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

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Day 17 Davis Point IL (Homer) --167Mi.
Sept. 20, 1838; May 12, 2006

The party rose early (3AM) in order to discharge the Indiana Militia this morning. By sunrise they had lined them all up, marched them to Tipton’s headquarters and paid them off based on the accounting they’d been organizing the last few days. Only sixteen of the volunteers would remain, and they’d now be under the command of William Polk, the federal “conductor” of the emigration. Here the command of the column transitioned from General Tipton of the Indiana Militia to William Polke, the federal conductor who would escort the Indians the rest of the way to Kansas. This is the point in the story where we bid Tipton farewell—or good riddance depending on your view. So it seems wise to outline his biography at this point and you can decide.


John Tipton was an Indian-hater and a military man at heart. At age 23 (1809) he become a member of the “Yellow Jackets” a local militia in Harrison County Indiana. He fought at the battle of Tippecanoe with William Henry Harrison at age 25 (1811) and wrote descriptive accounts of what happened there as the Indians were perceived to have broken their promise to not attack. He was able to cash in some of his military glory for political gain. He became sheriff of Harrison county and got elected to the state legislature. He got appointed to the commission to select Indiana’s new capital (they chose the tiny town of “Fall Creek” which later was named Indianapolis). He divorced his first wife (his cousin) at age 35. He landed the appointment as Indian Agent for both the Potawatomi and the Miami tribes at 37. At 39 he remarried, this time the daughter of his best friend Spier Spencer whom he had seen die in the battle of Tippecanoe.

Tipton at age 42 moved the Indian agency from Ft. Wayne to the Eel river and there he laid out the city of Logansport, Indiana. During his time as Indian agent he negotiated the treaties that got the government land for the Michigan Road and eventually significant lands for white settlers. As we already mentioned, he also personally purchased the land where the battle of Tippecanoe occurred and gave it to the state. When U.S, Senator Noble died, Tipton was appointed to replace him, filling out his term—he was 45 at the time and was reelected at age 46. When Tipton was 52 Governor David Wallace appointed “General Tipton" (he held the rank of Brigadier General in the Indiana Militia) to recruit volunteers and swear them into a militia to forcibly remove the Potawatomi Indians from Indiana. Tipton recruited 100 men and marched them to the Twin Lakes village of Menomonee and surrounded the Indians while in a council of peace. Intimidating the Indians into submittingthe began this sad march to Kansas where they were promised new homes and a year’s worth of government payments to help them get on their feet.

General Tipton may have received glory on the Tippecanoe battlefield but there was no glory in this assignment. He may have been a famed Indian-hater, but the poor tattered tribe he forced to Kansas were remnants with little fight remaining and he certainly sensed no gory in it. His letters about the removal carry no feeling of glory or even hate—just a sense of doing a messy clean-up task that needed to be done. He may have hated the Indians at one time, but the worst feelings coming through his letters by now is contempt or scorn for the defeated nation--his hate had lost its edge. For a powerful and triumphant nation to force a remnant band of leftover Indians living in abject poverty off their lands at bayonet point holds no glory—and Tipton must have known it. This was a messy thing that "had to be done" according to the governor, and Tipton would do it. He would get rid of this “Indian problem” once and for all by removing the remnant far from the borders of Indiana.

So was Tipton a bad man? There were reports that he did not allow time for the Indians to drink along the way but hurried them before they were finished drinking with a threatened prick of the bayonet. The Logansport newspaper reported these rumors and denied them defending their founder and leading citizen. Were they true? I think they were. Any person who has led a traveling group knows how hard it is to get the group to move and how they tend to lag behind at every stop. I’ve led groups of college students through Europe and have experienced the frustration of “one more stop at the bathroom before we leave” then one more, then another, until finally the first person who went to the bathroom has to go again! I’ve hiked with students who languish at every break stop and the only way to get them going again is to start up and leave them sitting by the stream. I think it is human nature when people are in large groups to lazy around at every stop until their leader forces them to march on. I suspect at streams when the command was given to move on any normal human being (especially while crossing the dusty prairies in1838) would want to take one more drink. And I suspect that the militia rode up to shout at them, even threaten them with bayonets to get moving. So I think it happened. Tipton hated Indians and it is no wander He had a personal history. When he was just seven years old living in Tennessee the Cherokee killed his father Joshua Tipton. At age seven he took on the role of “man of the house” and cared for his family. He and his mother moved the family to Indiana at age 21. How much his hate came form being robbed of his father at such a young age we do not know, we just know he hated Indians, as was in fact the norm for the day (hence the term “Indian lover” rose to label a person who had the unusual attitude departing from the average collective attitude).

Whatever, General Tipton is not remembered today for his fighting at Tippecanoe nor even for his two terms in the Senate, but he is remembered for this crowning achievement of removing the Indians from Indiana in 1838 at the age of 52. A the time it made him a hero to his fellow citizens. Today it stains his entire life’s contributions.

It would be convenient for us to blame John Tipton for this entire shameful thing but that would let too many others off the hook. Tipton did not act alone. This was no lynching, it was the legal and intentional act of government. Others must carry the blame too. Governor Wallace made the decision from his safe location in the state Capitol. The treachery of Col. Abel Pepper in using alcohol and deceit to coerce the unwary Indians in signing over their land deserves robust condemnation, of course But there is also the entire state legislature to blame—people who voted on resolutions that encouraged whites to take land by “pre-emption.” And certainly the national congress must share blame for their “humane” removal acts forcing Indians across the Mississippi River. And certainly we cannot let the arrogant law-defying President Andrew Jackson off the hook either. No, this was an action of the entire government and its leaders against the Indians. A wrong action. It was a sin. Evil. But Tipton alone cannot be blamed for the line between good and evil is not drawn between Tipton and Petit, white men and red men, this nation or that one—the line crosses through the heart of every man and woman—ours too.

AS FOR ME I continued walking into the wind and rain pondering Tipton’s life and its lessons as I tried to reach the party’s next campsite at Sidney IL where I hoped to meet my wife, Sharon for a weekend off. Maybe the rain and cold will pass while we rest in the Champaign area this Saturday Sunday.

(When I assemble all this into something mroe passable than a "walking blog" I will certainly give credit to the various sources and interviews that have enriched my understanding of this story. So much credit will have to go to Shirley Willard of course, as I've mentioned already. And Potawatomi Susan Campnell has done a treffic job at a John Tipton biography which I relied heavily on and have read every day this week as I've pondered his career. Also, Irving McKee's 1941 book on the letters of Benjamin Marie Petit, and the Indiana Magazine of History's Vol 21--but I've said enough or this will turn into a bibliography When I gagther these thoughts together and add my essays on theology and spirituality I shall then cite the sourses. If you are realy hot to read them sooner--Shirley Williard and Susan Cambell have collected many of them into a recent 2003 book "Potawatomi Trail of Death" which is available from the Fulton County Historical Society in Rochester Indiana (37 E 375 N, Rochester, IN 46975)


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