Old West Saviors

Potawatomi Trail of Death

Shirley Willard dedicated her career to make sure no one forgets it.

Shirley Willard dedicated her career to make sure no one forgets it.

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They were simply in the way, holding land that emigrating farmers wanted as their own.

So the Potawatomi were rounded up and forced to leave their ancestral lands in Indiana, then one of the most western of America’s 28 states.

They started walking in September, moving by 8 a.m. every day. Men, women and children—a few on horseback, the sick in a wagon bringing up the rear, but most on foot—walked until 4 p.m., when they were finally allowed the only meal of the day, cooked from the often-tainted meat and flour they had been given.

For two months, 859 Potawatomi marched at gunpoint from the wooded hills they’d known all their lives to the flat, treeless Kansas Territory. Forty died along the trail. Everyone else arrived in winter, finding no shelter, so they built wigwams and log cabins to live in. The only kindness they received came from those at the Sugar Creek Mission.

The year was 1838, but history doesn’t remember it for this Trail of Death, as the removal of the Potawatomi came to be known. The year is most known for the Trail of Tears that saw the march of 15,000 Cherokees from the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma, with 4,000 dying along the way.

While students of American history are aware of the Cherokee displacement, the story of the Potawatomi has hardly been a footnote. Their plight would be forgotten to this day if a dedicated Indiana woman, Shirley Willard, hadn’t devoted her career to preserving its...

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