Potawatomi’s ‘Trail of Death’ takes man through Jacksonville

On foot, an Illinois native hiked the 660 miles that the Potawatomi Indians were forced to walk in the 19th century, now known as the “Trail of Death” march – one of the last militia forced removals in 1838 to be crossed resulted in 40 deaths during the two-month trip, most of them children.

“They called it the ‘two month cycle,'” said Rev. Jeffery Geary.

Geary, who now lives in White Plains, New York and is pastor of the White Plains Presbyterian Church, is precisely following the journey the Potawatomi Nation has taken, with Jacksonville being one of the places they camped.

“I’m going to recognize the wrong that has been done,” Geary said of the forced eviction from Indiana. “I also go as a Christian.”

More than 800 members of the Potawatomi Nation refused to leave their country even after it was ceded to the federal government and the exit deadline had expired, so 100 militiamen were ordered to force them out of Indiana to make way for future immigrants move in.

“It’s about recognizing the great injustices and suffering that have been caused,” Geary said of the reasons to go and see what they endured. “It was the last of many moves.”

He also recognizes his own heritage and is making the trip because his family history shows that they all lived on the land the Potawatomi Indians had to leave – a natural occurrence for English and Irish settlers heading west.

“Five generations live on Potawatomi land,” he said of his ancestry.

During the trip, which took place in the latter half of 1838, the Jacksonville stop was significant as one of the deaths that occurred east of the city – a girl from Chief Mettah’s family – is mentioned on the memorial located in Jacksonvilles Foreman Grove is exhibited park.

For Geary, who visited all of the monuments on the trip that began May 8, noted that this is the only one that mentions who actually died.

“This marker is unusual because it has a name,” he said.

While the Potawatomis were there, the Jacksonville town band came to play for them.

Upon entering town on Thursday and touring the memorial, Geary walked through Illinois College and quickly found that the school, which was founded in 1829, was open and people on campus likely saw the march.

Averaging 20 miles a day five days a week, Geary said he was humiliated by churches that allowed him to stay indoors and by places like fire departments that allowed him to pitch a tent and close their facilities use.

“I camped a lot less,” he says.

On the way, however, he also experienced blisters while running in the rain and realized that he had to buy larger hiking shoes because of the swelling – all of this lets him experience what the Potawatomi Indians have been through.

“I am obviously very privileged,” he said of modern times and shoes, adding that he learned that the Potawatomi were given by cobblers with shoes to aid them on their journey.

“That just blew my mind,” Geary said.

The story of the “trace of death” lives on, but so does the Potawatomi nation.

Since 1988, 88 markings have been placed along the route, and every five years there is a pilgrimage of cars that the journey carries with it, the next being in 2023 – something important to Geary because the tribe is still alive today.

“The quote from Gabrielle Garcia Marquez about belonging to a country when the body is in the ground shows how important the path is for Potawatomi today as a connection to the land and to the ancestors,” he said.

However, while walking, Geary said that “healing is the word I would use” in relation to what he was experiencing.

“My feet have to teach what my head has to learn,” he said. “The similarities and differences between my walk and the walk in 1838 are that when I am done I can go home and that I am not forced to.”

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