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Potawatomi in the Early 1800’s
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Never heard of the Potawatomi Indian Tribe? The Potawatomi Nation is a sister tribe to the Ottawa and Ojibwe (Chippewa.) At one time, they were part of the same tribe and living somewhere in the vicinity of Canadas Maritime Provinces or perhaps, New England. As the tribe gradually migrated westward along the edge of Lake Erie, it eventually broke up into three bands, which eventually became distinct tribes. The three tribes still share very similar cultural traditions and languages.
Although they never lived in permanent villages until the early 1800s, the Three Sister Tribes had very rich cultural traditions. Still today, their beadwork and paintings were some of the finest in the Native American world. They had a writing system which was preserved on bark or deer skin scrolls. The original syllabary was in use several centuries ago. It is remembered in their traditions in the appearance about 500 years ago of seven prophets carrying scrolls, which accurately predicted the future. In the 1700s, French priest developed the original glyphs into a writing system that could communicate complete sentences. Modern Ojibwe and Potawatomi writing is derived from that system.
Note: This article is a continuation of the end of the article Potawatomi Autumn published on March 28, 2010 in the Examiner, published as the Four Seasons of the Potawatomi on AccessGenealogy.
The world of the Potawatomi People was torn asunder in the later half of the 18th century. The French & Indian War broke out in 1755. The Potawatomi remained loyal to the French because of the past protection from tribes allied with the English. Potawatomi men volunteered to fight with French armies against the Redcoats. Other men stayed at home to protect their people from attacks by war parties allied with the English. Because most of their villages were in southern Wisconsin or northern Illinois, they avoided the worst of the attacks, but the Potawatomi had become dependent on French manufactured goods, in particular, muskets, lead balls and gunpowder. Such things became unavailable as the English army won more victories.
After the English won the French & Indian War in 1763, a bloody war broke out between the allied Midwestern tribes and the English. It was directly a result of the arrogance and policies of General Jeffrey Amherst. Known as the Pontiac War after an Ottawa leader, it initially involved many disastrous defeats of the British Army and several massacres along the Virginia and Pennsylvania frontier. The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia was virtually depopulated as a result of the war. After the war ended in a stalemate in 1766, there was a period of time when the Potawatomi were unable to obtain European goods; until they signed treaties of friendship with the English.
The American Revolution and subsequent wars with the new American settlers were far more disruptive to the Potawatomi. The Potawatomi were not continuously involved with the Revolution, but because they were supplied by English traders based at Fort Detroit, they sent warriors to help with its defense against American attackers. The British Army retained control of Fort Detroit for period of time. After American soldiers occupied the fort, settlers began to build cabins in Native American hunting grounds. Conflicts turned into skirmishes. The skirmishes soon exploded into major warfare. During the early stages of the war, the allied Fox, Sauk, Potawatomi and Ojibwe were victorious, virtually exterminating one American army. However, Congress sent a larger, better trained army back into the Midwest. The Native allies suffered catastrophic casualties at the Battle of Tippecanoe and then surrendered.
The turmoil of the late 18th century broke up the Potawatomi into bands wandering across the landscape searching for safe havens. They were known as the Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Illinois River, Kankakee, St. Joseph and Wabash River Bands. Those Potawatomi, who had converted to Roman Catholicism, fared somewhat better. They usually had French Canadian priests in their company, who arbitrated disagreements with white settlers and obtained some supplies from Catholic congregations in the East. Some bands fled to Canada, where they settled among the Ottawa or Ojibwe. Others were pushed farther and farther south to areas where wild rice did not grow. By the early 1800s the majority of American Potawatomi were concentrated in the Wabash River Valley of Indiana.
The Roman Catholic Potawatomi established settlements at intersections of frontier roads and the Wabash River. Here priests established missions and often built simple log churches. Both the Roman Catholic Church and agents of the American government urged the Potawatomi to settle down to agricultural lifestyles. The government provided plows, tools, and starter livestock to Potawatomi who agreed to stay in one spot year round. Sedentary Potawatomi families built log cabins and barns like their European neighbors.
The government designated some tribal members as big shots in return for their submissiveness to authority. These collaborators were given cash and horses in order to create instant aristocracies in the villages. The built large two story log houses as symbols of their special relationship to the dominant European culture. The more progressive villages sent ambassadors to the Choctaws and Creeks living in the Southeast, in order to learn how to grow crops on a large scale. The priests taught their parishioners how to read and write in their own syllabary; also how to speak French and English. However, most Potawatomi villages continued to build especially large wigwams as a remembrance of their happy former lives.
Other Potawatomi bands and families did not fare nearly so well. They tried to keep to their old seasonal ways, but white settlers drove them off their lands at gunpoint. Many died in the winter from hunger. At best they lived in ramshackle wigwams, but more often lived under tents. Sooner or later the wanderers ended up on the outskirts of sedentary Potawatomi hamlets, where they barely existed by hunting, fishing and doing labor for the more prosperous families.
The land use patterns of Potawatomi villages in the early 1800s reflected their disdain for the concept of private land ownership. Log houses and cabins were scattered randomly amongst the trees. It was a first come situation both for homes and fields. The big shot Potawatomi families tended to own homes closest to river crossings and chapels. As one moved farther away from the chapels, the homes became smaller and cruder. Livestock wandered freely though the communities. In order to keep livestock from eating crops, the Potawatomi cleverly placed their cultivated fields across the river or creek from their homes. Of course, this necessitated the use of canoes to commute to work, but it also canceled the need for building fences like the white settlers constructed. As more and more families were able to buy horses, roads developed from walking paths, and connected the villages to white settlements.
The Potawatomi had been told by government agents that if they adopted the white mans ways, they could stay in the East forever. This proved to be a lie. The Indian Removal Act in 1832 required all Potawatomis to move west of the Mississippi River. They did not travel as a group. In fact, some bands refused to move west at all moving instead farther north into Upstate Michigan or Minnesota, where the frontier had not progressed as far. Others went to Canada, Nebraska and Kansas. In the mid-to-late 1800s, several Potawatomi Bands relocated to Oklahoma.
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation operates a 36,000 square feet cultural heritage center in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The photos displayed in this series of articles are of models in this museum. Shawnee is about an hours drive from Tulsa.
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