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Essay: Milwaukee's Trail Of Tears

Ernest Heinemann
New York Public Library Archive
Native American women and children fleeing for their lives, preparing to cross the Mississippi River, during Black Hawk's defeat at the Battle of Bad Axe during the Black Hawk War in Western Wisconsin.

Thanksgiving is this week. The holiday celebrates a gathering early American settlers with a group of Native people in Plymouth. It’s also a time to reflect on the country’s difficult history with Native people, including forced removals and land seizures.

Essayist Barbara Miner recounts one such event that took place in Milwaukee in her essay “Milwaukee’s Trail of Tears.”

In recent years, there has been a growing awareness that Thanksgiving is a time to not only celebrate family, but to acknowledge the debt we owe this country’s Indigenous peoples. Yet we still have a long way to go, especially here in Milwaukee, a city that acknowledges the Indigenous roots of its name, but not too much else.

I like to think of myself as an informed person with a decent understanding of Milwaukee’s history. I grew up here, raised my children here and, at the age of 69, I am pretty sure I will live my final years in the city. So when I recently learned of Milwaukee’s forced removal of Indigenous people in the 1830s —Milwaukee’s own Trail of Tears — I was taken aback. How has such an essential chapter been all but erased from Milwaukee’s history?

I learned of Milwaukee’s Trail of Tears in John Gurda’s classic book, The Making of Milwaukee. I was writing about Alice’s Garden in the central city, and wanted to find out more about the history of that plot of land. Which, of course, meant going back to the days before European settlement.

Like most histories, details get very complicated very quickly. For the Milwaukee area, essential dates are 1831 and 1833, when Indigenous peoples ceded millions of acres of land to the federal government. Sandwiched in between is another essential date — the 1832 conclusion of the Black Hawk War in what is now western Wisconsin, and which marked the end of Indigenous armed resistance in the region.

At long last, Milwaukee was considered ripe for white settlers and within a few years, Milwaukee was all the rage. The Green Bay Intelligence, Wisconsin’s first newspaper, reported in 1835 that “land speculators are circumambulating [the city.].” Another chronicler described the city as “an unenclosed lunatic asylum,” with some lots of land changing hands twice or three times in a day, the price rising with each sale.

After they ceded their lands, many of the Potawatomie left for the forests to the north. Those that stayed in Milwaukee were given a grace period, but in 1838, their time was up. As Gurda notes, “At the beginning of the corn-planting season, federal contractors gathered the natives at Indian Fields, the ancient burial ground on the South Side, and began the long, arduous trek to lands west of the Mississippi. It was Milwaukee’s own Trail of Tears.”

Gurda provides the bare outlines of the narrative — that the Potawatomie were marched west for more than a month, and that “there were undoubtedly deaths along the way.” But details are few.

I found it impossible to get past the sentence, “there were undoubtedly deaths along the way.” How many deaths, I wondered? Were Indigenous people shot? Did they drown crossing rivers? Was it a case of slow starvation? An infected wound? Is this a story, albeit on a smaller scale, as horrific as the Cherokee Trail of Tears, when some 3,000 Native people died?

As much as anything, I asked myself how come, in all my years of schooling, in all my years of reporting about the city, I never learned of Milwaukee’s Trail of Tears? Which, of course, led to other questions: What else don’t I know? What other debts — as yet untallied —do we owe the area’s Indigenous peoples?

Barbara Miner is Milwaukee-based journalist, photographer and producer. Her work has appeared in news outlets ranging from WUWM to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee Magazine and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.