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


Day 18 Sidney --179 miles
Sept. 21, 1838; May 12, 2006

They are on the Grand Prairie now—open for miles across unbroken sod with trees only in groves clinging near creeks or streams. It was hot with blistering sun and the dry dust billowed up chocking the riders, walkers, and especially those in the sick wagons where the canvas tops only served to capture and collect the dust. The journal reports the Indian health “scarcely a change” from yesterday with fifty sick in camp and three dying since the last journal entry. Once they made camp near the present town of Sidney even that was “poorly watered” and a child died since coming into camp. This morning one of the chiefs died, Muk-kose “a man remarkable for his honesty and integrity” states the journal for the day. The journal for the day does report that forage for the animals was a bit easier to procure and they were even occasionally to purchase some bacon to add to their usual diet of beef and flour.

While Indians continued to die, one or more daily, they were at least accompanied by their beloved priest now, Father Petit, and they would be for the next six weeks as they made gradual progress to their new homes in Kansas. This seems like a good place to give a short sketch of Benjamin Petit’s life so far.


Benjamin Petit did not start out as a missionary or a priest, but as a lawyer. He prepared for a career in law in Rennes, France where he felt called to become a priest and a missionary to America. He arrived at the Twin Lakes village at age 27 just one year before the removal. In a single year he learned their language and became their trusted friend. He assisted chief Menominee in attempting to get the President to relent on the removal but as a foreigner Petit had to walk the fine line between condemning wrong and condemning it so stoutly that the US government would send him packing.

One example of this careful negotiating of the political minefield is in his letter to General Tipton on September 3, 1838. In Petit’s draft of the letter he condemns the action stating, “…to make from free men slaves, no man can take upon himself to do so in this free country. Those who wish to move must be moved, those who want to remain must be left to themselves. …of course it is against men under protection of the law, that you act is such a dictatorial manner; it is impossible for me, and for many to conceive how such events may take place in this country of liberty.” However, when Petit copied his draft to actually send he omitted these words and the entire scathing paragraph to Tipton. Since his predecessor priest had been banished for stirring up trouble against the government’s wishes, Petit apparently decided to be a priest to the crushed rather than attack the crushers. Whether he made the correct choice or not is debated by every minister and missionary every week—should they stay at the bottom of the river pulling out bloodied and broken souls to mend them, or go upriver and engage the thing that is doing the bloodying and breaking. Petit did a bit of both, but by the time he joined the expedition west in Danville the die was cast—the deed was done. He was downstream with a bloodied and bruised people and he did his best to bringing healing and care.

His bishop refused to allow Petit to have any part in the immoral removal initially fearing it would appear that the church somehow approved of the shameful deed. But after the Potawatomi were gone he gave permission for Petit to g along so this is why Petit caught up to the party in Danville, Illinios13 days and 150 miles after they left Twin Lakes.

He buried the dead, comforted the bereaved, led prayers morning and night, and generally cared for the sick along with celebrating mass each Sunday morning. His job was to provide spiritual care for his flock and turn them over to a Jesuit father at the Sugar Creek mission in Kansas near the site where the Potawatomi were dropped off. The journey was no easy trip for this young missionary. He frequently came down with the fever—probably Typhoid. For half of his journey—an entire month—one of his eyes was infected and inflamed and the constant dust clouds did no help. He became increasingly exhausted as he moved west. By the end of the trip Petit’s body became covered with a kind of infected boils as large as a person’ thumb so that he could not lie or sit in any position without pain. But even in the depths of pain he wrote glowingly about his Indian flock, describing their religious zeal: “Often through the entire night, around a blazing fire before a tent in which a solitary candle burned, fifteen or twenty Indians would sing hymns and tell their beads.” And again, “The Indians would attend Holy Sacrifice, during which they astonished the ears of the spectators by singing hymns, some of which—for me at least—had a sweet harmony indeed.”

This 28 year old missionary priest was willing to pay the price to perform his ministry. At this point he doubtless knew what that price would finally be.

AS FOR ME I continued a “double day” covering the two day’s Potawatomi journey in one day, walking into Sidney half frozen in the 40 degree wind and rain where Sharon met me at Clancy’s gas station, the only “restaurant” in Sidney. We are taking the next day or so off at the Drury Inn at Champaign/Urbana… I may have two companions joining me this coming week it appears—at least if my phone messages are right.


Blogger pk said...

Based on that one picture, it appears that you're past the blister phase? But certainly the strong wind mingled with rain would be quite the drag.

This is quite an adventure Coach! Thanks for bringing us along.

2:12 PM  
Blogger David Drury said...

Great to get the history on these two men in the last two posts. And great illustration of the two options on the "bloody river." I think I'd lean toward fighting those bloodying the river upstream at first, but like many I suppose after failing at that the best "second option" is to float downstream to at least care for the wounded.

Kathy and the kids sent a package to one stop and another just Friday... did you get the first one, or did they not forward it?

Great to see a few papers highlight the story... and it's great to see a few Native Amercians comment on this blog (even some Potamatomie including one of the authors you cite). That puts real "flesh and blood" on this story... the descendants who must feel this in a wholly different way than the rest of us.

I'm also still chuckling at your appraisal of the underpants cost. You are definately an old man (one who just happens to walk 20+ miles a day these days).


9:06 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

These two men, Tipton and Petit, pose lots of questions, don't they?

Would we have treated the Potowatomi differently than Tipton did?

I guess we can answer that question right now, concerning ...

14 million AIDS orphans
1.5 million nursing home residents
13 million illegal aliens

What did the man say about those who forget history ... ?

12:39 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

Man I would LOVE to be out there walking with you!!! I really hope your potentials work out for this week! I hope your week is dry, light and full!

8:11 AM  
Blogger Brian B said... others have stated, I am jealous as well. Would love to be out there with you. Really cool too how the newspaper reported on you. I just finished reading the article. Hang in there and keep pressing on and may strangers continue to become your friends and come to your aid.

10:13 AM  
Blogger Dr. Webb said...

I am about to leave for China for a few days (10) but will try to keep up with you along the way.

Can't wait to get back out there with you!

Keep up the great blog.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Susan Campbell said...

David, It's very true that Potawatomi descendants have feelings about this--strong feelings. While I enjoy the material about Father Petit, I feel I should remind all of you that not all of the Potawatomi removed at this time were Catholic or Christian. I've seen the numbers as high as 50% of them listed as non-Christian, which includes my ancestors. I am so grateful to those who didn't choose Christianity but followed the Traditional ways: they kept our culture, our language, our stories, our Ceremonies alive so today we can still know who we are and continue our Ceremonies in our language as Potawatomi people. When walking for the Potawatomi, please remember it's important to walk for all of us and our ancestors, not just a chosen few.

7:17 PM  
Blogger Marcia said...

We haven't heard anything for several days. I hope all is well with you. Assuming "no news is good news."

5:55 PM  
Blogger Keith.Drury said...

Saturday--5/20 Just arrived in Springfield Il... and am taking all day Sunday off here leaving Monday... will be posting updates soon...

PK: Yep, blisters improved--until, that is, I switched to Solomon shoes--than back to square one until I got NB's in the mail at Decatur.

DAVE: Thanks. I got the Deatur package and ate it all the way here.

LARRY: You are right, I've thought about the connections here to many issues today. And I've known Petit-men and "Tipton men" (but I like most "Polk men" but his story is coming up soon.

JOSH: Yep-- yesterday was a hard day-- I coulda used yout partnership! (But I had your Sweedish fish instead!)

BRIAN: Yeah, had a few newspaper reports so far---good for he trail and remembering.

BURT WEBB: Have a great China trip--be in touch when you return.

SUSAN: Good reminder on the percentages of Christian or Catholic Potawatomi vs. traditional... since I am espectially interested in the religious aspect of this trip I'm especially thionking on the interplay of the Baptist, Catholic, Protestant and traditional Potawatomi religious expressions and how they played out. Of course, as a Protestant minister I am not an unbiased observer, but hope to find some insights for my own readers--those who purchace my books: english speaking Protestants...but I'll for sue not ignore the rest of the story--thanks!

10:33 AM  

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