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An important tribe of Algonquin linguistic stock, closely related dialectically to the Ojibwa and Ottawa, and living when first known to the French (about 1640) on and about the islands at the mouth of Green Bay, Lake Michigan, having recently been driven from their homes in the lower peninsula by the Iroquoian tribes living toward the east. At a later period and until their removal to the west (about 1835-40) they held both shores of Lake Michigan from about Manitowoc (44 deg.) on the west around to about Grand River (43 deg.) on the east, and southward to the Wabash, comprising territory in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, with some fifty villages, including those on the sites of Milwaukee, Chicago, South Bend (St. Joseph), and Grand Rapids. Much of this territory had been held earlier by the Illinois and Miami. According to tradition, which seems corroborated by linguistic evidence, the Potawatomi were originally one people with the Ojibwa and Ottawa, and derived their name, properly in plural form Potewatmik, "people of the fire place" or "fire-makers," from having moved off to the southward and kindled a new fire, i. e. formed a separate government for themselves. The three tribes have always been known as close confederates. It is very probable that the "Prairie Band" of Potawatomi, the Muskodensug of northern Illinois, are identical with the ancient Mascoutens, the so-called "Fire Nation."
The Potawatomi were first met by the adventurous French explorer Jean Nicolet, the first white man in Wisconsin (1634-5). In 1641 they appear to have been present at the "feast of the dead" attended by the Jesuits Raymbaut and Jogues in the Huron country. In 1658-9 the explorers Radisson and Groseilliers, on their own invitation, spent the winter among them on Green Bay. They were occasional visitors at the mission of Saint-Esprit at La Pointe Chegoimegon (now Bayfield, Wis.) on Lake Superior, founded by Allouez in 1665, and in December, 1669, the same devoted Jesuit pioneer established the mission of Saint Francis Xavier near the head of Green Bay, Wisconsin, for the neighbouring Potawatomi, Sauk, Foxes, and Winnebago, with visiting stations in their various villages. The war between the French and Iroquois, beginning about ten years later, gave temporary check to all the missions, and in 1687 the Green Bay mission was burned by the pagan Indians while the resident priest, Fr. Jean Enjahan, was absent with Denonville's troops. On his return the next year it was restored, and a second mission, St. Joseph, was established by Allouez for the same tribe, on the river of that name, near the present South Bend, Ind. This mission continued with one long interruption until the removal of the tribe to the West, when the missionaries accompanied the Indians and re-established work in the new field. Political changes of administration, the rising struggle with England for control of the West, and a long war with the Foxes (1712-48) conspired to discourage the mission work. In 1721 Charlevoix found the mission at Green Bay, then under Fr. J.B. Chardon, devoted chiefly to the Sauk and Winnebago, while that on St. Joseph River was occupied jointly by Potawatomi and Miami. The suppression of the Jesuits in the French colonies in 1762 closed all their missions and for thirty years there was no priest west of Detroit, while the almost continuous wars for forty years — French and Indian, Pontiac's, the Revolution, and later to the Greenville treaty in 1795 — almost wiped out all recollection of Christian teaching. "Deprived of pastors, constantly in motion, mingling with war parties of pagan tribes and sharing in their superstitious rites, they soon relapsed into many of the old customs of their race" (Shea). The Potawatomi were a fighting race and in the Fox war and the French and Indian war sided actively with the French, continuing the struggle under Pontiac against the English until 1765. On the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775 they took up arms for England against the Americans and continued the war under Little Turtle and other Indian leaders until compelled to join in the treaty of Greenville in 1795 consequent upon Wayne's decisive victory over the confederated tribes in the preceding year. A part of them under Winamac joined the English again under Tecumseh's leadership in 1812, and made final treaty of peace in 1815. The Prairie Band, under their chief Gomo, held to the American interest. By these wars they suffered heavily and the close of the War of 1812 found them prostrated, while the immediate influx of whisky traders worked a wholesale demoralization, aggravated by constant fear of final removal as their territories were curtailed by repeated cessions under pressure.
In 1822 the first Protestant work in the tribe was begun by the Baptists at Carey mission near South Bend and continued until 1830 when it was discontinued, in consequence of the inauguration of the removal policy, to be renewed shortly afterward among the immigrant Indians in Kansas. In the meantime, on formal request of the Ottawa chiefs to Congress (1823) for Jesuit missionaries, the old missions had been re-established through the efforts of Bishop Reze of Detroit, that of St. Joseph being confided to the secular, Fr. Stephen Badin. The main pillar of this mission was the distinguished chief Pokagan, baptized by Reze, and father of the still more noted Catholic chief and author, Simon Pokagan (1830-99), to whose memory a monument has been erected in Jackson Park, Chicago. Fr. Badin was shortly succeeded by Fr. Desseille, who remained until his death in 1837 and was succeeded by Fr. Benjamin Petit. In the meantime, by successive treaties the Potawatomi territory had been steadily curtailed in the various states originally occupied by them and band after band, much against their will, transported to new homes in Iowa and Kansas, beyond the Mississippi. Before the end of 1836 over sixteen hundred had been thus removed and others were on the road. Some eight hundred in Indiana, led by a chief who had steadily refused to sign away his lands, refused to go, and in September, 1838, were surrounded by the troops, while assembled at church, and driven out upon the long and weary foot journey to the West. On special request of the officer in charge, who dreaded an attempt to escape or resistance, Father Petit, who had already offered his services, was appointed to accompany them, which he did, traversing on foot with them the long way across Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, until in Kansas he confided his suffering and diminished flock to the Jesuit Fr. J. Hoecken, and returned to St. Louis. A few refugees escaped to Canada and settled on Walpole Island in Lake St. Clair. Other bands were removed to the West as late as 1841, a few hundred still continuing to remain in their old country. As early as 1836 Father Hoecken had reestablished work among the immigrant tribes in Kansas, and before the end of that year the mission of Saint Mary, destined to become so well known, was founded by Frs. De Smet and Verreydt, assisted by Brother Mazelli, along the still heathen and obdurate prairie Potawatomi. It was soon afterward placed in charge of Fr. Hoecken, under whom the mission claimed twelve hundred Catholic Indians, principal among whom were the chiefs Pokagan and Bourassa, with two flourishing schools, conducted jointly by the Jesuits and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
The official Indian report for 1855 contains an interesting account of this mission by Fr. J.B. Duerinck, then in charge. It was then the only mission existing in the tribe, the Baptist work having been abandoned. Concerning Saint Mary's the agent in charge says (Ind. Rept. for 1855): "The missionary labors at Saint Mary's are divided into two establishments. The boys are under the charge of the "fathers" of the institution, whilst the girls are under the kind care of the 'Ladies of the Sacred Heart.' I cannot speak in terms too highly of the condition of these establishments. Besides the ordinary literary course the girls are taught sewing, knitting, embroidery, and the various other branches of housekeeping. In connection with the institution is a manual labor school, where the boys are taught the practical and useful departments of farming, gardening, etc. Mr. Duerinck is a man of great energy and business habits, united with a devotion to the welfare of the Potawatomi Indians, to whom he has proved a father and friend, and by whom he is highly esteemed. I have no hesitancy in expressing my conviction that this institution is of great service to these Indians. This influence is seen in the neat cottages and little fields of the 'Mission Indians' and the air of comfort and good order apparent throughout the neighborhood."
Owing to friction between the progressive element and the conservative Prairie Band, the former were segregated in 1861 and took lands in severalty under the name of "Citizen Potawatomi." In 1868 they removed to Oklahoma, where they now reside. About three hundred are rated as Catholic, with two prosperous mission schools at Sacred Heart, St. Mary's (girls) in charge of the Sisters of Mercy, and St. Benedict's (boys) in charge of the Benedictines. The rest of the tribe, for whom no religious statistics are given is still in Kansas or east of the Mississippi. The whole tribe may have numbered 5000 souls. In 1855 they were officially estimated at about 4000, of whom about 3700 were in Kansas. They number now in round numbers about 3500; Oklahoma (Citizen), 1660; Kansas (Prairie), 725; Wisconsin (no agent), 440; Michigan (including "Huron" band), 450; Walpole Island, Ontario, Canada (Methodist), 225. The linguistic material of Potawatomi is meager, consisting chiefly of a few printed or manuscript vocabularies, the latter with the Bureau of American Ethnology, together with one or two small publications by the Baptist mission board, at Shawnee Mission, Kansas (about 1837). The Potawatomi were organized upon the clan system, having, according to Morgan, 15 gentes: Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Elk, Loon, Eagle, Sturgeon, Carp, Bald Eagle, Thunder, Rabbit, Crow, Fox, Turkey, Black Hawk. Like most of the Algonquin tribes of the central area they were semi-sedentary and semi-agricultural, but subsisted also largely by hunting and fishing, as well as by the gathering of wild rice and the preparation of maple sugar. They built communal bark-covered lodges, and buried in the ground or in hollow logs, excepting the Rabbit gens, which practiced cremation. They sacrificed chiefly to the sun, and each man had also his personal tutelary, which was chosen at their great "dream feast." Their ordinary dress was of buckskin, but the men frequently went almost naked excepting for the breechcloth. Their primitive weapons were the bow, tomahawk, and knife; they fought generally on foot. Polygamy was common, but the women were noted for their reserve, as were the men for their humane and refined disposition as compared with other tribes. They were also experts in the athletic game of lacrosse. The majority of the tribe are now fairly prosperous farmers.
Jesuit Relations, ed. THWAITES (73 vols., Cleveland, 1896-1901); Catholic Ind. Missions in Annual Repts. of Director (Washington); Comsner. of Ind. Affairs in Annual Repts. (Washington); Dept. of Ind. Affairs (Canada) in Annual Repts. (Ottawa); Duerinck Letters in Repts. Secretary of Interior (Washington, 1852-7); DUNN, True Indian Stories (Indianapolis, 1908); SHEE, Catholic Indian Missions (New York, 1854); DESMET, Western Missions and Missionaries (New York, 1863); Wisconsin State Hist. Soc., colls. XI (Madison, 1888); PILLING, Bibliography of Algonquin Langs. in Bull. Bur. Am. Ethnology (Washington, 1891); BOYCE AND THOMAS, Indian Land Cessions in 18th Rept. Bur. Am. Ethnology, II (Washington, 1899); New York Colonial Documents (15 vols., Albany, 1853-87); American State Papers: Ind. Affairs, I (Washington, 1832); MERGRY, Decouvertes et etablissements de Francais (6 vols., Paris, 1875-86).