Indian Removal Act
& The Trail of Death
In the years after the defeat of the British and their Indian allies in the War of 1812, the nature of the U.S. government’s Indian policy and the goal of treaty making became increasingly hostile toward Native Americans, opening the door for the removals of the 1830s. This shift in policy was solidified when President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830. The act ultimately removed thousands of Native Americans from their homes on forced walks from the Great Lakes and east coast regions to Indian Territory. From the 1830s to the 1860s there were hundreds of removals, each surrounded by circumstances unique to each tribe, village or geographic area.
In early Sept. 1838, General John Tipton called for a council of Potawatomi leaders at Menominee’s village near Twin Lakes in Indiana to discuss the issue of removal. In reality the General had no intention of talking about removal. He had been assigned the task of removing Indiana’s remaining Potawatomi population by Governor David Wallace who believed the Potawatomi couldn’t live alongside a more “civilized” American population. The Potawatomi were leaving Indiana whether they wanted to or not.
On the morning of Sept. 4, 1838, a band of 859 Potawatomi, with their leaders shackled and restrained in the back of a wagon, set out on a forced march from their homeland in northern Indiana for a small reserve in present-day Kansas. To minimize the temptation for the Potawatomi to try to escape and return home, militia members burned both fields and houses as the dejected members of the wagon train departed.
The journey was a 660-mile trek for which the Potawatomi were not prepared and through terrain to which they were not accustomed. The heat was oppressive and water was often scarce. They had only a few hundred horses to carry people and supplies, and promised additional wagons did not arrive before their departure; so, even the weak and elderly were forced to walk. The pace and conditions of the march debilitated the health of the travelers. A day rarely passed that a member of the party did not die, usually a child, forcing their bereft and exhausted families to leave the bodies behind in hastily dug graves. In the end more than forty people died during what the Potawatomi came to call the Trail of Death.
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