200 Years of Illinois: Danville and the Trail of Death

potawatomi trail of deathThe President does not know the truth. He, like me, has been imposed upon. He does not know that you made my young chiefs drunk and got their consent and pretended to get mine. He would not drive me from my home and the graves of my tribe, and my children, who have gone to the Great Spirit, nor allow you to tell me that your braves will take me, tied like a dog.
—Chief Menominee

On September 16, 1838, the straggling remnants of the Potawatomi nation that had lived in northern Indiana made its way into a camp at Danville. Twelve days earlier, a volunteer white militia under General John Tipton had tied up the Potawatomi leader and prophet Menominee before torching the area’s Potawatomi villages and homes. Menominee began the forced journey west in a jail wagon with two other chiefs. The rest of his 859 people set out on a 660-mile march to a resettlement area in Kansas on foot and horseback.

The Native Americans arrived in Danville in the midst of what was probably a typhoid epidemic. The Potawatomi buried four of its people in the town. At the same time, a French priest named Benjamin Marie Petit caught up with the convoy. Petit had baptized many of the Potawatomi in Indiana, and members of the nation attended Mass at Petit’s church in Logansport. Called Little Duck by his parishioners, Petit acquired a working knowledge of the Potawatomi language. His empathy for both their persons and their culture made him a popular figure.

The caravan crossed Illinois via Catlin, Sidney, Monticello, Decatur, Springfield, and a string of towns further west before moving into Missouri. There, the epidemic eased. The trail ended on November 4 at Osawatomie, Kansas. The 756 remaining Potawatomi—some had died on the trail, others had run away—had been promised houses as part of the resettlement. They found empty land and a landscape settling into pre-winter cold. Petit, now ill, stayed the rest of the year before leaving for St. Louis with Nan-wesh-mah, a Potawatomi friend. Petit died early the next year.

The Potawatomi lost 42 people on the Trail of Death. The states of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas declared the route a National Historic Trail from 1994-1996. A statue of Menominee, dedicated in 1909, stands southwest of Plymouth, Indiana.