Why's That: Telling the truth about forced removal (Story 1)
This month our question comes from Chris Chopp, principal of the Comstock STEM Academy.
The school is on an old farm property near Morrow Lake. As a result, “there’s blackberries and raspberries, even some Concord grapes and some fruit trees,” Chris said as we walked around the grounds one day last fall.
Chris wants his students to know the history of the land before colonization by European settlers – and how Comstock changed when settlers arrived. As he researched local history at the Comstock library, Chris found a passage describing in mild terms the forced removal of indigenous people.
In his office at the STEM Academy, I asked Chris to read it out loud.
“‘When the first non-native settlers began to arrive, the natives welcomed them,’” he read. “New settlers and natives lived in harmony. Natives and the pioneers traded and benefitted from one another until 1840 when the US government had to enforce the treaty. Colonel Thomas A.H. Edwards gathered the Indians together for a long journey west of the Mississippi.
“‘Along the route they passed the house of judge Epaphroditus Ransom, the prominent Kalamazoo man who often had befriended them in their dealings with the government. As they passed by, they raised their hands and headdresses in respect and farewell.’
Chris said the passage left him scratching his head.
“It seems so pleasant and peaceful,” he said. “I thought, is this how it actually went down?”
This story is the first in a three-part series answering that question. From members of three Potawatomi tribes, we learned about how forced removal unfolded. We considered what the text may reveal about the author. And what effect efforts to keep difficult history out of classrooms could have on attempts to correct the record.
In the Midwest, “a multitude of removals”
Lakota Pochedley is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians, now based in Shelbyville.
In the case of removal, “Every experience, every history is different. So it’s really something that is important to us is that we not speak for others,” Pochedley said.
This series focuses on the Potawatomi. But “there were also various other tribes that were removed from the Great Lakes area and from Michigan down to Kansas and Oklahoma,” Pochedley said.
She added that when people think about removal, they’re often thinking about the southeastern United States.
In that region, “there was a level of coordination that occurred that led to much larger removals at a singular time,” she said.
“And so in the Midwest there were a lot more smaller, like but a multitude of removals over a large period of time.”
The earliest Potawatomi removal west that she’s found evidence of happened in 1820. That group had signed a treaty with the Kickapoo to potentially leave their homeland.
“From what folks have shared with me, it was a way to kind of scout what that land would be like west of the Mississippi. So there was also a lot of movement back and forth,” Pochedley said.
At the time, federal and territory officials were still signing treaties with tribal leaders, offering reservations or payments in exchange for vast swaths of land. But the government often went back on those agreements. By 1830, political leaders including President Andrew Jackson had embraced removal, by force if necessary, as a means for taking over the land.
Pochedley said the Potawatomi had more or less autonomous village governments – led by ogemak or chiefs whose communities now faced a policy of mandatory removal.
“There were potentially either tens or hundreds of people that were part of their large village and so they’re strategically, on an individual and family base level, having to make these strategic decisions of what is going to be in the best interest for my family,” she said.
Some communities found a way to defy the order to leave. In Southwest Michigan that includes the Pokagon Band, which we’ll hear more about in the next part of the series, and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band. Forced out in 1840, members of the NHBP defiantly returned less than two years later.
“And then there are folks like Chief Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish,” Pochedley said.
By this time, he was an older chief, she explained. “He had spent a lot of time, a lot of his life actually being an ogichida, a soldier, a warrior, I guess more of a general in that sense, where he had fought in the Northwestern Territories War, he had fought in the War of 1812,” she said.
Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish's band had a reservation in what’s now Kalamazoo in the 1820s, but the government dissolved it after just a few years. Pochedley said, after losing the reservation,
“Instead of moving to another one of those villages that were kind of consolidating at that time, to kind of strategize what they were going to do in the midst of forced removals, Match-e-be-nash-she-wish and his community decided to begin moving north.”
The band moved through Cooper, Plainwell and Martin, before finally settling in the Shelbyville area, on land that became an Episcopalian mission.
Pochedley said that affiliating with churches helped some bands escape removal, though she said members didn’t assimilate so much as acculturate.
“It’s more of like an outside, but internally they still maintained their traditional beliefs,” she explained.
But she added that acculturation was no guarantee of avoiding removal.
The Trail of Death
Though Pochedley works for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band, she’s actually a member of the Citizen Band Potawatomi.
A militia forced her ancestors out of northern Indiana, “on one of the largest removals, the Trail of Death.”
In 1838, after the Potawatomi chief Menominee said he would not leave, General John Tipton captured him. Armed volunteers rounded up about 850 local Potawatomi and forced them to leave for the west. According to historical markers, roughly 40 Potawatomi, many of them children, died along the way.
Though the Trail of Death ended in Kansas, “About 30 years later, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation had received via treaty to take reservation land down in Oklahoma,” Pochedley said. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation is still based there today.
Menominee embraced Catholicism while leading his community in Indiana, but it didn’t matter, Pochedley said. She added that escaping forced migration became “almost a game of chance” for Potawatomi leaders.
Some bands hid. Some chiefs outwitted the government. But not every leader could pull that off. Nor did every community have members who spoke English, who could negotiate with U.S. and territory officials.
Much depended on how badly the government wanted the land in a certain area, Pochedley said.
“Where settlement was occurring at that time. White settlement. Who was settling that area, if they had been involved in those older wars like the Northwestern Territory War or the War of 1812, if they carried those memories with them.”
With phrases like “a long journey west,” the text our question asker Chris Chopp found puts a romantic gloss on events the Trail of Death. But Pokagon Band historical expert Marcus Winchester said it tells the truth about one thing.
“This scene that they’re describing about how the Potawatomi are leaving, and everybody is kind of remorsefully gathered to see them out, that happened in every community where there was a close – early settlement that was close to a village,” he said.
We’ll hear about that, and how Chief Leopold Pokagon outmaneuvered attempts at removal, in the next story.