Trail Of Death Journey

Journal notes walking the "Trail of Death" tracing the Potawatomi Indians forced removal from Indiana to Kansas in 1838. This blog is in process of being re-ordered and moved to

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Location: Marion, Indiana, United States

Professor Emeritus



Like General Tipton, William Polke, the federal conductor of this “migration” had a negative experience with Indians as a child. Only different form Tipton, Polke chose to let the experience turn his hart toward the Indians rather than away from them. He became a friend of Indians--at least as much as any white man was in those days.

When Polke was born in (what is now ) West Virginia but moved west (as many aggressive whites did in those days did) down the Ohio river to Kentucky in 1780. When Polke’s father was gone Indians attacked and killed many of the families in the “station” where several families had gathered for safety. On the last day of August in 1782 little seven year old William Polke was captured along with his mother and two sisters. The Indians force-marched about 30 survivors north completely across Indiana to Detroit--a "forced migration" of the whites in this case.

During the forced walk William Polke’s mother who was pregnant gave birth to a fourth child. And on this trip the Indians adopted little William and he learned their language and essentially forgot English.

When Polke’s father came home he recruited others and set about finding his family. Thirteen months later, on Christmas eve he was reunited with his family and William learned to speak English again. Yet this experience did not turn Polke botter, but turned his heart toward the Indians.

William Polke fought with “Mad” Anthony Wayne at age 17 and at age 33 he became an associate judge in Knox county--hence his nickname thereafter Judge Polke.” He had fought (and was wounded) at the battle of Tippecanoe. He ran for lt. Governor of Indiana in 1822 and came in second.

His life took a sharp turn at age 49 when he became a missionary when he began teaching Indians at Niles Michigan with his brother-in-law, Isaac McCoy which he continued for several years. He was appointed a superintendent for building the Michigan Road from the Ohio river to Michigan and was the first white settler in Fulton County—founding the village of Chippeway, the location of the first campsite of this emigrating party. He had built the first frame house (called the “white house”) which is still on the grounds of the Fulton country historical society—the “round barn place” in existing route 31 just south of the Menominee statue).

His wife, Sarah was known as a friend of Indians too and a devout Christian—she was remembered as having memorized the four gospels and the psalms (though this is probably stretched by those who reported—it probably seemed like that to others).

In 1838 when the nation needed a federal “conductor” to take charge of the “removal” of the Indians they turned to “Judge Polke.” Once General Tipton escorted the Indians to the state line Polke took over. It was an injustice—this entire affair. But when something evil is going to be done, at least you hope for a good man to do it. Polke was such a good man. The Indians trusted him. He was wise and fair. In other removal stories the leaders may have intentionally attempted to “lat nature execute” the Indians. Not in this journey. While many died, and the trip is referred to as the “Trail of Death” Polke cannot (in my opinion) be accused of dire evil considering the day. William Polke was 63 when he led this trip.

William Polke was a good man who did an evil deed the best way possible. This is no strange assignment for anyone in leadership.

AS FOR ME, today is Sunday and I'm moving west after a great visit with Gary & Judy from decatur who rode over on their way to an Indian Methodist church to have breakfast with me--wonderful people who were former missionaries to mexico and now attend either Afro-American churches or Native American churches. I'm off to church myself then points west.


Blogger Ken Schenck said...

It's always hard for me to access the "righteousness" or, more often, the "unrighteousness" of people from other times and other issues. How evil were slave owners that were treated slaves with dignity and respect? How evil were abolitionists who really couldn't give a lick about the slaves themselves? And what issues will our great grandchildren think us morally bankrupt for?

12:18 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Good point about leadership, and having been a pastor, I do know what you mean.

I've often made this sacriligious comparison between Jesus and Paul: Jesus got to say nice things and then go up to heaven. Paul had to stay here and run a church.

Is that why they often said such different things? ("Turn the other cheek" vs. "Hand this man over to Satan")

Responsibility is an interesting thing.

5:36 AM  

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