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The Trail of Death

On this day, September 4, 1838 a shameful chapter in American history took place in northern Indiana. This is the day that the U.S. government began the forced removal of the Potawatomi Indians from Indiana to Kansas.

The connection to Indiana Catholic Church history is the fact that a young priest, Benjamin Marie Petit was given permission to accompany the Indians since he had been their pastor, serving them across the northern part of the state of Indiana.

The troubles had been brewing for some time, but we will briefly go over some of the events of the last days before the removal.

On July 26, 1838 Father Petit wrote to Bishop Brute: 1

First, to give you a report of the trip to Washington: it was useless. “I do not wish to speak of it,” said the President. “Your names are on the treaty; your lands are lost,” said the Secretary of War. “But here is one of the witnesses to the treaty who will show you how everything was a fraud.” “I do not need to be shown, and we did not need your signatures: the great chiefs of the nation were entitled to sell your reserve.” Second, the lawyers admit that the case cannot be pleaded before the Federal Court because the government refuses to become a party and no jury is possible. The land is lost, and without recourse, I believe. Our position is still painful, today more than ever, but God protects us. They are carrying the emigration forward, and with a perseverance and tenacity to which a large number of Indians will yield, although there will always remain a certain number among the old who refuse to hear of going there.13 They still ‘have some lands here and there, and later, perhaps, we shall see what should be done. At the council held for the emigration the first chief arose, interrupting the savage interpreter, seized the agent’s hand, and said to him: “Look here, Father; our lands belong to us. we shall keep them; we do not wish to talk to you any more.” This was taken as an insult to the President, and a report was made asking for authorization to use force if they refused to leave their lands. But there will be no occasion for this, as they have no idea of resistance. Such is our present situation; here is my personal one: body tired but in good health, spirit troubled, heart suffering from anxiety and yet calm enough for complete submission. I trust wholly in my all-powerful Lord. If a large number of Christians depart, I should like to be able to follow them, at least until I can place them in the hands of another pastor. Why? Because they depart alone, recent Christians, for the most part hardly steadfast yet, thrust amidst Protestant corruptions which have pulpits everywhere in the place of exile destined for them; in a little while they will lose the fruit of M. DeSeille’s 2 very great labors. Because if our brothers in France know they departed for exile without a priest’s offering to accompany them, they will be surprised, and the fact will be unique in the history of missions. Because I know my presence would be their protection during the journey, for I have learned indirectly that the management of the Indians would be entrusted to me, as the agents recognize that their power is as nothing in comparison with the priest’s influence; until now they have been driven like dogs on these journeys, and they arrived down there broken-hearted and dispirited from mistreatment on the way; it would be fine to see religion with maternal tenderness protecting and consoling these new-born children, so worthy of sympathy and so unfortunate if abandoned. Because the diocese would lose nothing by it: I should return perhaps within a year, as soon as I could place my children, my tender children, in safe hands. Because the time will not be wasted as far as I am concerned, since the fatigues of charity offered to God have value through Jesus Christ. Because in the immense territory on the left bank of the Mississippi which has been opened to the missions it would be of great importance to have a fully developed mission for a base, and by going I could get advantageous concessions from the government for this settlement, which may prosper greatly through His future favor. Because my Bishop could not refuse me this without reducing these poor children to the plight of exposed infants whom Providence, it is true, can save but who, humanly speaking, are completely destitute of aid. Because a good father would not do such a thing, and my Bishop is a good father. Those are many of the reasons for my request; there are still many more.

…At first I was troubled by your memorial to Washington by which, without knowing where we stood in the case, you interfered in its progress with a step against the spirit of neutrality which I observed by your order-a step likely to cast on the Catholic clergy the suspicion (which you say exists at Washington) of our influencing the Potawatomi to remain. At first I thought I saw a lack of ordinary prudence in this. But God can resolve all: I entrusted all to Him. At first, however I was dismayed and unhappy, I confess.

…When you read this letter, I pray our Lord will make you understand it in the sense He desires for His greatest glory and my children’s salvation. “To sacrifice you to the savages, a new pardon from your family would be necessary.” No, Monseigneur, they have given me to God entirely, and for them as for me it does not matter whether I am here or there. . They would not understand why I should abandon my children thus, and if they read of this mission’s destruction and the Christians’ exile in Annales de la Propagation de la Foi 3 each will ask with astonishment: “Just where has their priest gone? Why are there no priests with them?” That would be unusual, Monseigneur, in the annals of missions; the Church has always given a consoler for the sufferings of her children. You shall decide, Monseigneur, but I must tell you what is in my heart: there it is. Let it all be arranged, rectified, or changed by my Bishop’s hand, which for me is God’s hand. Your benediction, Monseigneur, on us all, your Indians and your priest, respectful and submissive in Jesus Christ and Mary,

B. PETIT, Ptre. Mre.

Bishop Brute gave his permission and Petit, who had been ill when the march began, apparently caught up with the expelled Indians.

The Potawatomi “Trail of Death” had started at Menominee’s village south of Plymouth, down the Michigan Road (Old Highway 31), through Rochester on Main Street, through Logansport, and along the north side of the Wabash River to cross into Illinois at Danville. He (Petit) baptized the dying children, among them newly born “who with their first step passed from earthly exile to the heavenly sojourn,” according to one of his letters, which were published by the Indiana Historical Society in 1941.

In them he vividly describes the hardships and the anguish of “my poor Christians, under a burning noonday sun, amidst clouds of dust, marching in line, surrounded by soldiers who were hurrying their steps” and the heartbreak of the Indians as they buried their loved ones and marched on. Across the great prairies of Illinois they marched, crossed the Mississippi River at Quincy, and then made their way through Missouri to enter Kansas territory south of Independence, Missouri. About 40 Indians died on the march, mostly children. Father Petit blessed each grave. He was himself at times sick with fever.

After placing the Potawatomi in the spiritual hands of Jesuit Father Christian Hoecken at the Sugar Creek Mission in Kansas on November 4, 1838, Father Petit again fell sick with fever and painful open sores. On January 2, he started by horseback back to Indiana, accompanied by Abram Burnett (Nan-Wesh-Mah), a full-blood Potawatomi friend, but again was taken ill. With three open sores draining his strength, he rode from Jefferson City in an open wagon, the roads rough and rain frequent. He reached the Jesuit seminary at St. Louis University on January 15. The fathers gave him all the medical attention and care they could, but he grew weaker and weaker. Father John A. Elet, then rector-president of St. Louis University, later wrote that he placed a crucifix to Father Petit’s dying lips and twice he kissed it tenderly. He lay on agony and finally expired 20 minutes before midnight, February 10, 1839, a martyr to his duty and his extraordinary devotion and love for his Potawatomi family. He had lived but 27 years and 10 months.

Father Petit died in the Jesuit seminary building at 9th and Washington Streets and was buried in the old cemetery at 7th Street and St. Charles Avenue. In 1856 the cemetery was moved to make way for downtown St. Louis. At that time, Father Edward Sorin, founder of Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indiana, came and took Father Petit’s body back to Indiana. Father Petit’s remains rest under the Log Chapel at the University of Notre Dame. 4

Then, there is this from the Kansas Historical Society:

On November 4, 1838, the Potawatomi Trail of Death ended in Kansas. The two-month trek on foot proved too difficult for some of the Potawatomis. They had too little food to eat and they were exposed to typhoid. The journey claimed the lives of 42 people, half of those who died were children. A few people escaped; 756 arrived first at Osawatomie in Franklin County. There they expected to find shelter from the coming winter. No housing had yet been built.

The Catholic Church had established the Sugar Creek mission in Linn County and many of the Potawatomis moved there. The elderly French-born Sister Rose Philippine Duchesne came in 1841 to teach Potawatomi girls at the reservation. She worked at the mission until she became too feeble to serve. The Potawatomis named her Quahkahkanumad, which stood for”Woman Who Prays Always.” She was canonized in 1988.

In 1848 the mission was moved to Pottawatomie County. Today the St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park is located on the site of the former Sugar Creek mission. Six hundred Potawatomis are buried at the site. 5

We are so removed from this chapter in our collective history that it seems hard to fathom the treatment that the Potawatomi endured. As for Benjamin Petit, can we call him a martyr?

  1. taken from – Petit, Benjamin Marie, and Irving McKee. 1941. The trail of death; letters of Benjamin Marie Petit. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society[]
  2. Fr. Louis DeSeille, Petit’s predecessor among the Native American tribes in northern Indiana[]
  3. The organ of the Society of the Propagation of the Faith founded in Lyons, in 1822, as “an endeavor to enlist the sympathy of all Catholics and assist all missions, without regard to situation and nationality.” The Society was the chief source of support of the American missions. [Footnote in the McKee book] []
  4. From the Internet site:[]

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