Re-centering the Potawatomi at Sycamore Row Part One

Photograph by Chris Light, accessed Wikipedia.

This is Part One of a two-part post. Part One examines why IHB and local partners chose to refocus the text of a new historical marker to Sycamore Row in Carroll County that replaces a damaged 1963 marker. Instead of focusing on the unverifiable legends surrounding the row of sycamores lining the Old Michigan Road, this new marker centers the persecution and removal of the Potawatomi to make way for that road and further white settlement. Part Two will look in depth at the persecution of the this indigenous group by the U.S. government as well as the resistance and continued “survivance” of the Potawatomi people.*

What’s in a Legend?

The sycamore trees lining the Old Michigan Road have long been the subject of much curiosity and folklore in Carroll County. But there is a story here of even greater historical significance – the removal and resistance of the Potawatomi. While the trees will likely continue to be the subject that brings people to this marker, IHB hopes to recenter the Potawatomi in the story. (To skip right to the story of the Potawatomi, go to Part Two of this post, available April 2021).

Folklore is a tricky area for historians. The sources for these stories are often lost, making it difficult to determine the historical accuracy of the tale. But historians shouldn’t ignore folklore either. Local stories of unknown origin can point to greater truths about a community. It becomes less important to know exactly if something really happened and more significant to know why the community remembers that it did.

Folklore is both a mirror and a tool. It can reflect the values of the community and serve to effect change. Folklore surrounding “Sycamore Row” in Carroll County does both of these things. Continuing local investment in this row of trees reflects a community that values its early history. At the same time, these trees have served as a preservation tool bringing this community together time and time again for the sake of saving a small piece of Indiana’s story.

These are the big ideas around folklore, but what about searching for the facts behind the stories? In the case of Sycamore Row, digging into the events that we can document only makes the story more interesting and inclusive. And it gives us the opportunity to reexamine the central role of the Potawatomi in this history and return it to the landscape in a small way.

Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row Historical Marker, Indiana Historical Bureau, accessed Carroll County Indiana.

In 1963, the Indiana Historical Bureau placed a marker for “Sycamore Row” on State Road 29, formerly the Old Michigan Road. The 1963 marker read:

This row of sycamores sprouted from freshly cut logs used in the 1830’s to corduroy a swampy section of the historic Michigan Road, the first state road in Indiana, running from Madison to Michigan City.

IHB historians of the 1960s presented this theory on the origin of the sycamores as fact. Today, IHB requires primary documentation for all marker statements. While there are secondary sources (sources created after the event in question), there are no reliable primary sources for this statement. In fact, we don’t know where the trees came from. Local legend purports that saplings sprang from the logs used to lay the “corduroy” base when the dirt road was planked in the 1850s. There is evidence that sycamores were used on this section of the road. During road construction in the 1930s, the Logansport Press reported that workers discovered sycamore logs under the road near the famous Fouts farm. And it is possible that some saplings could have grown on their own, though it’s unlikely they sprouted from the logs. Local historian Bonnie Maxwell asked several experts for their take. One Indiana forester wrote that it was more likely that the trees sprouted from seeds that took root in the freshly dug furrows next to the road. Others noted that even if the trees sprouted as the legend claims, they would not be the same trees we see today, as they are not large enough have sprouted in the early 19th century. Other theories have been posited as well, including one from a 1921 Logansport-Pharos article claiming that the trees were planted to protect the creek bank during road construction in the 1870s. Regardless, we know from Carroll County residents that there have been sycamores along that stretch of road for as long as anyone can remember. It matters less to know where the trees came from and more to know why they have been preserved in memory and in the landscape. [1]

Preservation and Community Building

The ongoing preservation and stewardship of Sycamore Row tells us that local residents care about the history of their community. The trees provide a tangible way of caring for that history. To that end, Carroll County residents have joined together many times over the years to protect the sycamores.

In the 1920s, the Michigan Road section at Sycamore Row became State Road 29 and some of the trees were removed during paving. Starting in the 1930s, road improvements planned by the state highway department threatened the sycamores again, but this time local residents acted quickly. In November 1939, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune reported that Second District American Legion commander Louis Kern organized opposition to a state highway department plan to remove 19 sycamores in order to widen the road. Local residents joined the protest and the state highway commission agreed to spare all but five of the 127 sycamore trees during the highway expansion. [2]

By the 1940s, newspapers reported on the dangerous and narrow stretch of road between the sycamores where several accidents had occurred. By the 1960s, local school officials worried about school busses safely passing other cars and trucks on the stretch and proposed cutting down the trees to widen the road. In 1963, Governor Matthew Walsh issued an order to halt the planned removal of sixty-six of the sycamores and the state highway department planted twenty new trees. Many still called for a safer, wider road and the local controversy continued. [3]

In 1969, officials from the school board and the Carroll County Historical Society (CCHS) met to discuss options for improving driving conditions, weighing this need against the historical significance of the sycamores. Meanwhile, the state highway department continued planning to widen the road, a plan that would have required cutting down the trees. The CCHS staunchly opposed removing the sycamores and organized support for its efforts. The organization worked for over a decade to save Sycamore Row, petitioning lawmakers and gaining the support of Governor Edgar Whitcomb. Carroll County residents signed petitions and spoke out at public meetings with the state highways commission. Ultimately, in 1983, the state highway department announced its plan to reroute SR 29 around the sycamores. This grass roots effort, focused on preserving local history, had prevailed even over the needs of modernization. Construction on the new route began in 1987. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune reported that residents then began using the section of the Old Michigan Road to go down to the bank of the creek and fish. [4]

“Friends of CC Parks Plant Sycamore Trees,” Carroll County Comet, January 4, 2021, accessed Carroll County Comet.

In 2012 the Friends of Carroll County Parks took over stewardship of Sycamore Row and began planting new sycamore saplings the following year. In 2020 they planted even larger sycamores to preserve the legacy for future generations. They also took over the care of the 1963 historical marker, repainting it for the bicentennial. In late 2020, the marker was damaged beyond repair and had to be removed. This opened up an opportunity for IHB, the Friends, and the CCHS to place a new two-sided historical marker. The marker process  is driven by applicants, either individuals or community organizations, and then IHB works with those partners, providing primary research to help tell their stories. We work together, sharing authority. These Carroll County organizations still want to tell the story of the sycamores, but recognize that there is complex history beyond the legends.

Re-centering the Potawatomi

IHB and local partners are using the extra space on the double-sided marker to include the Potawatomi in the story of Sycamore Row. While there is no way we can give the history of these indigenous peoples in all its complexity in the short space provided on a marker, we can make sure it is more central. After all, the story of the genocide, removal, and resistance of the Potawatomi to settler colonialism is part of the story of Indiana.

Some people have a negative view of this kind of reevaluation of sources and apply the label “revisionist” to historians updating the interpretation of an old story. However, “historians view the constant search for new perspectives as the lifeblood of historical understanding,” according to author, historian, and Columbia professor Eric Foner. [5] As we find new sources and include more diverse views, our interpretation changes. It becomes more complex, but also more accurate. And while there is a temptation to view history as a set of facts, or just as “what happened,” it is always interpretive. For instance, the act of deciding what story does or does not make it onto a historical marker is an act of interpretation. When IHB omits the Native American perspective from a historical marker we present a version of history that begins with white settlement. It might be simpler but its not accurate. There were already people on this land, people with a deep and impactful history. When historians and communities include indigenous stories, they present a version of Indiana history that is more complex and has a darker side. This inclusion reminds us that Indiana was settled not only through the efforts and perseverance of the Black and white settlers who cleared the forests, established farms, and cut roads through the landscape. It was also settled through the removal and genocide of native peoples. Both things are true. Both are Indiana history.

With this in mind, the new two-sided marker at Sycamore Row will read:

The sycamores here line the sides of the Michigan Road, which connected the Ohio River with Lake Michigan and further opened Indiana for white settlement and trade. Under intense military and economic pressure, Potawatomi leaders ceded the land for the road in 1826. John Tipton, one of the U.S. agents who negotiated this treaty, purchased the land here in 1831. 

The state began work on the road in the 1830s. While there are several theories on how the trees came to be here, their origin is uncertain. By the 1930s, road improvements threatened the trees, but residents organized to preserve them over the following decades. In 1983, the Carroll County Historical Society petitioned to reroute the highway and saved Sycamore Row. 

Of course, this does little more than hint at the complex history of the Potawatomi. Markers can only serve as the starting point for any story, and so, IHB uses our website, blog, and podcast to explore further. In Part Two of this post, we will take an in-depth look at the persecution of the Potawatomi to make way for the Michigan Road, their resistance to unjust treaty-making, their removal and genocide as perpetuated by the U.S. government, and the continued “survivance” of the Potawatomi people today in the face of all of this injustice.

*”Survivance” is a term coined by White Earth Ojibwe scholar Gerald Vizenor to explain that indigenous people survived and resisted white colonization and genocide and continue as a people to this day. Theirs is not a history of decline. Their work preserving and forwarding their culture, traditions, language, religions, and struggle for rights and land continues.

Notes

Special thanks to Bonnie Maxwell of the Friends of Carroll County Parks for sharing her newspaper research. Newspaper articles cited here are courtesy of Maxwell unless otherwise noted. Copies are available in the IHB marker file.

[1] “Trees Half Century Old Still Stand,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, May 14, 1921.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.; “Deer Creek Road Corduroy Found at Taylor Fouts Place,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, September 1, 1939.; Correspondence between Bonnie Maxwell, Joe O’Donnell, Tim Eizinger, and Lenny Farlee, submitted to IHB December 28, 2020, copy in IHB file.

[2] “Second State Road to Come in for Paving,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, November 13, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.

[3] “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared by State,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 16, 1939.; “Halt Cutting of Sycamores Along Route 29,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 18, 1963.; “Governor Save 66 Sycamores,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 19, 1963.; “Sycamores to Get Historical Marker,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, April 4, 1963.; “Plant More Sycamores on Road 29,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, April 4, 1963.

[4] “Historical Society Hears Research Report,” Hoosier Democrat, December 3, 1970.; Letter to the Editor, Hoosier Democrat, November 25, 1971.; Carroll County Comet, November 7, 1979.; Dennis McCouch, “Save the Sycamores” Carroll County Comet, November 7, 1979.; “Sycamore Row Petitions,” Carroll County Comet, January 16, 1980.; Von Roebuck, “Carroll County Landmarks to Remain Intact,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 1, 1983.; “Bridge Work to Cause Deer Creek Detour,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, June 7, 1987.

[5] Eric Foner, Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), xvi.

THH 32: Giving Voice: Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe

Transcript of Giving Voice: Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

For this installment of Giving Voice, I was lucky enough to speak with Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe. If you haven’t listened to THH’s two-part series covering the life of Tenskwatawa, I’d suggest going back to do that now, as I do reference those episodes a few times throughout the discussion and they give some good context for understanding where our conversation picks up.

And now, Giving Voice.

Beckley: I’m here today with Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe. I’m so happy that you had time to come on and talk with us today.

Barnes: Thank you very much, Lindsey. I appreciate the invite.

Beckley: Of course. We’re absolutely thrilled to have you on the show. So, I thought we would start off with a super basic question. I know we use the term tribe or tribal nation a lot and I’m not sure that people know exactly what that means, what all that entails, and what being a member of a tribe entails. If you could give us a little bit of insight into that, I would really appreciate it.

Barnes: It’s probably easiest to summarize it in the way the federal government defines it. The constitution of the United States states that there are three types of sovereigns. There is the federal government, there is the states, and there are the tribes. So tribal nations are separate inherent sovereigns within the United States similar in some ways to state governments. So, the constitution dictates that these three entities are sovereigns within each other in our nation. So, for a tribal nation such as the Shawnee Tribe, we are one of those sovereigns and we have been here since prior to the United States, identifying as Shawnee People. We’ve had numerous flags over portions of our area – Spain to the French to Canada to Britain and the Republic of Texas as well as the United States.

Beckley: And to be a part of the Shawnee Tribe or, I guess, any tribal nation, could you give us a little bit of insight into what it means to become a member and what it takes to become a member?

Barnes: If you’re a citizen of Italy, you know you’re a citizen of Italy. You were born, you met the standards of citizenship or Italy. It is much the same with tribal nations. You are a member of that nation. Your ancestors are a part of that community, you have citizenship within that nation. So the government of that tribe recognizes you as a citizen of that indigenous nation of peoples.

Beckley: So, to talk a little bit more about Shawnee history in Indiana, or in present-day Indiana – I think a lot of people think about Potawatomi and Miami maybe, if they think about Native history in Indiana, and they might not know much about the Shawnee connections here. Could you speak to that a little bit?

Barnes: I think you also have to define terms. You’re talking about Indiana. Indiana was much larger than in was at time of statehood. Indiana territory was also Illinois, so Indiana was a very large area. And even before that, Indiana was part of a larger western holding of colonial powers. So, inside what is the current state of Indiana, you have present-day Prophetstown, you have Shawnee villages along the White River. Fort Wayne is also known by other names – Kekionga by the Miami or Chillicothe amongst the Shawnee people. So, the old city of Chillicothe, which is the Shawnee town that was located at Fort Wayne. So, you have Prophetstown where Tenskwatawa the Prophet – he had a town that he lived in, and his brother. During the War of 1812, that was a stronghold for them and they even, prior to the War of 1812, Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa lived along the White River, hatching their plan for pan-Indian resistance to colonialism.

Beckley: Yeah, and if folks have listened to our previous two episodes, they know a little bit more about that, so I’m glad that you touched on that a little bit. I know that you’re still active in the state and that you’re still coming here and doing some work every once in a while. Could you speak to the sort of causes you work for when you come here and how folks can learn more about that?

Barnes: There are federal and state laws that require tribal interactions with the other sovereigns, the federal and the state. And amongst those is a law called NAGPRA – Native American Protection and Repatriation Act. Because Shawnee’s lived in Indiana, and the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced eastern tribal nations to be relocated to western states like Oklahoma and elsewhere, those villages and the graves of those villages – there are people still buried there. So, as cities expand, as someone puts in a mini mall, as highways are built, occasionally graves are discovered. So, for the Shawnee and other tribes of historic Indiana, we engage in at the state and federal levels with those entities to make sure we’re doing what is best for those people there, and try to be as respectful to the people and make sure those remains are being treated as respectfully as possible, just like you would do with any other cemetery relocation. So, there are federal laws that mandate this for tribal nations and tribal cemeteries.

There is also an educational component that we work with as well. We have a great relationship with the Indiana University staff in various departments – folklore, anthropology, archaeology et cetera, we work very well with them. There’s an ethno-musicology archive of traditional music there at the campus in Bloomington. You know, we’ve known them for more than a decade. And early anthropologists called – a great many of them came out of Indiana University. A lot of that was because one of the early fathers of industry in Indiana, Eli Lilly, had an obsession with Indian artifacts and he hired teams of anthropologists, cartographers, linguists, et cetera to do research on tribal nations. He sent researchers out and one of the peoples that were rich in culture and language were the Shawnee, so Indiana University has known the Shawnee for a long time. And it’s been a pleasure for my tribe to become acquainted with them in the last ten or fifteen years and renew those relationships, but this time on our terms, rather than just having a bungee jumping anthropologist come into our communities, extract data for their own purposes, with no intention of reciprocity with that community.

Beckley: Yeah, we talked a little about that with Chris Newell. . . . about anthropologists coming into communities and using the knowledge of the people living there, and then creating a basis of work that is created out of the ancestral knowledge of these people. Basically, they’re building a career on the knowledge of others.

Barnes: That’s correct. Like, we can take an example- Eli Lilly hired a linguist, Charles Vogel [Voegelin], and [Voegelin] came into Shawnee communities and collected linguistic data, and the purpose of the linguistic data was not to preserve the language. It was not to make sure this language continued to be spoken in the Shawnee community. It was not to develop curriculum so that children could more easily learn the language of their ancestors as they were facing the pressures of assimilation. His goal was to bring that information back to Indiana, use it to create Masters and PhD’s and prove the richness of the university experience and part of the linguistics of Indiana. And so, untold careers were launched literally off the bones of our ancestors – the voices of our ancestors, with no thought for reciprocity towards the people that were contributing that knowledge. So that richness of these indigenous communities that lifted up these scholars, there was no reciprocity back to our communities to make sure that these cultures could benefit from the research that was going on. There has been a change in academia – largely because of pressure and interest from tribal nations wanting to engage with academics and journals and other academic publishing – to tell a truer story of early America. To make sure that Native voices are included in those narratives, that the context is not lost and that we can re-contextualize those old documents and put Shawnee voices back into them.

Beckley: Absolutely. We talk a little bit about that in our past two episodes. We’re using these colonized documents, but we have to find a way to contextualize them with Native voice and make sure that we’re telling as complete of a story as we can.

Barnes: That’s how it started for me . . . I initially got into tribal government, there was a couple of key issues and one of them was language preservation. So, quickly, when you do the work of language preservation, you come in contact with the archive. So, Indiana, there is this troika of institutions. The triad of institutions that hold the corpus of Shawnee language and one of them happens to be Indiana, and that’s because of Charles [Voegelin] and his time and tenure as a linguist in the employ of Eli Lilly.

Beckley: So, what sorts of things are you doing to promote the language, the Shawnee language? Are you doing curriculum? Is that something that you’re interested in? What kinds of things are you working towards?

Barnes: Curriculum and pedagogy methods. So, the world’s turned, and it’s changed and it’s becoming more digital and while we are able to, like, you and I are talking from a vast distance today, across a couple of computers. In prior generations, it was the telephone, and before that we had to send letters, so the method of teaching needs to adapt to become more like 2020 than 1920. And unfortunately, a lot of language teaching methods are still based in early-20th century teaching methodologies. Well, that doesn’t work in a diaspora community where people are spread across a continent. And so, we have to find new ways to deliver content and to deliver curriculum.

Beckley: I think that being here in a time when we are all separated by a distance and communicating through various methods – Zoom, Google Hangouts, and whatnot, I think that that has really opened our eyes to a few more opportunities as far as teaching methods and stuff like that. I know I’m taking an online baking class this weekend so it’s interesting to see how much people have kind of opened up different avenues for teaching different topics.

Barnes: Yeah, there’s a little irony for me . . . you know, we’re talking about these bungee jumping anthropologists that would jump into our communities and take data, you know, and they were observing our communities. Well, now, we find that the coin is flipped and we’re watching you guys in the glass bubble of academic institutions and seeing how you’re going to handle campuses that are closed. How are you going to be able to deliver curriculum? Universities have been loathe to move to an online learning model – they’re stuck in the Oxford method of teaching people. One person stands in front of a class and teaches forty or fifty people. Well, how are you going to accomplish that now with social distancing? So, it’s interesting and ironic to me. Now we’re watching you, instead of, a century ago, you were watching us.

Beckley: Hopefully we’ll be able to navigate it a little bit better than – I think we’ve pivoted a bit. It took a little bit, but it seems like people are slowly but surely figuring it out. Speaking of COVID-19 and the social distancing, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit to how the pandemic has hit your people and just Native populations in general.

Barnes: I suspect it’s much like other states. We’ve been watching other states and other locals deal with this and I see Kentucky responding differently than Tennessee, or I see this county respond differently than that county or this city compared to this city. So, each one has its own type of leadership. And it’s much the same in Indian country. One county’s more progressive in its measures, you know, they put in more restrictive methods. We have another county that wants to have the economic – has more economic concerns. They may have a tax issue in their city and there’s a real cash need to make sure that things go back to normal as quick as possible, seeing how those things are balanced. So, we’re watching those things.

But, at least with the Shawnee tribe, within our government itself, we find ourselves in an advantageous position that we are equipped financially to ride this out and keep our people employed. We’ve been lucky to secure food, and for Shawnee citizens, we have ShawneeRelief.org, where we’re providing food for the elderly to keep them indoors as much as possible. We try to keep everyone up to date. Language curriculum is now being delivered in an online – it’s forced us to move to an online format sooner than we wanted. We had a project that was in the planning process for 2020, to be deployed in 2021, to deliver online language classrooms to our citizens. Well, we’re finding ourselves having to do that now and we’re not even halfway through the year.

Beckley: It sounds like you guys are, along with all of us, pivoting well. I’m glad to hear that.

Barnes: We’ve been really lucky. We’ve found that some of our best resources have been our tribal citizens. I found a epidemiologist that is a tribal citizen and she lives in Norman [Oklahoma] and works at the University of Oklahoma, and she’s an epidemiologist. So, actually being able to have someone who is able to interpret some of the details that I just don’t understand, I don’t have the education to interpret. . . . And to be able to draft policy at a governmental level, send it to an epidemiologist, and have them give me professional advice on what that should look like and on what areas we can do better, what steps are unnecessary – that is invaluable. So, we are very fortunate that we have the citizens that have the skill sets to be able to contribute to their tribal nation in this difficult time of social distancing.

Beckley: I think that is about all the time we have, but I was hoping you could tell the folks at home how they can learn more about your work, and about the Shawnee Nation and about Shawnee history – is there any online resources for them that you would suggest?

Barnes: Online resources are always dodgy when it comes to indigenous peoples because you always have to question the source – who wrote it, what was the context of it? The three Shawnee Tribes are the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, and the Shawnee Tribe. Each of us have our own corresponding website. Those are the three Shawnee tribes. There has been a body of work that has been written by scholars. The best is a guy named Stephen Warren. Stephen Warren’s written a couple of books on Shawnee people. There’s others that have written on treaties like Collin Calloway, he’s written on Shawnee people. So, I would start with a couple of those books and look at the references at the back of the book – who did they cite, who did they read, who did they research? Because those are two top notch scholars.

Beckley: We’ll put a link to those things in our show notes which are found at blog.history.in.gov. Ben, I want to thank you so much for coming on today. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you.

Barnes: Thank you for the invite. We appreciate it.

Beckley: Once again, I want to thank Chief Barnes for taking the time to talk with me for this episode. As mentioned at the end of that discussion, check out the show notes for useful links for resources to learn about the Shawnee Tribe. We’ll be back on June 10 with a new episode! In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana history tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!