Forced From Land and Culture: Removal

When President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830, it 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 a large number of removals, each surrounded by circumstances unique to each tribe, village or geographic area.

Each Potawatomi group at this time faced hard decisions, and each community had varied responses. Some Potawatomi wanted to fight, others wanted to resist politically through alliances, and some decided to move where they thought they could be safe and live their lives on their terms. At the entrance of the Cultural Heritage Center's gallery Forced From Land and Culture sits a digital interactive that allows visitors to read prompts and decide what path they would have taken.

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.

Records show that most individuals removed during the Trail of Death lacked the proper footwear needed to make the journey. The CHC's gallery Forced From Land and Culture begins with a display of moccasins to recognize and honor the Potawatomi who endured the 660-mile trail.

CHC employees worked with CPN’s Public Information to encourage CPN members across the nation to help make the moccasins. Participants received a moccasin kit with all the leather and tools needed, written instructions and a step-by-step video. Each pair represents 10 people who walked the Trail of Death.

English artist George Winter followed the Trail of Death caravan, capturing sketches over the course of several days. No other tribes have a first-hand, visual record of their removals. Because of the magnitude of Winter artwork, the CHC featured his sketches and paintings throughout the removal gallery. Visitors have the ability to come face to face with Potawatomi ancestors through Winters’ work.

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 40 people died during what the Potawatomi came to call the Trail of Death. Visit the Cultural Heritage Center and tour the gallery Forced From Land And Culture to learn more about the Potawatomi people's strength to continue and survive as a Woodland Great Lakes tribe on the plains and vast prairies west of the Mississippi.