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‘Emotional and fulfilling’: Caravan retraces Potawatomi Trail of Death through Kansas

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‘Emotional and fulfilling’: Caravan retraces Potawatomi Trail of Death through Kansas

Sep 23, 2023 | 6:04 pm ET
By Lauren Fox
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‘Emotional and fulfilling’: Caravan retraces Potawatomi Trail of Death through Kansas
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George Godfrey, left, president of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, addresses the crowd Sept. 23, 2023, in Osawatomie. (Lauren Fox for Kansas Reflector)

OSAWATOMIE — Unbeknownst to him, George Godfrey used to cross the Potawatomi Trail of Death every day on his commute to work. It was not until his tribal newspaper put out an article about the trail that Godfrey first learned of it, and of his proximity to it.

Today, Godfrey is the president of the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association, a group that researches, memorializes and promotes awareness of the 1838 trail.

In 1838, the U.S. militia forced 859 members of the Potawatomi nation to leave Indiana and travel to reservation lands in present-day eastern Kansas. During the 660-mile journey, which took place from Sept. 4 to Nov. 4, more than 40 Potawatomi people died — many of whom were children. This forced removal became known as the Potawatomi Trail of Death.

Now, every five years, the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association leads a caravan in which participants retrace this trail. This year, about 30 people participated. The journey began Monday and ended Saturday near Mound City.

Many participants in the Potawatomi Trail of Death caravan display these flags on their cars
Many participants in the Potawatomi Trail of Death caravan display these flags on their cars. (Lauren Fox for Kansas Reflector)

Godfrey established the caravan in 1988 with Shirley Willard, and they both continue to participate in the expedition. Godfrey, 80, is a tribal member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Willard, 86, is a historian who lives in Rochester, Indiana, close to the start of the Trail of Death.

Willard and Godfrey teamed up to create the inaugural trip in 1988 for the 150th anniversary of the Trail of Death. Willard said the caravan helps to preserve history, create friendships and “let the Potawatomi know that we wish this had never happened.”

“I think Indiana would be a better place if the Indians had not been removed,” Willard said. “You know, Indiana is supposed to mean land of the Indians, and then they marched them out. What were they thinking?”

At noon Saturday, participants gathered for a city council-sponsored lunch in Osawatomie, the second-to-last stop on their journey. The city of Osawatomie got its name from the confluence of two Native American tribes in the area: the Osage and Potawatomi peoples.

Participants in the Potawatomi Trail of Death caravan depart Osawatomie Sept. 23, 2023, in Osawatomie
Participants in the Potawatomi Trail of Death caravan depart Osawatomie Sept. 23, 2023, in Osawatomie. (Lauren Fox for Kansas Reflector)

Alison Hamilton, who works for the Kansas Historical Society, said the Potawatomi were originally supposed to be housed in Osawatomie, but when they arrived, the housing that was promised for them did not exist. They were then moved about 20 miles south to the Sugar Creek Mission, which is now called St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park, and serves as the final stop on the caravan journey.

Chuck and Cindy Michalski were first-time participants in the caravan this year. They live in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, and drove to northern Indiana to participate in the caravan. The couple said they heard about the caravan a few years ago and knew they wanted to participate at the next opportunity.

Cindy, a tribal member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, called the experience “very emotional and fulfilling,” and she noted the importance of the firsthand accounts that participants read each day. As they passed particular locations in their journey, participants read accounts of what happened at that point in the trail, such as the number of new deaths.

Kevin Roberts says a Potawatomi prayer before the Potawatomi Trail of Death caravan participants eat lunch Sept. 23, 2023, in Osawatomie.
Kevin Roberts says a Potawatomi prayer before the Potawatomi Trail of Death caravan participants eat lunch Sept. 23, 2023, in Osawatomie. (Lauren Fox for Kansas Reflector)

Another participant, Kevin Roberts, said that participating in the journey “really brought a tangible, objective reality to what you read about.”

“Making this trip, you know the hardship of what the people went through,” Roberts said. “At most of the encampments, somebody died every night. It brings it home when you read a marker that, you know, 860-something started, and as we went through our journey, those 660 miles, that number declined.”

Roberts, who is also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, said a particularly special moment occurred Saturday morning. As the caravan of cars drove through Johnson County, a bald eagle flew over their path. For Roberts, this was no random occurrence. It was a sign from a sacred animal in his culture.

“It seemed like that eagle knew and was telling us, ‘I see you, and your ancestors see you and are proud of you,’ ” Roberts said.