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We also automatically associate removal with the now famous "Trail of Tears" in the South, but, in reality, the removal affected all the Indian tribes in the East and South, including the Potawatomi.
There were dreams that the Indian problem could be eliminated once and for all by inducing the eastern Indians to exchange their lands for territory west of the Mississippi, leaving the area between the Appalachians and the Father of Waters free for white exploitation, and settlement.
This was articulated by both legislative and judicial methods.
In 1823, Chief Justice John Marshall in Johnson v. McIntosh, rationalized the process of land acquisition. Marshall, in his legal discourse, relied upon the ancient medieval legal principles of the Norman Yoke and the Doctrine of Discovery that were recognized as part of the Law of Nations by virtually every European colonizing nation.
The Norman Yoke and the Doctrine of Discovery, in essence, gave the United States an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by conquest or by purchase. Marshall's opinion said the United States had adopted these doctrines on the basis of winning the war over Great Britain and now enjoyed the benefits of the new lands. He ruled that Indian interests were inferior to the new European-derived government. Understandably, the acceptance of the doctrine into United States law held profound implications for future relations between the federal government and the Indians.
Now that the Marshall court gave its judicial blessing in the taking of Indian lands, appropriate legislative policy soon followed. But to Marshall's credit, later in the Cherokee Removal cases such as Worchester v. Georgia and Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, he tried to stop the government policies of removal. Andrew Jackson was quoted as saying, "John Marshall has made his decision; and now let him enforce it." And the removal officially started.
The logic of removal made sense to the white rulers, and they believed that emigration was the only policy which could save the eastern tribes from extinction. In addition, they thought that by moving the tribes westward, Indians would escape the corrupting influence of the approaching white civilization, and, thus, preserve the tribes as a people.
So within this general outline, the Potawatomi were to serve as a standard case study of Indian removal.
They didn't understand complex ideas such as Manifest Destiny, Rule of Law, Doctrine of Discovery and the Norman Yoke, or treaties written in a foreign language and often in esoteric terms. But they did understand if they didn't move west when the white man told them to move, then death would soon follow.
The Potawatomi movement to the western United States was plagued by difficulties. The incompetence of many of the government officials involved, unhappiness of the Potawatomi with the lands that they had been awarded, and the resistance of many Potawatomi to resettlement made the removal a forcible tortuous process that took almost a decade to accomplish.
Many Potawatomi refused removal west and they simply scattered and hid in the vast forest of the Lakes areas. Later, their groups emerged as separate distinct tribes.
For example, the groups staying in the Great Lakes area were the Hannaville Band Potawatomi, who eventually located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Forest County Potawatomi who moved to the Wabeno and Stone Lake, Wisconsin area.
Many who did move west, eventually migrated back to these locations.
The new lands of Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas were quite different with flat rolling prairie, often treeless, temperate and at one historical point was considered the "Great American Desert." This land did not compare to the beautiful Great Lakes area, so the migration back was understandable.
Several Potawatomi groups migrated into Canada to escape the westward march. In total, estimates have at least 2,500 Potawatomi ending up in Canada.
Over the years, the Potawatomi were already used to migration, in a sense, and Canada was an area of trade and a place of an old alliance. The British believed they owed the Potawatomi asylum because they had fought with them in past conflicts. The British had an ever present motive, and that was they might need the Potawatomi in case of a future war with the United States. Not surprisingly, the Potawatomi were never really accepted there by the existing Canadian tribes and were viewed as intruders.
Within this political and social context, removal started for the Potawatomi and more change was in store for the tribe in the next few years.