Trail of Death: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance, Lament and Transformation, Part I


Joshua Kinder is a middle school mathematics teacher at a public school and a graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. He is a member of the Prairie Wolf Collective, a co-housing and permaculture community experiment in south central Elkhart, Indiana. In his spare time, he is a musician, brewer, and amateur herbalist. 

Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) offered a course called “Trail of Death: A Pilgrimage of Remembrance, Lament, and Transformation” from June 22–June 29, 2015. Participants journeyed the route that over 800 Potawatomi people traveled in 1838 under military gunpoint, after being forcibly removed from their homeland in northern Indiana. This three-part blog series was originally a sermon that Josh Kinder delivered at Prairie Street Mennonite Church about his experience as a pilgrim on the Trail of Death.

Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Valley of Dry Bones)

Part I: Haunted on the Trail of Death

Last month, I joined 15 other adults on what we were calling a pilgrimage. Our intention was to follow the route that more than 800 Potawatomi were forced to walk in 1838 from their homeland in northern Indiana to lands given them in eastern Kansas. This removal route has become known as the Trail of Death: along the way, more than 40 Potawatomi died from disease and fatigue, most of them children. Thanks to a journal kept by one of the conductors of the journey, the daily campsites and route have been marked with signs and plaques, a labor begun by Shirley Willard of the Fulton County Historical Society in the early 1990s and continuing today. Our pilgrimage followed this route, driving instead of walking, taking seven days instead of sixty. A little like the Potawatomi, we camped along the way, stopping to set up tents and fires each evening, tearing things down in the morning before we set off. During the pilgrimage, my spirit was greatly exercised, and I was powerfully moved.

A bit of history: The Potawatomi called the St. Joseph Valley home from the mid-1600s. After the War of 1812, settlers flooded into Indiana from the south, traveling up from the Ohio River via the newly established Michigan Road, whose route is followed closely today by US-31. The pressure from settlers forced the U.S. government to pursue treaties with the Miami, Kickapoo, Potawatomi, and others by any means necessary. By the time of the Trail of Death, many Potawatomi had already vacated their homelands, dispersing into northern Wisconsin, western Iowa, southern Ontario, and other places. The forced removal of Menominee’s group was a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The U.S. had treatied with Menominee and three other leaders in 1832 to reserve 22 square miles of land north of Rochester for their people to live on. The Potawatomi began to establish farms and build cabins. In significant ways, they were adapting to the settler economy. Then in 1836, the U.S. pursued another treaty, one that would cede the last 22 square miles to the government. Three of the leaders were made drunk, and they signed; Menominee refused alcohol and did not sign. Yet, the treaty was considered approved, and in 1838 Menominee’s people were forced to leave their land. Gathered in their church, they were surrounded by local militia and put under arrest. They collected their possessions while other militia sought out remaining Potawatomi in the area. On September 4, 1838, some 800 Potawatomi set out at gunpoint towards Kansas, where they were promised that homes and ploughed fields would be awaiting them. Menominee, resisting still, was put in a cage on a wagon, visible to all as a prisoner. As the migration left Twin Lakes, the militia and local settlers burned the church, the homes, and the fields.

Our journey began at a statue of Menominee, located near where the village was at Twin Lakes. Here we knelt and prayed, along with several Citizen Band Potawatomi who joined us that first day. We heard a local musician sing his song remembering Menominee’s resistance to removal. I remember clearly that at the moment he began to sing, he was joined by a wood thrush from the trees behind. I felt that the place itself was joining in our pilgrimage. The place had witnessed the removal, the sorrow, the violence, the injustice, and the place was lending its voice to our remembering. I remember that I wept when I heard the wood thrush.

On our first day of the Trail of Death, we came to the first campsite of the removal, at what used to be Chippeway’s village on the Tippecanoe River. We circled around the stone marker and joined in a litany. As we spoke together, I experienced an incredible weight of sorrow; it was as if a spirit had put a huge pack on my shoulders. I had to bend my knees, I almost had to sit down. I understood that part of my pilgrimage would be to bear this load of sorrow along the way. I wept as we sang at the stone. Later that night as we sat around the fire, I wrote in my journal, “As we stood and spoke our liturgy, I felt as if visited in my heart by a ghost of sorrow. We are not alone on this journey, and that fact is not completely a comfort to me. I will be changed by this, how I do not know, and that is a troublesome thought. But, I follow a troublesome savior, and seek a troublesome spirit.” That first night I began to think that the act of our pilgrimage, of remembering this tragedy with our bodies, might rouse spirits as we went, spirits of places, but also spirits of the dead.