the horses and wagon is Rex Harris, Logansport, Indiana. They are parked in the arena in the woods at the Trail of Courage grounds. That is Shirley Willard at left in a colonial dress and mob cap. (Photo by Bill Baldwin, Rochester, Indiana, 1988.)

Another part of the commemoration was the planting of a Great Peace Tree by Chief White Eagle of Rochester, Indiana. This is an ancient ceremony of the Iroquois tribe, of which Chief White Eagle is a member. A Great Peace Tree is a pine tree planted on top of two crossed tomahawks, symbolizing the burying of the instruments of war, now called “burying the hatchet.” The pine tree was donated by Bob Kern, who was one of the largest growers of Christmas trees in Indiana. The tomahawks were donated by Larry Rosenbaum, Knox, Indiana.

Chief White Eagle offered this prayer, which he wrote special for this ceremony: “My thanks, O Great Spirit, whose voice I hear in the winds and whose breath gives life to the world, hear me. I call to you from the Four Directions that my message be carried to the world. Hear me, O Great Spirit. Plant these tiny seeds of friendship and hope for World Peace and Brotherhood. Grant that the Earth, Air, and Water be free from pollution forever. Let love and harmony grow. Peace and joy begin within us and what our own hearts show. Amen.”

Chief White Eagle, Rochester, Indiana, led the planting and dedication ceremony for the Great Peace Tree at the Trail of Courage Sept. 17, 1988. (Photo by John Savage for The Rochester Sentinel.)

Chief White Eagle (left) and Ron Hall of Cherokee descent pose by the newly planted Great Peace Tree at the Trail of Courage Sept. 17, 1988. (Photo by John Savage for The Rochester Sentinel.)

The tree has grown quite large since then. A single-strand rope fence surrounds it, held up by wooden posts painted the colors of the Four Sacred Directions.

Also in 1988 the first Trail of Death Commemorative Caravan was organized. Shirley Willard and George Godfrey contacted all 26 counties along the original Trail of Death route. Many of them chose to participate by erecting historical markers, hosting meals for the caravan participants, planting memorial evergreen trees, and greeting them and escorting them through their counties. They traveled in cars, trucks and campers. There were 12 Potawatomi who traveled with the caravan, also several historians and interested people, and some of Cherokee descent. At the same time the Trail of Tears Commemorative Wagon Train took place but took six weeks. The Trail of Death caravan traveled for one week, starting Monday morning at Chief Menominee statue south of Plymouth, Indiana, and arriving in Osawatomie, Kansas, at the end of the week. They camped at the new St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park for their last night, having attended a Mass and big cook-out hosted by the local Catholic churches and Knights of Columbus.

The members of the caravan decided to go again in five years and to try to get the Trail of Death declared a National Historic Trail. But when Shirley asked the National Parks Service, she was told that the Trail of Death was of regional not national importance and that it would cost $200,000 to do the research. The group thought that was a waste of tax money because they had already done the research. So they got the Trail of Death declared a Regional Historic Trail by getting resolutions passed by the four state legislatures. And they launched a campaign to get historical markers erected at each of the camp sites every 15 to 20 miles. The latter took 15 years and the last of the Trail of Death markers were erected in 2003. They traveled as a caravan again in 1993, 1998 and 2003. Between caravans they attended dedications of the Trail of Death markers, coordinated by Shirley Willard. She called long distance and coaxed to get more markers erected. Nearly 30 markers were erected by Boy Scouts for their Eagle award and some by Girl Scouts for their Gold award. Several were placed by county historical societies, individuals and youth groups. The Scouts were supported by clubs such as Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions. Some of the markers were erected by Potawatomi families who had ancestors on the Trail of Death. The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi erected three, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation erected three, and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation had members who erected markers.

Will we travel again as a Trail of Death Commemorative Caravan? Bill and Shirley Willard served as organizers and leaders for the first four caravans and they have retired. They are willing to go but they want to turn it over to the younger generation to plan more caravans. So maybe someone will step forward and plan a caravan for 2008???

The Potawatomi Trail of Death Association was created in 2005. We continue to work on marking and publicizing the Trail of Death. We will begin erecting highway signs in 2006, similar to the Lewis & Clark Trail signs. A logo was designed and drawn by David Thomas Anderson, Seattle, Washington, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Permission for the Manitou Chapter DAR to erected signs in Fulton County, Indiana, has been applied for. It is hoped that other chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution will sponsor highway signs across their counties to complete the project. Dedication for the signs across Fulton County will be Sept. 15 at 4 p.m., beginning at the Fulton - Marshall County line.

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This page updated Jan 16, 2017.