Years of warfare between colonizers further escalated tensions between the tribes of the Great Lakes, their Indian neighbors and settlers, because European colonial forces pressured native communities to choose sides. The Potawatomi and their Neshnabek brethren were accomplished warriors. During the fighting at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, colonial military forces sought them out as mercenaries and reached out to village leaders to form alliances. These village leaders consistently made decisions about alliances based on the potential advantages each colonial entity could provide them and their kinsmen. At this period in history the advantage an ally could provide the leaders in their regional struggle to gain territory and dominance over ancient and new enemies was the most important for survival.

The winners and losers in these battles eventually came together to determine the post-war terms of their relationships. The Constitution dictated that the federal government, not those of states or municipalities, had the authority to negotiate treaties with tribal governments. The prevalence of violence and hunger for tribal land that followed the American Revolution resulted in the U.S. entering into more than 200 peace and land cession treaties with tribes in the first few decades of the new nation’s independence. The Potawatomi were signatories to more treaties with the United States than any other tribe. Despite signing more than 40 treaties during this time, the period between 1700 and 1900 was a time of conflict and removal for the Potawatomi people. Between war and forced removal these years were a dark time for Potawatomi people and culture.

When Potawatomi headmen and other leaders signed treaties they often drew a symbol that represented their name and signified their respective clan, indicating that they were acting as communal delegates. Huron and St. Joseph Potawatomi signatures from the 1795 Treaty of Greenville illustrate numerous and various clan representatives from the Mko [Bear], Pneshi [Bird], Gigo [Fish] and Kche Gami [Great Sea] clans. The X is a European signature mark.

Indian Removal Act & The Trail of Death

In the years after the defeat of the British and their Indian allies in the War of 1812, the nature of the U.S. government’s Indian policy and the goal of treaty making became increasingly hostile toward Native Americans, opening the door for the removals of the 1830s. This shift in policy was solidified when President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830. The act ultimately removed thousands of Native Americans from their homes on forced walks from the Great Lakes and east coast regions to Indian Territory. From the 1830s to the 1860s there were hundreds of removals, each surrounded by circumstances unique to each tribe, village or geographic area.

In early Sept. 1838, General John Tipton called for a council of Potawatomi leaders at Menominee’s village near Twin Lakes in Indiana to discuss the issue of removal. In reality the General had no intention of talking about removal. He had been assigned the task of removing Indiana’s remaining Potawatomi population by Governor David Wallace who believed the Potawatomi couldn’t live alongside a more “civilized” American population. The Potawatomi were leaving Indiana whether they wanted to or not.

On the morning of Sept. 4, 1838, a band of 859 Potawatomi, with their leaders shackled and restrained in the back of a wagon, set out on a forced march from their homeland in northern Indiana for a small reserve in present-day Kansas. To minimize the temptation for the Potawatomi to try to escape and return home, militia members burned both fields and houses as the dejected members of the wagon train departed.

The journey was a 660-mile trek for which the Potawatomi were not prepared and through terrain to which they were not accustomed. The heat was oppressive and water was often scarce. They had only a few hundred horses to carry people and supplies, and promised additional wagons did not arrive before their departure; so, even the weak and elderly were forced to walk. The pace and conditions of the march debilitated the health of the travelers. A day rarely passed that a member of the party did not die, usually a child, forcing their bereft and exhausted families to leave the bodies behind in hastily dug graves. In the end more than forty people died during what the Potawatomi came to call the Trail of Death.

Missouri Reservation

The Treaty of Chicago, signed on Sept. 26 and 27, 1833, proved to be a watershed agreement in the dealings between the Potawatomi and the U.S. government. Prior to this treaty, land cessions were relatively small and included land set aside as private reserves for certain signatories. The Treaty of Chicago, however, ensured a substantial land cession of roughly five million acres around the Great Lakes, and the removal of a majority of Potawatomi to lands west of the Mississippi River.

The Treaty of Chicago stipulated that the Potawatomi would relocate to a reserve near Council Bluffs, Iowa “as soon as conveniently can be done.” At the wishes of the Potawatomi, and as a result of the ambivalence of government agents, a majority of the Potawatomi initially removed settled on the Platte Purchase instead, a piece of land in present-day Missouri that was physically nearer to their ancestral homes. Over the next three years, small groups of Potawatomi, led by headmen like Wabaunsee and influential men such as Billy Caldwell and Alexander Robinson, trickled into Missouri as they were rounded up and told of their fate. They resided on the Platte Purchase from 1833 to 1837.

The stop in Missouri turned out to be temporary. Indian agents and non-Indian settlers in the region pressured the Potawatomi to remove from the fertile lands along the Missouri River. As a result, by presidential proclamation on Mar. 28, 1837, the tribe was evicted from the Platte Purchase territory and annexed to the state of Missouri.

Some Potawatomi, including Wabaunsee’s villagers, went to Council Bluffs, Iowa, and others, like Topinabee [He Who Sits Quietly] and his St. Joseph River Potawatomi, to a sub-agency on the Osage River in Kansas. In some cases, extended families ended up residing on different reservations.

Two small groups of Potawatomi arrived at Council Bluffs by Missouri River steamboats in 1837. The main body of the group arrived soon after and the last parties came in 1838. From their earliest days on the reservation in Council Bluffs, the Potawatomi faced pressure to move farther west and settle with their kinsmen on the Osage River in Kansas.

Kansas Reservation

The scattered Potawatomi settlements were consolidated onto one reservation in northeast Kansas as a result of an 1846 treaty. A few years later, in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act organized the central plains into two territories and effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The act admitted Nebraska as a free territory and Kansas as a territory that would or would not allow slavery, depending upon their Constitution at the time of their admission as a state.

Applying popular sovereignty to the question of slavery made the new Kansas Territory the battleground for violent confrontations between anti-slavery free-staters and pro-slavery settlers. The series of skirmishes that occurred between supporters of each cause over the next five years were so violent the conflicts became known as Bleeding Kansas. There were several instances of fighting in eastern Kansas, especially in the east central region of the territory where the Potawatomi resided until 1846.

From 1847 to 1861 the Potawatomi in Kansas managed to survive as a people, but they did not thrive. Tribal members largely adapted to a sedentary lifestyle, but they did not assimilate to the degree desired by the federal government. Most Potawatomi were resigned to their fate of living on a government-assigned reservation for the rest of their lives and simply wanted to be left in peace and in one place, without threat of further removal.

On Nov. 15, 1861, eight designated “chiefs” and more than 70 other members of the Potawatomi Nation met with federal agents to sign a treaty that would forever alter their community’s relationship with other Potawatomi and the U.S. government. The 1861 treaty initiated the process for acquiring fee-simple land allotments and U.S. citizenship for almost two-thirds of its members. This group, which became known as the Citizen Potawatomi, was among the first tribes to enter into a treaty agreement that included both conditions. The decade that followed brought both successes and great challenges as the Citizen Potawatomi struggled to navigate their evolving status as Native Americans, U.S. citizens, land owners and dispossessed people.

In 1861, 2,170 Potawatomi lived on the 576,000 acre reservation in Kansas, most having endured two or more removals in the previous 30 years. Of these, 1,400 ultimately chose to take land allotments and the rest chose to continue holding their land communally on a reservation reduced to 11 square miles.

Some Potawatomi welcomed the notion of private land ownership, and the legal restrictions titles placed on emigrants and squatters who encroached on their property. A handful of tribal members ran successful businesses and carried out significant improvements to their homes and fields in their 15 years on the reservation. Others on the reservation did not want to further engage in negotiations with the U.S. government. They wanted to be left alone, and see the federal government honor previous agreements.

Indian Territory

The provisions for the Citizen Potawatomi's move to Indian Territory were stipulated in a treaty signed on February 27, 1867. Signatories and the officials from the Office of Indian Affairs agreed that a delegation of Citizen Potawatomi travel to Indian Territory and select a tract of land, not exceeding 30 miles square. The treaty stipulated that they would buy the reservation with the proceeds from selling their "surplus" lands in Kansas at one dollar per acre to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.

In 1869, a party of Citizen Potawatomi traveled to Indian Territory and selected a tract of land that became the site of the Citizen Potawatomi reservation. They chose a section of land that encompassed 576,000 acres between the north and south forks of the Canadian River. The land lay just west of the Seminole reservation and had an eastern boundary at the Indian Meridian.

The earliest families to make the journey to their new reserve arrived in Indian Territory in 1872. Since they paid for the move themselves, these families were among the more affluent Potawatomi families who were able to move from Kansas and included members of the Anderson, Bourbonnais, Melot, Clardy, Pettifer, Bergeron and Toupin families. They were soon followed by more Potawatomi emigrants.

After having arrived onto the Oklahoma reservation, the Citizen Potawatomi unwillingly participated in the allotment process implemented through the Dawes Act of 1887. With this Act, the Citizen Potawatomi were forced to accept individual allotments. In the land Run of 1891, the remainder of the Potawatomi reservation in Oklahoma was opened up to 'white' settlement. More than 20,000 anxious settlers gathered on foot, horseback and with wagons at a predetermined starting line, awaiting the sound of the bugle that would change their lives. This contest for recently relinquished Indian lands was one of seven land runs that occurred in Indian and Oklahoma Territories between 1889 and 1895.