English Department Alumna Shirley Willard Describes How She is Working to Preserve the Memory of the Potawatomi Lost to the Trail of Death

In the late 19th century, a community of Native Americans, primarily the Potawatomi, were forcibly displaced and had to march on a trail that began near Fulton County, Indiana and that ended in present-day Kansas. This trail is now aptly referred to as the Trail of Death. Unfortunately, much of the history surrounding the Trail of Death and the Potawatomi has gone largely unnoticed. Ball State alumna, Shirley Willard, has made it her mission to draw attention to the history of the Potawatomi tribe and to create national recognition for those who were lost on the Trail of Death. Continue reading below to find out about the extensive progress Shirley has made over the years and how she is continuing to make a difference today.

-Shirley Willard and her husband Bill Willard
*Photo provided by Shirley Willard

I am Shirley Willard of Rochester, Indiana, a graduate of Rochester High School in 1955, of Manchester College in 1959, and of Ball State in 1966 after studying three summers. I got a Masters degree so that I could get a life license to teach, but I taught school for only 14 years. When I had a detached retina in 1977, I stopped teaching school and had eye surgery again the following year. I began working full time for the Fulton County Historical Society, creating my own job and earning money to pay myself a salary, opening a museum in the old depot, and writing, writing, writing. I often say I used to teach school – now I teach the world.

I have used my BSU Master’s degree every day since I got it in 1966, especially as I write history. My work with the Potawatomi is closest to my heart. They were forcibly removed from Indiana to Kansas in 1838. They were marched single file at gun point down Rochester, Indiana’s Main Street on September 5, 1838. I have cried many times when I think about the little children who died on the way and were buried in unmarked graves. Such an injustice!

This summer I also worked with students from Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, on their Trail of Broken Promises Walk from Kansas to Washington, D.C.. I wrote many letters and news releases to help them get funding and find free places to camp.

I was named Fulton County Historian by the Indiana Historical Society in 1982, and I continue to work on the history of Fulton County. I write a history column for the Rochester Sentinel and send news and features to many newspapers and Internet sites. Recent articles have been about two local people who were survivors of the Titanic, the history of Fulton County airport, and underground railroad routes across Fulton County.

For the Fulton County Historical Society, I have written and edited several books, including Fulton County Folks volumes 1 and 2, which are in libraries from coast to coast. In 2010, my latest book, a pictorial history of Rochester, Indiana, was published by Arcadia Publishing. I edited four different newsletters a year for FCHS and its branches: Genealogy Section, Fulton County Historical Power Association, and the Indian Awareness Center, which became the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association in 2005. I wrote and edited FCHS Quarterlies no. 7 to 72, and five issues of Fulton County Images.

I was president of the Fulton County Historical Society for 30 years (1971-2001), and retired at age 65. During that time, I spearheaded the building of a new museum and living history village of 14 buildings on 35 acres. My husband Bill did a lot of volunteer carpenter work and installed electricity in the buildings. We paid a contractor to build the exterior of the new museum. The interior was constructed purely by volunteers, which enabled the new museum to be built for only $120,000. The money was donated by a fund-raising campaign. A grant from Historic Landmarks of Indiana helped us move and restore the Paxton round barn in 1990.

We founded the Trail of Courage Living History Festival in 1976, as a Bicentennial project. We continue to produce this amazing festival every year during the third weekend of September. At this festival each year, we honor a different Potawatomi family that had ancestors on the Trail of Death or who signed treaties in Indiana. They are listed on our website www.potawatomi-tda.org. I have worked with the Potawatomi since the early 1980s to commemorate the 1838 Potawatomi Trail of Death removal from Indiana to Kansas.

In 1988, I saw a letter in HowNiKan, the Citizen Band Potawatomi tribal newspaper, from George Godfrey, Citizen Band member, who wrote that he crossed the Trail of Death every day on his way to work in Champaign County, Illinois, and that he thought something should be done to commemorate its 150th anniversary. I wrote to him and said I am in Indiana, the beginning of the Trail of Death, and I think something should be done too. We formed a partnership that has lasted to this day. Eventually, I got a committee together, including Tom Hamilton, another Citizen Band Potawatomi member. We planted cedar trees for each of the deaths and for Father Benjamin M. Petit. Father Benjamin M. Petit was a young priest who lived with the Potawatomi in northern Indiana, and went with them to Kansas. He got typhoid too and died on the way back to Indiana. He died in Feb. 1839 at St. Louis. Father Edwin Sorin, who founded Notre Dame, went to St. Louis and brought Petit’s remains back and buried them there, along with 3 other missionary priests. Today they are buried under the Log Cabin Chapel on ND campus. See www.potawatomi-tda.org, a website that I made with the help of volunteers, for more details.

The trees were planted at the Fulton County Historical Society grounds where the Trail of Courage Living History Festival is held in September. Other Citizen Band members Bill Wamego and his son and nephew re-enacted the march through Rochester by riding in a horse-drawn jail wagon followed by others of Indian descent on foot. Chief White Eagle, born in Canada on the Grand River Reservation, a member of the Mohawk Tribe, planted a Great Peace Tree on top of two crossed tomahawks at the Trail of Courage. We organized a commemorative caravan to travel in cars and trucks with campers over the 660 mile route from here to Kansas. It was a year of terrible drought, like they had in 1838.

We decided to work to have the route declared a National Historic Trail like the Trail of Tears. But when I contacted the National Parks Department, they said the Potawatomi Trail of Death was of regional, not national, importance. They said it would cost $200,000 for research. Since we had already done the research, we thought that would be a waste of tax dollars, so we got people in each state to petition the four state legislatures (Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas) to pass resolutions declaring it a Regional Historic Trail in 1994. We set our goal of getting a historical marker at each camp site every 15 to 20 miles.

With Susan Campbell, another Citizen Band Potawatomi who had ancestors on the Trail of Death, I co-edited a book reprinting all the primary sources for the Trail of Death in 2003. This book includes Father Benjamin M. Petit’s letters, muster rolls, some John Tipton letters, biographies of William Polke the conductor, St. Philippine Duchesne the nun who worked with them in Kansas, pictures by George Winter who sketched the Potawatomi, and biographies of several Potawatomi families who had ancestors on the Trail of Death. It has 420 pages and sells for $40 plus $6 S&H from Fulton County Historical Society, 37 E 375 N, Rochester IN 46975. The title is Potawatomi Trail of Death: 1838 Removal from Indiana to Kansas.

We organized and traveled as a caravan every five years, contacting county historical societies and local people in each community, asking them to help commemorate the Potawatomi Trail of Death. I served as coordinator for the placing of the Trail of Death markers. I called each town that needed one because it had been a campsite on the Trail of Death and contacted their museum or Boy Scouts or whoever seemed interested. Nearly 40 markers were erected by Boy Scouts for their Eagle Award or by Girl Scouts for their Gold Award, and one by Cub Scouts and one by 4-H. Bill and I traveled to every dedication of every new Trail of Death marker and several Potawatomi came if they could, mainly Sister Virginia Pearl, Bob Pearl, Jim Pearl, Tom Hamilton, George Wesselhoft, Smokey McKinney, Susan Campbell and others. By the time of our caravan in 2003, we completed the markers. There are now 80 Trail of Death Regional Historic Trail markers, which is more than the number of camp sites. An important historical document for this project is a diary written by Jessie C. Douglas, secretary for William Polke, the federal conductor on the Trail of Death. The diary is available at our website. Several markers were placed at sites mentioned in the diary as they passed by, such as Battle Ground, Indiana. And there are several Trail of Death markers in the St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park at the end of the Trail of Death in Linn County, Kansas.

At the end of the 2003 caravan, the Potawatomi families adopted me and Bill as honorary Potawatomi with a certificate made by Tom Hamilton on his computer and signed by all of them. It was such a surprise and such a wonderful honor. I had felt that they were my brothers and sisters, and this made it even better.

-Shirley and Bill Willard giving an historical talk
*Photo provided by Shirley Willard

In 2004 Don Perrot, a Prairie Band Potawatomi member, gave Bill and me Potawatomi names. He said he dreamed that he should give us names. This was accomplished at a banquet at the Fulton County Museum. He gave Bill the name of Wabnosa “He rises at dawn” and me Kwenago “Yesterday Woman.” This is very appropriate because Bill always gets up early, and I am deep into history or yesterday.

In 2005 we organized the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association with George Godfrey as president, Sister Virginia Pearl vice president, Dolores Grizzell as secretary, Shirley Willard (me) as treasurer, and Susan Campbell as editor / researcher. Dues are $20 a year for individuals or $30 for a family or group.

In 2006 we made a web page, designed by Dale J. Travis of Decatur, Illinois, which shows pictures of all the Trail of Death markers, driving directions, GPS locations, quotes from the 1838 diary to show what happened each day, sponsors of the markers, history, and interesting side trips to museums and landmarks, etc.

In 2007 Gary Wiskigeamatuyuk of Cypress, California, descendent of Abram Burnett who was on the Trail of Death, presented an eagle feather to me. But as it is illegal for a white person to own an eagle feather, I had to get a permit from Fish & Wildlife for the Fulton County Museum to accept and display the eagle feather.

We organized caravans to discover and travel the original route every five years: 1988, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008. Each time we dedicated more historical markers; most are huge boulders with a metal plaque.

We are now working to get historic highway signs erected so that motorists, hikers, and bikers can follow the original route and find the markers. The Potawatomi Trail of Death historic highway signs are similar to the Lewis & Clark Trail signs. David Anderson of Seattle, Washington, a member of Citizen Band Potawatomi, designed the logo for these beautiful historic highway signs. Our local Daughters of American Revolution, Manitou Chapter, Rochester, sponsored the first signs in Fulton County. We got the signs up across Indiana in all the counties that the Trail of Death crossed: Marshall, Fulton, Cass, Carroll, Tippecanoe and Warren.

We applied for and received grants from Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Prairie Band Potawatomi to erect the historic highway signs in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas, but the Departments of Transportation in Illinois and Missouri will not let us erect the signs on state highways. So we can only put them on rural roads or streets. I am still working on that. We will dedicate new historic highway signs in Piatt County, Monticello, Illinois, next fall when we do the Trail of Death caravan again in September 23-28, 2013. We will also dedicate a new Trail of Death historical marker at Spring Hill, Kansas.

We invite all the descendants to come to attend the Trail of Courage held at the FCHS grounds four miles north of Rochester on US 31 and Tippecanoe River. The honored family writes a brief history, which I edit and publish in the local newspaper. At the opening ceremonies both Saturday and Sunday, they are honored at the Chippeway Village stage in the woods. On Saturday, the Fulton County Commissioners present them with a Key to the County or the Rochester Mayor gives them a Key to the City, and they are honored with gifts at the Indian dances. This festival is quite large with 950 participants, and anywhere from 12,000 to 18,000 attendees.

It has two stages with music and dance all day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 10 to 4 on Sunday the third weekend of Sept. This year, the festival was held from Sept. 15-16.

There are historic camps, teepees, wigwams, contests, traditional crafts, and food cooked over wood fires. There are two stages with pre-1840 programs all day of music and dance, and history talks. Canoe rides on the Tippecanoe River, muzzle loading shooting contests, mountain man tug of war, and much more are of interest to all ages. See our website at www.fultoncountyhistory.org.

Retired since 2001, I still help with the Trail of Courage Living History Festival and with the programs by calling the Frontier Frolic dance for teenage re-enactors and telling about the fur trade history of Fulton County and northern Indiana, etc. My husband Bill and I operate a booth for the Potawatomi Trail of Death Association in which we sell books and Bill demonstrates fingerweaving of Indian sashes.

I continue to volunteer at the Fulton County Museum, write a history column for newspapers, and work on getting highway signs erected for the Trail of Death. I am currently president of the Fulton County Tourism Commission and Regent of Manitou Chapter DAR. My husband Bill Willard accompanies me everywhere and provides his special brand of humor.

You can find more information at to www.fultoncountyhistory.org.

If you are interested in contacting Shirley regarding any of the topics she discusses above, her information is as follows: Shirley Willard, 3063 S 425 E, Rochester IN 46975, phone 574-223-2352, wwillard@rtcol.com

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