• By Kirk Gaw

Indigenous: Miami, Potowatomi, and Chippewa People Originators Of The Walkerton Trail

Long ago, before the French and Spanish Missionaries explored the Walkerton area during the 16th and 17th Centuries, Prince Madoc and his Welsh entourage had already lived amongst the indigenous people and evidently, had families right here, just north of downtown Walkerton at Tyler Rd. We know that Ervin Stuntz maintained the foundations of the Chippewa Native Village where the burial mounds exist that revealed 8 giant warriors.

Anthony and Katelyn McGriff photographed the marshy areas of Highway 104 last year after natural flooding. The vicinity originally was settled by local tribes who kept the trail intact for centuries traversing between Lake Michigan, the Grand Kankakee Marsh, and Lake Maxinkuckee.

Stuntz kept the original Grove Vosburg Farm where he lived and ran his Christmas Tree business. Ervin Stuntz even kept an artifact museum holding many ancient items found from the indigenous peoples site aged from around 800 + years before. The earliest known people of our area are the Miami tribe. Next came the Potowatomi who met up throughout Northern Indiana and Michigan while traveling for the trade of furs, and hunting. They sometimes gathered at the Grand Kankakee Marsh where Chief Mixsawbah kept his longhouse and wigwams.

Stories stem from his life including that settlement where he traded with the Miami and Illini who sought hunting and fishing. Stories from the trail to Lake Michigan from Lake Maxinkuckee include the settlement at the Grand Kankakee Marsh. The first people kept the trail that is today called the "Plymouth-LaPorte Trail" Who in Walkerton hasn't traveled it?

Potowatomi Chief Sagunay "Broken Arrow" sculpture symbolizing broken treaty with white settlers in LaPorte County. He was forced off his land by the US Calvary on the Trail-Of-Tears during bitter winter of 1832. By artist Howard DeMeyer.

Trails were not haphazard undertakings which merely followed deer trails, but became a part of what is today's elaborate statewide highway system first used by the Native Americans. In the 1940's State leaders invocated the trail when they created State Road 104 from Walkerton to LaPorte. It is only part of the length of the Native Trail leading on to what is Michigan City originally starting at the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee.

US Forest Service records indicate that the trails were so systematically planned that they later became modern highways like U.S.31 for example. The indigenous people who built them were not just people who were wandering around, they knew where they were going. Chief Menominee who settled at where Plymouth is today traveled the Highway 104 route. There was a trail network that crisscrossed the entire state. There was an economy in how they chose a trail. These trails were used for regular transportation.

Potowatomi Chief Menominee Statue at Plymouth. He kept a settlement for his tribe between the Twin Lakes, and Lake Maxinkuckee. He was forced off his land by the US Calvary and Indiana Governor to the Trail-Of-Tears in 1832.

They were established by criteria. The trails weren’t just for 25 year old men, there were for entire families walking them. The paths followed the areas of least resistance, and crossed rivers where they were the shallowest. The network in the Walkerton area also, was used to "portage" boats between waterways. In Ervin Stuntz's books he writes about stories from his interviews that Natives met up with other tribes where Pine Creek flows towards the Kankakee River.

Early Walkertonians kept tales too, where they walked the Native paths along Pine Creek and spotted Potowatomi braves fishing and hunting. White footprints were placed in the soil of northern Indiana from 1659 when adventurous fur traders spent winters on the shores of northern lakes.

At about 1660 the devotion of French missionaries led by Father Mesnard, caused a first station to be established. In 1668, came Fathers Claude Dablon and then James Marquette. They arrived by canoes traveling up the Kankakee River, through where Walkerton is today.

They came across the portage to the St. Joseph River in May of 1675. In addition to that portage, there were several other Native American trails that crossed throughout the Michiana area. One trail was the Fort Wayne Trail that lead from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Chicago, Illinois. Another popular trail was the Great Sauk Trail that started in Detroit, Michigan, went through Chicago and split into two trails in Missouri, “later becoming known as the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.”

In 1680, the French established and built Fort Saint Joseph, first built as a mission, in Niles, Michigan about 60 miles from the mouth of the St. Joseph River. The fort was established to protect the St. Joseph River waterway and the portage trail. Fort St. Joseph became one of the most popular posts in the Old Northwest territory. However, the French lost the fort after the French and Indian War in 1763. The British then occupied Fort St. Joseph and many residents loyal and friendly with the French moved out of the Michiana area.

The British never got a community established, and in 1781 French and then, Spanish soldiers captured and destroyed the fort. In the 1830’s Niles, Michigan would be established near Fort St. Joseph. Even today, Niles is known as the city of four flags, because four nations occupied the fort at one time or another (French, British, Spanish, and American).

The first white permanent residents of South Bend were the fur traders who had settled in the area because of the rich wildlife that congregated along, and in, the St. Joseph River. The first successful trader to occupy the St. Joseph River Valley was William Burnett. Mr. Burnett was from a very prominent New Jersey family, well educated, and had family wealth. He was attracted to this area because of the possibility of great wealth participating in the fur trade.

Burnett built a storage warehouse for storing furs, maple sugar, grain, and salt near the mouth of the St. Joseph River (near the present town of St. Joseph, Michigan). Like most other traders, Mr. Burnett married a Native American wife. His death date has been lost over the centuries.

Railroad crossing at Highway 104 en route to Walkerton. The Plymouth-LaPorte Trail known here as Walkerton Trail connected ancient Indian paths used for hunters to connect Michigan City to Plymouth by way of LaPorte and Walkerton. It too is an old stagecoach line.

Northern Indiana's early popularity as a destination for settlement was due in part to it’s reputation as a good place to make a go as a farmer. “One of the reasons (Americans) know it’s good farmland is there are people farming this land when they come through it."

"There are Native American women who are very successfully farming this land and raising a surplus, and doing so with relative ease,” says Ann Durkin Keating, a historian who studies how Chicago transitioned from a tiny, multi-ethnic trading settlement to a vast industrial city during the 1800s.

The Potawatomi women designed elaborate configurations for their fields. This illustration shows garden beds laid out in a patchwork format. (Courtesy Kathryn L. Darnell)

Some Potawatomi garden beds were designed in a wheel shape. Each bed was separated by wide avenues for harvesters to walk through. (Courtesy Kathryn L. Darnell)

Wheat, corn, and other grains were among the first commodities traded in Chicago, a legacy that lasts to this day, as Chicago is still home to the largest agriculture commodity exchange in the world. And even though Native American women had been successfully farming the land for years, there’s an often repeated idea in many history books that the agricultural potential of the prairie around Chicago was “locked” until 1837.


*Ervin Stuntz. The Incredible Wheel of Time

**Howard, Timothy E. A History of St. Joseph County, Indiana, Both Volumes. 2 vols. Chicago, Illinois: Lewis Publishing Company, 1907.

***Palmer, John. Early South Bend Manufacturers and Their Influence on Ethnic Settlement Patterns. 1990. MS, The History Museum, South Bend.

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