Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Hugh Brady Letters and the Removal of the Potawatomis



The Clarke Historical Library recently acquired eight letters relating to the removal of the Potawatomis to reserves west of the Mississippi River in the year 1840. Six of the letters are addressed to Gen. Hugh Brady, who was responsible for arranging and overseeing the removal. Two are letters Brady himself wrote. A ninth letter, which the Secretary of War addressed to General Samuel Milroy, was written a year earlier and concerns the removal of the Miami Indians from the state of Indiana. The letters reflect the progress of events leading up to the forced removal of the Potawatomis that took place in the fall of 1840.

 The Potawatomis inhabited the country surrounding the southern end of Lake Michigan. A numerous people, they lived in villages throughout what is now southern Wisconsin and Michigan and northern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. During the War of 1812 they, like most of the tribes of the upper Mississippi valley, had allied themselves with the British.[1] American expansionism after the war only served to inflame the already smoldering anger Indians in the region felt toward white Americans. Such sentiment gave rise to several killings and in 1827 to an uprising of the Winnebagoes. Fueling Indian anger, scores of white miners were moving onto mineral-rich Indian lands along the Mississippi and working the lead mines there. In 1828 squatters moved onto lands around Saukenuk, a principal village of the Sauk and Fox Indians on the Rock River. To control the situation, the U.S. government tried to secure land sessions from the Sauk and Fox, but the "British Band," under the Sauk leader Black Hawk, resisted American pressure to leave Saukenuk.
Black Hawk
In June of 1831 U.S. troops and gunboats stationed themselves at Rock Island opposite Black Hawk’s villages at Saukenuk and forced the Sauk and Fox to flee across the Mississippi into Iowa. The following year, in April of 1832, starving, Black Hawk’s band, numbering 1100, including 100 Potowatomis, re-crossed the river and returned. The next month Illinois militia attacked the Sauk and Fox at Stillman’s Run and set off what came to be called the Black Hawk War.

Other Native American leaders found themselves in difficult circumstances. Many sought neutrality while feeling sympathetic to Black Hawk's cause and providing Black Hawk and his followers clandestine assistance. The Sauk and Fox themselves were divided. Keokuk and the majority split with Black Hawk. They feared the superior force of the United States and the consequences of what would follow if they took up arms against the Long Knives. On the other hand, the Sioux and the Menominees saw the war as an opportunity to avenge earlier deaths and to strike a blow at their traditional enemies.

 Though sympathetic to Black Hawk’s cause, most Potawatomi villages remained neutral during the course of the war. While some warriors sided with Black Hawk and fought against the Americans, Potawatomi leaders Billy Caldwell, Alexander Robinson, and Shabonna pursued a policy of neutrality. To prove their allegiance, these Potawatomis in the course of the war openly allied themselves with the United States. Even so, white Americans had not forgotten the Potawatomi attack on the garrison of Fort Dearborn during the War of 1812.[3] This and more recent acts of violence by those who had joined with Black Hawk provided whites with all the excuses they needed to drive off the Potawatomis and to seize their lands once Black Hawk had been defeated.

 During the decade of removal (1830s), the Potawatomis employed various strategies to keep from being expelled from their homelands. If they could not avert removal altogether, their aim was to hold onto what they could. The Potawatomis of southwestern Michigan were especially set against removal, and more than one attempt at their removal took place. Removal was a chaotic affair, characterized by delays, misdirection, governmental changes of plans, desertions and returns, sickness and disease. A forced removal in 1838 led to the “Trail of Death,” where food supplies spoiled and a third of the 850 men, women, and children en route caught typhoid fever, forty-two souls dying along the way.[4]


Letter #1: Poinsett to Milroy, April 17, 1839

Joel Poinsett
In the first letter, the U.S. Secretary of War, Joel Poinsett[5], writes to Samuel Milroy of Indiana[6].  Poinsett is anxious that the removal agreed to in a treaty with Miami[7] signed the previous fall get underway[8].  In the letter Poinsett announces Milroy’s appointment as subagent to the Miami.  Milroy was given charge of the new subagency that had taken the place of the Indiana agency at Logansport. Milroy’s formal commission arrived on May 13. 1839.  Four months later, in September, Milroy replaced Abel C. Pepper as emigration superintendent, and that fall he attempted but failed to organize a deportation of the Potawatomis living both along the Kankakee River and in southern Michigan at Nottawasippi near Coldwater. At some point a decision was made to have Milroy focus his attention on the Miamis, who had informed him that they were ready to surrender their remaining lands in Indiana.[9] Gen. Hugh Brady was made Superintendent of Emigration instead and Alexis Coquillard was then enlisted as the removal agent for the Potawatomis.  (See the letter and transcription that follows.)


 War Department

April 17th 1839


The very important duty of removing the Miami Indians from the State of Indiana, according to the provisions of the Treaty, has to be performed in the course of this year, and, at the suggestion of the President[10], I am induced to ask you to take charge of that operation. In order to prepare the Indians for removal, it is necessary that the emigrating agent should act as Indian Agent for some time previous, and your first appointment would be of that character, to be followed by that of Emigrating Agent, as soon as you may notify the Department they are disposed to fulfill the treaty.

If it should not be convenient for you to accept this appointment, you will confer an obligation on the Department by informing it of the residence of Genl. Wm. Marshall[11] who is believed to be well qualified for the discharge of its duties.

Very respectfully

Your mo. obt. servt.

(signed) J.R. Poinsett,


Genl. Samuel Milroy

Delphi, Carrol Co.,


[1] R. David Edmunds, The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978) remains one of the best accounts of the Potawatomis.  See also, James Clifton, The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potawatomi Indian Culture 1665-1965 (Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas). 
[2] For the Black Hawk War see Patrick J. Jung, The Black Hawk War of 1832 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007) and John W. Hall, Uncommon Defense: Indian Allies in the Black Hawk War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).
[3] See Ann Durkin Keating, Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).
[4] Susan Sleeper-Smith, “Silent Tongues, Black Robes: Potawatomi, Europeans, and Settlers in the Southern Great Lakes, 1640-1850 (PhD diss, University of Michigan, 1994).  This is an excellent treatment of the Potawatomis.  See especially chapter V ‘Accommodation Removal.’  For the forced removal of 1838 see pages 188-90.
[5] Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) had a distinguished political and diplomatic career: He served as a member of the South Carolina legislature; as a member of the House of Representatives; as President Madison’s special agent in South America; as the U.S. minister to Mexico; and, from March 7, 1837 to March 5, 1841, as Secretary of War, replacing Lewis Cass. See J. Fred Rippy, Joel R. Poinsett Versatile American (Durham: Duke University Press, 1935); George A. Hruneni, Jr. “The Public Life and Times of Joel Roberts Poinsett: 1824-1851” (PhD diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 1972); http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=p000404
[6] Samuel Milroy, who spent his childhood and youth in Pennsylvania, had a colorful ancestor.  His great grandfather, John McElroy, the Earl of Annandale, fled Scotland at the time of the second Jacobite Revolution, escaping first to Ireland and then to the colonies. At the time he changed the family name to Milroy.  Samuel Milroy left Pennsylvania for Kentucky in 1809, married Martha Huston there, and moved with her to Washington County, Indiana. In the War of 1812, he rose to the rank of general in the Indiana militia. After the war he moved his family to northern Indiana where he named and platted the town of Delphi.
[7] The Miamis spoke an Algonquian dialect.  Prior to the deportations that took place in this period, they lived in present-day Indiana, southwest Michigan, and western Ohio. See Stewart Rafert, The Miami Indians of Indiana: A Persistent People 1654-1994 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1996); Bert Anson, The Miami Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miami_people.
[8] Poinsett was referring to the 1838 treaty, which the former commissioner, Abel C. Pepper, had signed with the Miami. Poinsett probably wanted the emigration to occur “in the course of this year” so that it was completed before the next Congress met in session, i.e., before December 2, 1839. Article 12 of the treaty stipulated that the treaty had to be ratified in the next session of Congress otherwise it would have been considered “null and void.” Poinsett may not have wanted to risk losing the chance for removal should Congress fail to ratify the treaty.
[9] The Miami surrender of land took place on the 28th of November 1840.  What was left of the Big Miami Reserve, where village ownership had prevailed, was ceded in the treaty, requiring the emigration of half the tribe.  The Miamis agreed to emigrate within five years.  The treaty was signed by twenty Miami leaders and two representatives of the United State: Allen Hamilton, and Samuel Milroy. Milroy’s two sons, Henry and Robert, were among the witnesses who signed the treaty.
[10] Martin Van Buren.
[11] William Marshall (1786-1859) served as the agent at the Indiana Indian Agency from January 1832 until July 1835 when the agency was discontinued and the duties of the agent were assigned to Abel C. Pepper, the Superintendent for Emigration in Indiana. The agency was located on the Wabash river at Logansport, Indiana. When the Black Hawk War broke out, agent Marshall gathered many Potawatomis to Logansport to protect them and to pacify settler fears and anger. In 1834 Marshall was instructed by Secretary of War Lewis Cass to secure for the United States Potawatomi reserves still in Indian hands. Marshall treated with the Potawatomis, and by December of 1834 he had purchased from them 52,800 acres of land. As in this letter, Marshall is often referred to as General, possibly from service in the militia during the War of 1812.