2018-07-07 / Columnists

A Look at History

Death March Marked End of Mackinac Island’s Fur-Trading Era

Death March

More than 450 miles southwest of Mackinac Island a historical marker, now itself close to a century old, stands between a cornfield and a lonely crossroads in Benton County, Indiana. The bronze plaques on the marker signify the “Indian Boundary Line of 1818 to 1832.” During this 14-year period, this “Indiana Boundary” marked the southern border of the Potawatomi Nation of Northwest Indiana; and, in so doing, it marked the southern boundary line of a vast region of well more than 100,000 square miles in size, a territory dominated in those years by cultural and economic ties between Mackinac Island and the Native tribes with whom our Island was in alliance.

The Potawatomi Nation was numbered among the highest in productivity in the sale and delivery of furs to the American Fur Company’s operations at Mackinac Island. During the height of the Island’s fur-trading era, the federal government worked with the Nation (and the powerful Company) to keep white settlers out of Northwest Indiana. The only Euro-Americans who were allowed to live on the territory of the Nation were professional fur traders like Mackinac Island’s Joseph Bailly. By trading with relative fairness, and developing marriage and kinship ties with the North American nations among whom they lived, traders like Bailly were able to serve as ambassadors and strategic economic partners to both sides. For the 15-year period that followed the end of the War of 1812, the furs bundled on Mackinac Island for international shipment were among the most profitable and significant goods that the United States could offer other nations in the world marketplace of the early 1800s.

In the late 1820s and early 1830s, these market forces changed forever. Americans learned to export Southern cotton, Europeans learned how to make silk hats, and western traders dealing with China were starting to push opium in preference to everything else that had previously been exported to East Asia. In 1828 the voters removed the last Jeffersonian President, John Quincy Adams, from office, and replaced him with the aggressive frontier fighter Andrew Jackson. The White House’s new policy included the removal, or disintegration, of all organized Native American presences east of the Mississippi River. This included all of the tribes that had caught peltry for Mackinac Island’s Market Street, including furs from the Potawatomi Nation.

In 1832, emissaries of the Jackson administration went north from white Indiana on a fur-trading trail, the Michigan Road, to the Indian Boundary at the Tippecanoe River. There they laid out an assortment of goods and presents worth $100,000 in the gold money of the day. Those family and clan leaders of the Potawatomi Nation who chose to take part in the “negotiation” would get to share the presents, and they would be treated, in the eyes of Washington, D.C., as the representatives of the Nation. Forty-eight Potawatomi men, described as “chiefs, headmen, and warriors,” chose to gather at the campsite. Other leaders of the Nation boycotted the gathering and got no presents.

Upon the conclusion of the negotiations, the Jackson Administration declared that the Nation had legally ceded its land and had agreed to move to new hunting grounds in what is now eastern Kansas. Mackinac Island’s time as the gathering place for sorting, grading, and reshipment of the rich peltry of northwest Indiana was coming to an end. Seeing into the future, in 1833 the Fur Company’s unsentimental CEO John Jacob Astor abruptly divested himself from all relations with the firm that had made him the richest man in the U.S. The Company’s Mackinac Island-based middle management tried to turn their attention to barreled salt fish, with slimy results. The commercial focus of the Island shifted from Market Street to waterfront Main Street, where it would remain.

Many Mackinac Islanders lost their jobs, or had to change careers, in the upheaval that marked the end of the fur trade. The fate of the Potawatomi Nation was much worse. The U.S. federal government paid out small subsidies to those members of the Nation who had made their way to Kansas, and over the five-year period from 1832 to 1837 some of the clans of the Nation moved west to what they hoped would be a new life there. However, more than 800 members of the Nation, members of the Yellow River Band, refused to do so and clung to their wetland grounds at Twin Lakes, Indiana.

The state of Indiana, although it had been named in honor of the peoples that had once lived on it, now wanted them gone. After the final fur harvest of the spring of 1838, a troop of armed militiamen converged at Twin Lakes in August 1838. They put 859 members of the Yellow River Band under arrest and gave them five days to prepare for their path westward. Ahead was a journey of more than 600 miles across the white-controlled states of Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.

In some parts of their march, the ethnically cleansed tribesmen were treated with some degree of kindness and respect. My other hometown of Springfield, Illinois, is proud of the fact that we fed the refugees and encouraged them to form a parade of honor as they passed through the frontier state capital’s town square. Other sections of the pathway were not so good and, in any case, the conditions of abrupt removal and forced marches without medical care were dangerous. More than 40 members of the Band, almost five percent of the roll of those who had started out, died on the way. The experience has been named the “Potawatomi Trail of Death.” The survivors rejoined their Nation west of the Missouri and eventually gathered in what is now Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma.

The Potawatomi were, and are to this day, part of the Three Fires Confederacy of Upper Great Lakes Native Nations and cultural heritage. The two other major Nations of the Three Fires, the Odawa and the Ojibwe, were and are peoples with longstanding ties to the Straits of Mackinac and its surrounding regions. These two Nations, unlike the Potawatomi, were not rounded up. Big-city business interests were hungry for Upper Great Lakes fish, and the skills of the members of these two Nations as open-lake fisherfolk were too great. The two Nations are part of the life of Mackinac Island, and Northern Michigan, today.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2018-07-07 digital edition