© 2003 Carol Layman

The Trail of Courage

I thought I had died and gone to Heaven. Wearing an old fashioned dress and a bonnet, I was sitting on a log bench in an autumn woods on a Sunday morning. Rays of sunshine coming down through the trees were tinted blue by campfire smoke. A trapper-type man dressed in fringed leather sat on the edge of the stage, which was a rustic structure made of weathered planks. He was playing familiar hymns, such as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," on a squeeze box he called a melodian. Then a local minister preached a sermon about David. At the same time, a Catholic mass was being held at the Hillside Stage outside the woods.

I had hardly stopped smiling since arriving at this "Trail of Courage Living History Festival" the day before. It is an annual event held at Rochester, Indiana, and the theme is always pre-1840. Hence, persons in all kinds of outfits are strolling around the area. At any given time, some genre of music comes wafting through on the breeze: fife and drum, bagpipes, Indian drums, wooden flutes, or strings. These are accompanied by the reports of cannons, muzzle loaders, and other firearms, as well as shouts from voyageurs canoeing on the river.

Robert Whitman, a retired school superintendent from Ohio, and I were both selling books. We shared a picturesque booth on one of the main paths in the woods. The organizers of this event are strict about authenticity. Vendors are asked not wear watches or anything plastic. Since Whitman had arrived in modern clothing, he went to the museum and borrowed an appropriate shirt from their stock of historic replicas they make for the volunteers to wear.

He was selling his recently published pictorial biography titled Jim Thorpe, Athlete of the Century. I learned a lot about Jim Thorpe that weekend, for example, Wide World of Sports, in 2000, named Thorpe the "World’s Greatest All-Round Athlete of the Twentieth Century."
Thorpe won the decathlon and the pentathlon by wide margins in the 1912 Olympics, organized the first professional football team in the U.S., and played major league baseball. He had a twin brother who died at age eight. Dr. Whitman said Thorpe felt somewhat uncomfortable with the thought that he had acquired all the strength allotted to the both of them.

Because the Thorpe family chose Whitman to write this book, they gave him access to hundreds of photos never before seen by the public. Whitman was invited to sell his books at the festival because the Thorpe family was being honored this year. Every year a different Potawatomi family is honored. Jim Thorpe’s great-grandmother was a Potawatomi chieftess named Mas-saw, who lived in the Rochester area.

I was invited to sell my book, Isaac McCoy and the American Indians, because McCoy worked as a missionary with the northern Indiana Potawatomis for many years.

A small village of wigwams was located directly behind our booth. I was so happy to see them shown to school children Too many Hoosier students--and adults--believe the Indiana Indians lived in tepees.

An amusing thing happened the first day. I was scheduled to speak after the opening ceremonies and Indian dances. A large crowd was gathered in front of the rustic stage for these events. But after two hours of sitting on the log benches or standing behind them, they were ready to disperse and visit the booths. By the time I reached the lectern, only four people remained, and that included Ilah Allsop, my friend who had come with me. Having had that 30 minutes to practice, I did better the next day and three persons came directly to my booth afterwards to buy books. (I probably helped my cause by revealing that I had written a mini-series based on my book and was doing some informal casting that weekend.)

I was so happy to make acquaintance with descendants of two individuals in my book. One was Tom Hamilton. Tom’s ancestor was Abraham Burnett, an eight-year-old Potawatomi boy who sat with McCoy as interpreter in councils with chiefs, and went with him on several excursions among the Indians.

Larry Prichard, in period clothing, was tour guide with his wife, Rose, in the house of his ancestor, William Polke. This house was moved from its original site to the museum campus some years back. William Polke, Isaac McCoy’s brother-in-law and sometimes fellow missionary, appears throughout my book.

The only down side of the weekend was that I had to stay in my booth if I wanted to do business. Whitman and I would take turns minding the store, but we could not autograph for each other. So I never did find out what "hawk throwing" was. Chief White Eagle, a familiar face in movies and TV, spoke and allowed photos taken. But he was at the entrance and I didn’t have time to stop. Ilah and I plan to go back next year.

I didn’t want that weekend to end, yet I was eager to embark on the seven-day "Trail of Death."

Traveling through Indiana on the Trail of Death. In the fall of 1838, while the Cherokees were moving westward across the southern United States with much attention, nearly 800 Potawatomis were moving out of northern Indiana relatively unnoticed.

The Cherokee migration came to be known as the "Trail of Tears." The Potawatomi trek is called the "Trail of Death."

The Potawatomis had earlier ceded an enormous domain that included the remainder of their holdings in Indiana. All of them went to the land west of the Mississippi without resisting...except Menominee. The deadline came and went, but he hadn’t signed anything and refused to leave. His people stayed with him.

Their small reservation on the Yellow River near Twin Lakes soon became surrounded by whites. Incidents of vandalism occurred on both sides. Then white squatters began threatening to take matters into their own hands if Governor Wallace didn’t take action.

So while the Potawatomi agent was holding a council with the Indians in their chapel, a hundred militiamen under the leadership of General John Tipton encircled the building. Upon discovering this, the natives surrendered peacefully.

Menominee was held in the chapel with his principal men while his band of 800 were enrolled. On the morning of September 4, the Potawatomis began moving out. Menominee and a few other men were transported in a cage made of poles on a horse-drawn wagon, directly behind the American flag.

As the procession moved out, tribal women looked back and clapped their hands over their mouths. Their houses and sugar works had been set afire to remove any temptation to return. White women who had been their neighbors for years stood by with tears streaming down their cheeks. This was the beginning of the nightmare journey these people endured for the next two months.

In 1988, many descendants of Menominee’s Potawatomis and a group of history buffs commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Trail of Death by traveling the same route as the 1838 migration.

This commemoration has been repeated every five years since and I was privileged to be among the 2003 group. My traveling companion was Ilah Allsop, Librarian at the Jennings County Library.

Our caravan of around a dozen units first went north, to the place near Plymouth where Menominee and his people had begun their journey in 1838. Here we held a simple ceremony in a misty rain. Author/musician/songwriter George Shricker played his guitar and sang a song about Menominee as we stood gathered beneath the statue of the departed chief.

Shirley Willard told us newcomers about Menominee’s right thumb being among the missing for many years. Then one day a man found it in a box of his grandmother’s things and recognized it immediately. Thanks to modern technology, it is now reattached to the eight-foot likeness of the chief.

Half our group of 24 were descendants of the Potawatomis who left Indiana in 1838. Our plan was to stop at all of the Trail of Death markers, 48 of which signify places where the original entourage camped. There are 74 between Plymouth and our final destination over 600 miles away: Osawatomie, Kansas.

Some of these markers had already been erected in 1976 when Shirley Willard’s son, for his Eagle Scout award, helped with the one at Mud Creek on Indiana 25. Here the first Indian death, that of a baby, had occurred. And here Shirley Willard first became involved with the Potawatomi Indians.

That same year, she and the Fulton County Historical Society founded the annual Trail of Courage Living History Festival. Later she and her husband, Bill, worked with several Potawatomis to bring about the Trail of Death commemoration.

We visited 15 markers the first day. I found the one in front of the courthouse in Rochester to be the most touching. Behind it are boulders from each of the four states the original emigrants traveled in or through. Menominee’s Indians had marched down this street at gunpoint.

In Lafayette, at her Ninth Street Hill mansion, we were privileged to visit with 97-year-old Evelyn Ball, a gracious Indiana treasure who saved an Indiana treasure. What she saved were the paintings and other works of George Winter.

Winter had come to northern Indiana in 1837 to paint portraits of the Indians. He captured many Potawatomi likenesses before they left on the Trail of Death. But after his death in 1876, the whereabouts of his paintings and journals was unknown for many decades.

Then, in 1933, when Mrs. Ball had been married to Winter descendant Cable Ball but five years, she was driving to pick him up for lunch when she decided to take a different route from her usual. She wanted to see if the men hired to clean out the old family warehouse along the river had finished their job. The warehouse was scheduled for demolition.

According to Kitty Dye’s book, Meet George Winter, what Mrs. Ball saw was a man in a second story window punching a canvas out of a large gold frame and tossing both into a truck parked in the alley below. She stopped the operation immediately and went for her husband. The cache of Winter’s sketches and oil paintings had been stored in a room whose door was hidden behind other things and nobody knew it was there.

Our caravan was given the run of Mrs. Ball’s home, where we could gaze at some of George Winter’s original portraits of the Potawatomis and sit on his furniture. Mrs. Ball’s secretary served us tea. [I have learned that the documentary filmed at that place is being expanded into a program for the History Channel.]

At Independence, Indiana, the owner of the Double K Café would not let us pay for our supper. So we left generous tips, which the servers used to pay for our breakfast the next morning.


When Isaac McCoy began his mission schools among the northern Indiana and southern Michigan Potawatomis in the 1820s, they had made it clear they preferred to have a priest. But the priests had been sent home from the area at the end of the French and Indian War. McCoy established a successful station for these Indians that lasted over ten years.

Then he went west to take surveyor assignments so they would have reservations with optimum resources. Not long after that the priests came back and the northern Potawatomis resumed practicing the Catholic faith. Just before the Trail of Death began, their French priest, Benjamin Marie Petit, was called to South Bend.

When the 1838 Potawatomis reached the Illinois line, most of the Indiana militia were dismissed, and the Indians’ young priest was allowed to join them. This raised their spirits. Also, their guns were given back to them and they could hunt for food. Father Petit stated in one of his letters that Menominee and the others were released from their jail wagon at this time.

Unlike the 1838 procession, which was strung out three miles, we had no problem keeping our caravan together. Larry Prichard, whose ancestor William Polke had been the conductor of the original march, drove his camper at the rear and kept us in line. Polke, as conductor in 1838, also stayed in the rear, many times not arriving in camp until ten PM.

Each of our vehicles was equipped with a CB radio. Ilah and I used the "handles" Thelma and Louise. (I don’t think Thelma and Louise of movie fame would have liked having a retired Indiana state trooper following them all the way.)

Tom Hamilton, freelance photojournalist and descendant of Isaac McCoy’s young interpreter Abraham Burnett, recorded our every move with an industrial strength camcorder. Burnett had also been an interpreter on the Trail of Death.

Working with a committee of Illinois citizens, George Godfrey had mapped out that state’s section of the trail. He works for the USDA on matters relating to Tribal Colleges. His grandmother was a Potawatomi.

Our number changed as persons left and joined us. The descendants of Theresa Slavin, the youngest child to survive in 1838, continued to show up as we moved westward, coming from all over the United States.

Remarkably, Joe Slavin, her 87-yr-old grandson, joined us. Another star of the family was an energetic little nun named Sister Virginia, or Sister Ginger, or Sister Sister, as she was Bob and Jim Pearl’s sister. When speaking to children, she slowly beat on a small drum to signify the steps the Indians took on their way to the West.

Shirley Willard had discovered that the silver chalice Fr. Petit used during the Trail of Death was housed in the Catholic Church at Vincennes Bob Pearl was allowed to borrow it and it was used for taking communion several times during the week.

At Jacksonville the 1838 Potawatomis were serenaded in the square by the town band. We were serenaded in that same plaza by the Jacksonville High School band.

East of Quincy a surprise awaited us at the next marker, located near Mill Creek. Here we found Rudy Vallejo of Potawatomi and Kickapoo heritage in full regalia. He performed a graceful dance at the edge of the woods. His accompaniment (on a CD player) was "I Am An Eagle" from the Legends Project. This was one of my favorite events of the entire trip.

We enjoyed a barbeque dinner on Quinsippi Island in the Mississippi River, where some of our group participated in the dedication of a new marker. Like many of the markers, this one had been done by a Boy Scout for his Eagle project. As they had done from the beginning, some of the Potawatomis performed a simple Indian blessing ceremony at the marker by sprinkling pinches of tobacco on each of the four sides.


In eastern Missouri, the campers spent the night and all of us had breakfast at the farm home of a couple about to celebrate their 66th anniversary. Not only had the Trail of Death passed immediately in front of their house, but their land along a river was once the home of an Indian village. Their house, inside and out, is covered with arrowheads and other relics. Murals are made of them. Here I got to hold a mammoth tooth in my hands. The owner of the farm had found five. Archeologists who visit the house say they are from a baby mammoth.

Thanks to Shirley Willard’s extensive planning, persons or groups were waiting for us at almost every destination. Also waiting were places to park four campers. At Richmond we were greeted by a lady who is directly descended from Pocahontas. Here we dedicated a new marker on the grounds of Richmond High School.

We crossed the Missouri River by way of the Lexington bridge. In 1838, the crossing by ferry required competing for space with "white females fleeing their homes." These women were escaping battles between the Mormons and the other upper Missouri residents. That crossing consumed an entire day.

Upon reaching Independence, I was reminded that when Isaac McCoy’s son founded Kansas City, Independence was a town several miles away. Now the two blend into one. We presented a program here for over 100 persons at the National Frontier Trails Museum. This was our largest indoor venue and our talks were well-received.

Shirley explained her intricate apparel to this audience as she had done all along the way. She was wearing a reproduction of an ensemble worn by Mas-saw in a George Winter portrait. Mas-saw, Jim Thorpe’s great-grandmother, had traveled on the Trail of Death.

I was amazed to watch an audience change its countenance in an hour. They were moved, in my perception, from a skeptical attitude to asking how they could help the Indians today. Tom Hamilton told them, "The Indians don’t want charity. We just want our story known."


At Osawatomi, named by combining the words Osage and Potawatomi, we dined in the Old Stone Church. It was finished the year Kansas became a state and is now owned by our hosts, the local historical society.

Our trail ended at the St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park in rural Linn County. Here a new marker was dedicated to Fr. Petit and a mass was held in his honor. A few months after the Potawatomis arrived in Kansas, the young priest died at St. Louis when en route back to Indiana. His body was moved to the University of Notre Dame in 1856.

We had visited all 74 markers except a couple we were forced to drive past. Many of them were on county roads, but only a few were not well cared for. All the markers were paid for by donations at no expense to taxpayers. Over 30 were done by Boy Scouts. Others were sponsored by county historical societies, Girl Scouts, clubs, individuals, and Potawatomi families who had ancestors on the Trail of Death.

Sometimes we were greeted by the mothers of the Boy Scouts who had sponsored the markers. One of these former Scouts was wearing a different uniform, then serving in Iraq. We included him in our prayer.

I believe that the smaller the town, the larger the contingent waiting for us. We paid for few meals. At Exeter, Illinois, two families fed us, then we all went down the hill to a park where we encircled a bonfire. We passed around a "talking stick." Whoever was holding the stick had to talk. We heard some good stories that had been passed down in the Potawatomi families.

Many of the markers mention a Potawatomi death or deaths that had occurred at that place. Forty-one died in all and so many of them were children whose mothers had to leave them "in the shadow of the cross." One child was crushed beneath the wheels of a wagon.

That fall in 1838 they had been plagued by a widespread and "unparalleled" drought through Indiana and Illinois. Lack of water sources forced them to make longer marches than planned. Typhoid met then at every village. By the time they reached Missouri in mid-October, an early winter had arrived and they experienced heavy snowfalls and rain.

At St. Philippine Park on our last day, after the Petit marker was dedicated, a group of Kansas Indian dancers age 21 and under performed for us. Two of the girls were "jingle dress dancers." Their skirts were covered with elongated silver bells.

At the end of the dances and before the cookout, some of us were treated to one last surprise. The Potawatomis in attendance presented Shirley and Bill Willard with certificates proclaiming them to be adopted Potawatomis. This was a moving moment for all of us, and a fitting end to the 2003 Trail of Death.