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

My Photo
Location: Marion, Indiana, United States

Professor Emeritus


AFTERGLOW... ending my trek: (the third leg)

The final leg of my conclusion to this trek involved people. Having walked for two months with the ghosts of the Potawatomi Indians I wanted to complete the trip with real people—living descendants of those original Indians who walked the Trail of Death in 1838.

The first I met in Kansas City. Daniel Bourassa was probably in his 40’s when he walked the Trail of Death with nine members of his family including a son in his 20’s. Though his family experienced the hardships of the trek all of them survived according to family oral history. My first contact with a descendant was with Peggy Kinder great-great-great granddaughter of Daniel Bourassa along with her mother and her two sons—three generations of survivor-descendants. She had found my blog on the walk and had written several times to me at mail drops inviting me to visit her family. Peggy and her family are Baptists which is the protestant strain in the Potawatomi story (Menominee the "Potawatomi Preacher" was examined and approved by Baptist Missionary McKee in Ft. Wayne and the mission to the Potawatomi in Niles Michigan was also Baptist.) Though the Baptists sent no missionary on the Trail of Death as the Catholics did, they are still in the heritage picture.

I got to see a copy of a hand-written Potawatomi dictionary from the Smithsonian written by Joseph Napoleon Bourassa, the son of Daniel and Peggy’s great grandfather. Even more impressive was the hand-written book he wrote packed with medical treatments and healing recipes of that day, a matching book to the one in the Smithsonian. Peggy’s mother Elizabeth told me family stories of the journey passed down in the family. Peggy and her family now attend a Baptist church. They had just returned from an Indian gathering that week. We ended the day with a taco dinner with Peggy’s husband and whole family before I headed west to find the second family of descendants.

This happy laughing family dinner brought a sense of completion to the journey for me. I was not alive in 1838 and my own family was still in England at the time. Yet I felt a sense of ownership in what our government did to these Indians and needed a reconciliation of sorts. Peggy’s and her mother were so open, generous and loving that I left near dark with a sense of reunion with the past. There is little I could think of to make up for the wrong of President Andrew Jackson, General Tipton and others, but somehow fellowshipping eating together gave some sense of healing to me. At dark I headed west where I would meet the other family the next day.

For my final connection I had to drive 150 miles west into Kansas—to find the descendants of Equakesec (Teresa Slaven) who was about a year old when she traveled the Trail of Death with her older sister of about nine years of age. The family does not know for sure if they traveled with their parents or if their parents had dies in a plague and these two little girls were cared for by others. We do know that these two little girls survived the 660 mile trek west where so many children died. Indeed the nickname for little surviving Teresa was “Living” since so many other children from that journey park the path from Indiana to Kansas.

Why I had to drive so far into Kansas to find her descendants is yet another story of abuse and injustice to the Indians—one I am not primarily concerned with in this tale. The Potawatomi did not stay at St. Mary’s Mission south of Osawatomie long—just a decade when the government got new ideas and moved them again—this time to a new St. Mary’s Mission in what is not St. Marys, Kansas where still another Catholic mission and school was established by the devoted priests and nuns. Here in St. Mary’s I found the descendants of little survivor Teresa.

I found not just one descendant but a whole family! I had received several letters at my mail drops from Virginia Pearl a nun in mid-Kansas who had invited me out. When I contacted her she immediately arranged a family reunion of sorts for me to meet her family. I spent the afternoon and evening with this laughing-living family and it was a powerful tonic. Here I ate a huge feast with more than a dozen devout Catholic Potawatomi who told all kinds of family stories as we sat around Marge’s large round table. Marge is the oldest of these 4th generation descendants of little Teresa. I sat near her three brothers, Jim, Bob and Jerry each of whom told me stories punctuated with lots of laughter. And of course there was Virginia Pearl, the nun of the sisters of St. Joseph who is the sort of nun that would inspire any little girl to consider the “religious vocation” a wonderful option for her life.

Virginia (just call me “Ginger”) Pearl never intended to be a nun and even tried to avoid it in college by plentiful dating. But she expected at least one in the family would enter a religious vocation. (She expected it to be Bob, but he joined the Army, though later on became a Eucharistic Minister). Then she hoped the order would reject her but she says, “once I crossed the threshold of the convent I never again had any doubts.” “Ginger” is a chaplain at a state hospital and lives on (and works on) an ecumenical organic farm with several from other orders and two Mennonite families. I don’t know how old she actually is—she might be 70 or she could be 75, but she acts about 30.

I spent the entire afternoon and evening with the laughing loving Pearl family. We ate together, looked at photos together, told stories together, and prayed together. They are a forgiving family and while condemning the injustice of the removals and treatment of their tribe they (like Peggy and others) seemed to have no bitterness. Ginger explained how her mother had told of the horrors of the past yet always with the admonition not to become bitter.

At first I felt like a stowaway at a family reunion but before many minutes passed I was included as if I was one of these big strapping brothers and energetic women of retirement age yet still active. We sat around the table until it was almost dark and I needed to head back to Kansas City to the airport so after a thousand pictures or so I was escorted out the door and bid farewell with plentiful hugs.

I drove to the airport in the gathering darkness full of grace… grace that was mediated by Peggy Kinder’s family and the Pearl family of Potawatomi Indians. Nothing any of us can do will take away the wrongness of the Indian removals and the repeated breaking of treaties by our government. But these two families brought healing and reconciliation to me personally. After walking in the steps of their forebears for two months I got to actually meet and love –and be loved by-- the descendants of some of the survivors.

What happened in 1838 was wrong—a national sin. And like all sin it can only be treated on a spiritual level—with confession, repentance, penance, restitution and full reconciliation.


Blogger David Drury said...

Waiting for this last installment was worth it.

A wonderful conclusion to your journey indeed. Now that I've heard it I know no other ending would suffice.

Welcome home.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Jess said...

Loved following this journey, and even getting to be a part of it for a day!

7:22 AM  
Blogger yes said...

My 4th great grandmother is Eleanor Bourassa Ziegler her father is Jude Bourassa the brother of Joseph Napoleon Bourassa.

Sorry about my name I have no idea how it became "yes" when I signed in with my Gmail email.


6:44 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home