Tag Archives: Westward Expansion

The Potawatomi Trail of Death and St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park

On one of our weekend drives to nowhere in particular, Jim and I found ourselves heading east on K-68 and circling the roundabout to exit onto the Old KC Road when we encountered a sign.

Potawatomi Trail of Death directional road sign.

These brown “Potawatomi Trail of Death” signs point the way.

We definitely would have remembered if we had previously encountered signs marked “Trail of Death.” Curious, we turned our destinationless drive into a quest to follow the signs.

We found ourselves at a pretty little green square in Paola, where, serendipitously, a staff member from the Miami County Historical Society happened to be enjoying the early evening sun. She outlined the story of the Potawatomi and how they ended up in Kansas.

Like many Native Americans in the 19th century, the Potawatomi held lands that encroaching settlers wanted. In 1838, two years after signing a treaty that gave away all of their land for $8,000 in exchange for transportation to their new lands, 660 Potawatomi men, women and children were forced to leave their homeland. Mostly on foot, the Potawatomi marched across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri before reaching Kansas, a trip that would take two months. They lacked proper nourishment and shelter, and despite being tended to by a Jesuit priest named Benjamin Petit, many became ill and died.

When they arrived at the Sugar Creek Mission, they discovered that no houses had been built for them. It was November in Kansas, and the Potawatomi were forced to shelter they best they could along the creek banks.

Fr. Petit became very ill and ultimately died February 10, 1839 after returning to St. Louis.

“You should follow the signs to the park,” the woman from the historical society told us. “The memorial park is worth seeing.”


Generally speaking, the signs were easy to follow. They are, however, spaced just far enough apart that you start to worry you missed an important turn somewhere before the next sign appears to reassure you. Travel tip: If you happen to be using the GPS on your cellphone and your cell service is through Sprint, Virgin Mobile, or Verizon, be warned: you WILL lose your signal. Because of this lost signal, I couldn’t get this handy map to work for most of our trip. Also important to note: we picked up the trail near Paola, but the trail begins in Indiana.

We traveled through Osawatomie, which is a historic town that deserves attention all on its own and merits a return trip. A charming bridge takes you across Pottawatomie Creek on the south end of town.

Osawatomie bridge

The bridge at the southern end of Osawatomie.

As you approach the tiny town of Beagle, the lack of signage will sorely tempt you to continue following the smooth and silky K-7 Highway instead of continuing south on Plum Creek Road. DON’T DO IT. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself having this conversation:

Diana: Shouldn’t we go straight? There’s no sign that says to turn.
Jim: There’s no sign that says to get off of the main highway, so we should keep following K-7.

Ten minutes later…

Diana: Have you seen any signs?

Ten minutes after that…

Jim: I think maybe we should have gone straight back there.
Diana: I think you might be right.

After Beagle, the signs reappear and and reassure you that you’re on the right path and will take you into Parker before turning south again.

If you’re a taphophile, Goodrich Cemetery is a short detour off the marked path and worth the visit. The cemetery includes at least one CSA Civil War veteran and one likely War of 1812 veteran, as well as many great examples of Victorian hand art. We found it by accident when the Trail of Death road, 1077, was closed for repairs, and we had to detour. Take a left at W 1800 Rd and a right onto Evangeline and you’ll find it. Travel tip: this area is pretty isolated and the west end of the cemetery leads to a woodsy creek area.

At a crook in the road, you’ll turn onto W 1525 Rd. As you grind down the gravel, you’ll be startled by a tiny cemetery on the southeast corner of Flint Rd and W 1525 Rd. There are only three headstones, but they’re worth examining.

Sharp-Morrison Cemetery.

The Sharp-Morrison Cemetery on W 1525 Rd in Linn County, Kansas.

Another mile or so east, and you’ll see the entrance to St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park, which stands on the land once occupied by the Sugar Creek Mission.


St. Philippine Duchesne Memorial Park.

Jim and I were gobsmacked by this park.

Owned by the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, this park honors the Native American, Jesuit, and archeological history of the land. The foundations and locations of buildings are carefully marked with informative signs. The park’s sainted namesake was once a nun serving the Potawatomi community at this site.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha memorial

Beautiful memorials and art honor both the Jesuit and Native American men and women who once lived here. This memorial honors Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, an Indian princess who was canonized in 2012.

A nature trail winds through the eastern side of the park. A fabulous discovery: the only known portion of the original Fort Scott and California Road is preserved in this hiking trail. Travel tip: When we arrived at this park last summer, we discovered the words “Beware of Ticks” scrawled on a paper plate and nailed Roanoke-style to the meeting hall wall, so we stayed away from the hiking trail that day. Winter or early spring might be a better time to explore the area under the canopy of trees.

Fort Scott and California Road sign

This sign marks the post of the only remaining fragment of the original Fort Scott and California Road.

I was most moved by the burial ground. Each of the crosses lists the names of the more than 600 Potawatomi men, women, and children who died at Sugar Creek.

Memorial crosses

Memorial crosses mark the area where more than 600 Potawatomi are buried.

Memorial Cross, list of names, detail

The names of every man, woman, and child are listed on the memorial crosses.

As we followed the path back to the entrance of the park, we found two more surprises. The first was an archeological site marking what might be a rock pit originally constructed by the Kanza Indians.

Possible Kanza Indian archeological site

This rock pit may have been constructed by the Kanza Indians.

The second was the text of the diary of Jesse C. Douglas, enrolling agent, who documented the struggles of the Potawatomi on their long journey to Kansas.

Trail Journal Display

Jesse Douglas’s trail journal is preserved in a series of panels at the park.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, has manged to create a spirtual space that honors the individual men, women, and children who tried to make a life for themselves at the Sugar Creek Mission. There is a serene quality here that I have not found in many Kansas parks. There is no charge to visit, but the park does accept donations. It is one of my favorite accidental discoveries and I recommend it whenever I can.


What happened to the Potawatomi?

Despite building a settlement, the Potawatomi would not stay in Linn County for long. Just ten years later, the Native American band would be forced to move again, this time to St. Marys, a small town near Topeka, Kansas.

Further reading:

Trail of Death, Miami County Historical Society

Potawatomi Trail of Death Assn.

Potawatomi Trail of Death, Legends of America

Exploring Fort Scott, Kansas

Novelist E. E. Burke found her inspiration for her Steam! Romance and Rails historical romantic suspense series in Fort Scott, Kansas. To celebrate the launch of Passion’s Prize and Her Bodyguard, she gave away a two-night stay at the amazing Lyons Twin Mansions in historic Fort Scott. I never win anything big, so I was giddy when she e-mailed me to tell me that I was the lucky winner.

So Jim and I packed our bags and headed to Fort Scott a few weekends ago, where we got to stay in one of a pair of elegant twin mansions on National Street. Built by wealthy New York bankers during the 1870s, the mansions were never lived in by their owners, who moved East after their prospects nosedived. Today, both homes are owned by members of the Lyons family, and Ms. Pat is the ultimate B&B hostess. The rooms are airy and comfortable and the house is true to its roots without being overly fussy.

Usually when we’re traveling, we tend to eat on the cheap. But Ms. Pat suggested we head to Crooner’s Lounge, a surprisingly nice little restaurant tucked in next to the historic Liberty Theatre. It’s only open three nights a week and their menu varies night to night, making it a nice place to go out for both locals and the tourists.

Crooner's Lounge was the perfect place for a nice dinner.

Crooner’s Lounge was the perfect place for a nice dinner. Chalkboards on the walls list the night’s menu.

What I love about Fort Scott is that the town understands that their history is one of their greatest assets, and they go out of their way to make it accessible. We headed for the visitor’s center and took a Trolley Tour of the town. Even though Jim and I love exploring towns on our own, I recommend Fort Scott’s Trolley Tour. It’s a great way to see most of the town and our tour guide taught us a lot of local history. For example, Fort Scott once had three big brick factories, which is why everywhere you go in Fort Scott, you see locally made bricks in the streets and sidewalks.

Fort Scott was once home to three brick factories.

Fort Scott was once home to three brick factories.

Next, we visited the Fort Scott National Historic Site. When I think of early Kansas history and westward expansion, I tend to think of Kansas during the years leading up to the Civil War. But Fort Scott’s roots are much older than that. Established in 1842, Fort Scott was one of a line of forts that was supposed to protect the boundary between white settlement and the lands designated for Native Americans. This was important at a time when the Santa Fe Trail and Oregon Trail were both bringing non-Native Americans across that boundary.

Fort Scott National Historic Site, as seen from the parade ground.

Fort Scott National Historic Site, as seen from the parade ground.

The Fort was originally home to infantry soldiers and dragoons. After the U.S. gained large sections of land once belonging to Mexico, the government’s attitude toward land use changed dramatically and, in 1853, the Fort was abandoned. Two years later, the buildings were sold at auction.

The Fort’s story didn’t end there, though. Being only a few miles west of the Missouri-Kansas border, Fort Scott became an important strategic location during the Civil War. Injured soldiers were hospitalized there, and many of the old buildings were put back into use. Once the war was over, the buildings fell into private hands. Many were destroyed or nearly destroyed during the subsequent decades. During the 1950s, concerned citizens and historians worked together to restore still-existing buildings and reconstruct buildings no longer standing in order to recreate the 1840s version of Fort Scott.

The fort is a treasure. The site does a wonderful job telling the story of what life was life for soldiers in what would have been the edge of the western U.S. boundary during the 1840s. A short video at the Visitor Center gives a great introduction to the fort’s history.

Many of the surviving buildings were in use for years after the military left the fort. One of the Officers’ Quarters was a private family home from 1855 through 1958. Instead of restoring it to a particular time period, the National Park Service chose to use what’s known as the Wilson/Goodlander Home as an opportunity to show how the building transitioned over the decades by peeling back the layers. Literally.

The Wilson/Goodlander Home, once part of the Officers' Quarters at Fort Scott, is used to showcase decades of alterations made to the historic building. Here a cutaway shows visitors the original location of a fireplace and a floor cutout for a furnace.

The Wilson/Goodlander Home, once part of the Officers’ Quarters at Fort Scott, is used to showcase decades of alterations made to the historic building. Here a cutaway shows visitors the original location of a fireplace and a floor cutout for a furnace.

After our trip to the fort, we visited Fort Scott National Cemetery. Originally called National Cemetery No. 1, the cemetery, which was originally a Presbyterian Graveyard, is one of the original fourteen national cemeteries. After it was officially designated a national cemetery in 1862, the remains of soldiers and prisoners originally interred at the old cemetery west of the fort were moved to the new site southeast of town.

Fort Scott National Cemetery, also known as National Cemetery No. 1.

Fort Scott National Cemetery, also known as National Cemetery No. 1.

The cemetery is the final resting place of the remains of more than 50,000 veterans. The stone wall surrounding the grounds was built in 1873. I was especially moved by the graves of 13 Confederate Soldiers who died as prisoners of war and the mass burials of World War II crew members who could not be individually identified in the days before DNA testing. It is a solemn and beautiful place, with little to disturb it beyond the occasional cries of crows and hawks overhead.

On our final afternoon in Fort Scott, we hit downtown on foot. Despite losing an entire city block during a terrible fire in 2003, downtown Fort Scott is beautiful and very much alive. We wandered in and out of antique stores and walked around the last remaining lunette, or block house, preserved between downtown and the Fort Scott National Historic Site. Several block houses were erected in 1863 as part of the effort to guard the large quantities of supplies stored at Fort Scott during the Civil War.

Finally, we traveled to the outskirts of town to visit the local civilian cemeteries. Thanks to early settlement and early railroad lines, the citizens of Fort Scott had access to finer materials and the cemeteries reflect that. Evergreen Cemetery is a large burial ground with many mausoleums and ornate headstones. Across the road is Pine Lawn, a Jewish Cemetery.

An entire weekend was not enough time to see everything in Fort Scott, which has become one of our favorite historic Kansas towns. It will be worth revisiting again. We’re especially grateful to E.E. Burke and Ms. Pat at Lyons Twin Mansions for making this trip an extra special one.