A minister from Grand Rapids, Mich., and his family are tracing a dark chapter of American history on the way to a youth ministry event in eastern Kansas.
The Rev. Jeff Eckart and wife, Adriana, and their three daughters, Olivia, 23; Lauren, 20; and Sophia, 15, began their journey in LaFayette, Ind., last week, the starting point of the infamous, but little known, Trail of Death march that forcibly uprooted more than 860 members of the Potawatomi Nation from Indiana to Kansas.
More than 40 members of the nation, mostly the old and young, died along a 61-day, 680- mile march.
“I learned about the Trail of Death from a religion professor of mine at Indiana Wesleyan University in 2006,” he said. “I wanted to walk the trail.”
Eckart is the founder and director of a national youth ministry group, Never the Same, based in Grand Rapids, whose goal is to support young people.
His family is headed to La Cygne, Kan., for what had been planned as an event entitled “Claim Your Campus,” which was designed to draw up to 100,000 students to a July 4th event to promote prayer groups in schools.
Though the COVID-19 crisis has not forced the event to be virtual, with his group encouraging students across the nation to gather on Saturday at their middle and high schools to pray, his family decided to travel to the meeting location and fulfill their goal to see the Trail of Death.
Eckart said that retracing the Trail of Death has been a good experience for his family.
“As a man of faith, it just seemed that God was doing something and I felt like a connection between a prayer walk along the Trail of Death and our event was necessary,” he said. “I had been wanting to do the prayer walk since 2017, but things did not work out until this year.”
Eckart's daughter, Olivia, who has a master's degree from his alma mater and works in his ministry, said the experience along the Trail of Death has been an eye-opener.
“I was intrigued by the trail because I have heard so much from my dad,” she said.
On Thursday, Eckart and his family visited a small marker along a gravel road about 500 feet from the Monroe County Route FF bridge over the Salt River in the North Fork area. A monument sits on a peaceful, neatly maintained patch of grass that abuts a soybean field.
Beneath a tree sits a stone monument marking the spot where some 800 members of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation camped in 1838 on a forced relocation from LaFayette, Indiana, to the eastern edge of what was then the Kansas Territory, in the area that eventually became the city of Osawatomie — about 60 miles southwest of Kansas City.
The relocation of the Potawatomi started Sept. 4, 1838. Historical accounts report that members of the Indiana Militia, on orders from the governor of Indiana, surrounded the nation Aug. 30, 1838, near Twin Lakes, the village where the tribal members lived. The militia spent the next several days rounding up members of the nation.
On Sept. 4, 1838, militia soldiers forced 859 Potawatomi nation members to begin a journey through four states, forcing them to battle oppressive heat and harsh conditions.
When they arrived Nov. 4 in the Kansas Territory, only 817 were still alive as 42 Potawatomi, mostly children and the elderly, died during the harsh march. The dead were buried along the route in unmarked graves.
Historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, who is credited with coining the phrase “Trail of Death” in a book published in 1909, wrote the Potawatomi traveled about 15 to 20 miles a day before erecting camp in some often primitive areas along the route. The Monroe County site at the North Fork of the Salt River was one of those camp sites.
According to Dunn and other historians, Indiana officials wanted to rid the state of the Potawatomi members from land sold by tribal members to the U.S. government for $1 an acre.
The Indiana Militia was charged with removing holdouts who did not want to leave land they had lived on for hundreds of years.
A Catholic priest, Father Benjamin Petit, a missionary who had baptized many of the Potawatomi, was placed in charge of the sick along the route. He celebrated Mass each day, buried the dead and wrote a journal.
“This is a personal journal of sorrow and repentance. The thing that God had led me to and made it clear on this trip is that we need to pray for healing for our country and this generation of students,” Eckart said. “Learning from dark moments like this can help us avoid this in the future. I am passionate about handing off a better world to future generations.”