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The Pokagon Band

The most determined and successful resistance to removal came from the Pokagon band. In the treaty of 1833 the Pokagon band, or more correctly four villages of Catholic Potawatomi , retained the right to live in Michigan by joining with the Odawa at L'arbre Croche. However, for various reasons this union never happened. The success of the Pokagon band in avoiding removal rested largely on the wiles of its leader Leopold Pokagon. During the 1830's and until his death in 1841, Pokagon emerged as the spokesperson and strategist for these four villages.

By in the 1820s, Pokagon had come to realize that unless he and his followers developed a strategy to stay in their homes, eventually white settlers would force them from the St. Joseph River valley. Pokagon understood also that federal policy largely focused on "civilizing" Indians. By becoming "civilized" the Pokagon and his band could remain on their ancestral land. But this strategy had its price. It meant in practice that the Indians must adopt American farming techniques, work habits, and accept the concept of private ownership of land.

Isaac McCoy
Isaac McCoy

In addition the Indians must become Christians. Despite this cultural loss, Pokagon was determined to stay and in the 1820's he explored the possibility of conversion to Christianity with Rev. Isaac McCoy, at the Baptist Carey Mission at South Niles. McCoy, however, was a firm believer in re-location of Indians to the west. When Pokagon learned this he stopped his visits to Niles and sought a new sponsor.

Pokagon found sponsorship among Roman Catholic missionaries who were seeking to re- establish the long-abandoned French Catholic mission on the St. Joseph River. The Catholic priests wished to establish a new mission amidst a stable, agrarian, Indian community. Pokagon's Potawatomi band sought to become a Christian farming community to demonstrate their new found "civilization" and thus remain in the St. Joseph River valley. In 1830 Pokagon approached the priests seeking instruction in the faith and conversion. Given both sides interests, it is not surprising that the process went very well and very quickly.

At the same time that Pokagon and his band were embracing Catholicism, Pokagon was also moving to obtain fee simple title to the land on which his people lived. Rather than trust in treaty granted, "reserves," Pokagon used money received at the 1833 treaty signing as well as federal annuity funds saved from earlier years to purchase land at the federal land office in Kalamazoo. By 1838 the tribe owned in fee simple 874 acres on Silver Creek, near Dowagiac, and had resettled on this property.

According to the Treaty of Chicago, Pokagon's band was to relocate in 1836 to Odawa land at L'Arbre Croche. However, it took the United States Senate two years to actually ratify the Chicago Treaty, thus delaying any enforcement. Finally ratified by the Senate in 1835, the relocation clause to L'Arbre Croche became a dead letter a year later when 1836 the Odawa ceded this land to the federal government. After several years of inaction, in 1840 the federal government became serious in its efforts to enforce the Treaty of Chicago. General Hugh Brady was sent to Detroit to oversee the removal of the Potawatomi from Michigan and Indiana using whatever means necessary. His agents rounded up perhaps 500 Potawatomi to be shipped west. Many Potawatomi fled General Brady's troops but the Pokagon band stood their ground at Silver Creek.

Pokagon obtained from Judge Epaphroditus Ranson, then an associate judge of the Michigan State Supreme Court, an opinion stating that as Christian, land-owning farmers, the Catholic Potawatomi were protected from forcible relocation by rights found in Michigan law. Should the army remove Pokagon and his band west, the judge threatened to issue a write of habeas corpus, which would require the army to return the band to Michigan. Given the army's treatment of Indians in the south and President Jackson's general disregard for Supreme Court opinions regarding Indian affairs, it might be anticipated that Brady would have ignored Ranson's opinion. However, when Brady received word of Judge Ranson's legal opinion he immediately wrote a "pass," exempting the Catholic Potawatomi from relocation. Brady's pass represented the final triumph of Pokagon's long effort to avoid relocation.