Source: NMHS Newsletter, November 1984
Trail of Tears – Second Thoughts by Dr. Ladoska Z. Bunker
[Research Note: "Trail of Tears" customarily refers to Cherokee experience; Dr. Bunker was referring to "The Trail of Courage" in this article.]
The recent “Rendezvous of Courage”, the Indiana gathering for the third year near Rochester, Indiana, has revived interest in the Indians and their tragedies. Descendants of the “Trail of Tears”, survivors, mostly Pottawatomies and Miamis, convened to celebrate their heritage. Some of them saw the mid-west for the first time. The “Trail of Tears”, was not the first deportation of Indians from their tribal lands to areas where the Indian way of life could be better carried on.
Prior to his contact with Europeans, the Indian lived at a stone age level. The tribes were migrants, drifting long distances. They had no knowledge of the wheel, the lever, or the pulley. When they wanted to move their tepees, etc., they dragged them. They had no saws and no Indian ever cut a tree down with a stone axe. The Indian made stone arrowheads, but the axes, manyas, mutates, fleshing knives, etc., were frequently left over stone artifacts from the earlier mound builders who had a more sophisticated civilization than the Red Indians
The Indians had no written language and only oral history, which lacked authenticity. “The Walum Olem”, “The Red Sticks”, was supposed to be the story of the Delawares but is questioned. They had no calendar. Mathematics was unknown and they could only count in cross hatches. Their art was stick pictures as they had no awareness of perspective. Their music was the drum and the war chant. Many dialects were present and served to separate the tribes.
There were no domestic animals except a few savage dogs. There were no animal fibers for weaving, so the Indian dressed in hides and furs, usually deer and buffalo.
A few tribes raised a little corn, yams, and tobacco, but most of their food was deer or buffalo meat, largely eaten raw. In the summer they ate wild berries, cattail pollen, and plums. Cooking was not one of their arts; they had only the most crude pottery and cooked corn meal mush on a hot stone. Until they obtained iron pots from the whites, they had no cooking utensils. There was no food storage except a few crude baskets and leather sacks. A great deal of the time the Indians were on the verge of starvation. The men hunted constantly to supply their families.
In its original phase, the Indian population was scant; not over a million people in the continental United States at its peak. The population was kept down by lack of food, illness (pneumonia, acute rheumatism, and malaria), accidents, and the continuous tribal wars.
The Indians were violent to each other, gouging eyes and breaking bones in fights. Many tribes burned prisoners at the stake, ate the bodies of their enemies, murdered aged members of the tribe and in times of starvation, practiced infanticide and abortion.
Into this scene of squalor and degradation came the white man, with firearms, whiskey and a myriad of diseases to which the Indian had no immunity.
The horse, growing in great herds on the western plains, spread over the country, became the Indians’ most prized possession.
It is recorded that the Indians had a rather surprising knowledge of herbal medicine. Their skill in handling hides and furs was notable. Occasionally an Indian was a dramatic and effective orator, but these attributes were not common.
The French, as early as 1658, reported tribes in Wisconsin living in matting huts and stockades, but this was considered an isolated instance.
Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Thomas Jefferson, as President, bought a vast acreage from Spain, an area in northern Louisiana and westward to be used as a refuge for the displaced Indian population. In 1815 the Pottawatomies ceded their lands in Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. 800 of 4,000 in the tribe were moved to a reservation on the Mississippi River. Early Jesuit missionaries were reported to have had “some curbing influence on them”.
The French reported 8,000 Miamis in the Green Bay area of Wisconsin in 1658 to 1670. By 1790 tribal wars had reduced them to 1,500 warriors. In 1822 the entire tribe numbered 1,000 to 3,000. By 1846 all had been removed to the area of the Fort Leavenworth Agency where there were 250 persons, “dissipated and wretched in extreme”. By 1873 the once powerful tribe, a part of the Algonquin nation, numbered 150.
The Ottowas numbered 1,500 at the time of the American Revolution. They took up farming and were effectively resettled in Kansas where the tribe survived.
The Treaty of Paradise Springs near Wabash, Indiana, in 1826 opened up great areas of northern Indiana for settlement.
The last buffalo was killed in Indiana in 1816, and the deer population was steadily driven northward by the ever-expanding white population. The Indian depended on the deer for food, clothing, shelter, (most wigwams were made of deer skin), and soon the deer were hard to find; small game was also reduced, further limiting the food supply.
The U. S. Corps of Engineers, early in the 1800’s, dammed up a series of ponds and creeks near Rochester, Indiana, to form Manitou Lake. Its outlet powered a grist mill which the Corps built. Its purposewas to grind corn for the Indians. Until the surrounding area was cleared, this corn was brought in from southern Indiana. In spite of all efforts to encourage the Indians to farm and contribute to their own support, they rigidly refused to do this. They refused to raise potatoes and would not eat them when given them.
The Society of Friends or Quakers, as early as 1805, began wide-spread efforts to help the Indians, but almost universally these efforts were rejected. How could one involve a stone age aborigine in the 19th Century economy? How could this have been managed better?
The wars of Europe, the French and Indian War (War of the Austrian Succession), Revolutionary War, and War of 1812 all involved Indians and decimated tribes. Whole tribes vanished. Of the mid-west Indians today, very few are pure blood.
Indiana alone, by the mid-1830’s, the state was confronted with the problem of what to do with several thousand near starving, often houseless and helpless Indians. The Indians had already ceded their lands to the white man and had no place to go. Experience was showing that the reservation within an industrial and agricultural state was impossible.
Contrary to present opinion, a great deal of concern was expended in an effort to find a solution to this problem. General John Tipton, who was frequently considered the author of much of the Indians’ troubles, actually spent much time and thought on their solution, and only after much effort, conceded that a removal to the western lands, in open uninhabited country, where game was still in abundance (the great buffalo herds still ranged over Oklahoma), was the solution to their problem. General Tipton was also a United States Senator and literally wore himself out and died young, worn down by campaigns and trips to Washington on horseback and stage coach. He did not live to see the removal of the Indians from northern Indiana in 1838. Had he been alive, this might well have been better planned and carried out.
No words can describe the anguish of the Indians in leaving their ancestral home. They gathered leaves from the trees and earth from the graves of their forebearers to take with them. One brave girded a young tree and it remained along the Mississinewa for many years as a sad reminder of Menominee. A few ran away and hid, some aided by friendly pioneers. Anthony Nigo was one of these. About 1,000 were finally collected and started the march to Miami, Oklahoma.
There is a plaque on the old bank building in Akron, Indiana, at the site of one of the collecting points on the march. The route crossed southern Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and a corner of Kansas into northeastern Oklahoma, about the route of U. S. Road 66.
The August heat killed many. Almost all the babies and young children and old people died. By the time they reached the area of Vandalia, Illinois, their sufferings were so great that a Catholic priest endeavored to help them, getting wagons, etc., and accompanied them on their way. Worn out by his exertions, he suffered a stroke and died. Guarded by the U. S. Army, the Indians continued westward, in burning heat, and finally reached Miami, Oklahoma, their destination. The tribe was decimated.
It is interesting that the family of Frances Slocum was excluded from deportation, due to her being white and her family intermarried with French traders and Chiefs of the Godfroy family.
The sad story of Meshinges, the daughter of Chief Anderson and wife of William Conner, a prominent land owner—“She, nine children, and 50 ponies” were deported to the western lands when an Indian wife interfered with Conner’s political ambitions.
Oklahoma was a wild land full of game and the Indians regrouped and eventually entered into the life of the new state. Prominent persons with Indian heritage were Quanah Parker, Will Rogers, Thomas Gilcrease, and Vice-President Charles Curtis.
Long after their tragic removal, Indians would come back to Indiana to avoid the hot western summer. Here in North Manchester in the 1870’s they would camp on the flats along Eel River, fishing and hunting small game. They made willow baskets and whittled out butter paddles and potato mashers to sell.
A sad conclusion to the times when they roamed free in the forests, stone age people in the 19th Century.
By Dr. L. Z. Bunker