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  • Sue Devick

Native Americans' Final Farewell to the Graves of Their Fathers

Updated: Mar 11

A common trait of most Native American tribes is their devotion to the gravesites of their ancestors and loved ones. The continuous pressure of the Settlement Era changed Illinois in the nineteenth century as indigenous people were forced westward, which resulted in their reluctant departure from their tribe's traditional homelands, including sacred burial grounds. Illinois historian Nehemiah Matson (1816-1873) describes such a final farewell by a band of Potawatomi led by Chief Autuckee when Black Hawk and his fellow Sac warriors prepared for war against the white settlers in 1832. In Reminiscences of Bureau County, Matson writes about the solemn ceremony that was performed as approximately seven hundred people packed their belongings and left their homesites when war was imminent:

When the Indians on Bureau were notified by runners from Black Hawk's band that hostilities were about to commence, they were greatly alarmed, knowing that their lives would be endangered by remaining longer in the country, and they prepared for a hasty departure. At their village, where Tiskilwa now stands, about seven hundred had collected, to deliberate on the means of making their final exit. After making the necessary preparations, the Indians en masse, old and young, repaired to their village burying ground, to pay their respects to the graves of departed loved ones.

Indians everywhere are attached to their homes, the land of their nativity; and it was with feeling of regret that they gave up their cornfields and hunting grounds; but there is another place still more sacred to them, and from which they departed with sorrowful hearts. This was the graves of their fathers.

On the bottom prairie, a short distance below Tiskilwa, is an oblong knoll, which overlooks the valley, and presents a fine view of the surroundings. This knoll had been the village burying ground for many generations. Here were buried their prophets and great warriors, as well as their fair maidens, and of their graves the Indians were about to take their last farewell. The ceremonies connected with this affair, is described by an eye witness, (Amos Leonard) as being very solemn. The faces of all the Indians, old and young, were painted black, an emblem of mourning, and the young squaws had powdered their hair, making it white as snow, in representation of their purity.

In the midst of the group was seen the tall form of Autuckee, the principal chief of the village. On the head of this chief was a crown of turkey feathers, and from his neck was suspended an Indian drum. At the tap of this drum, all the Indians fell on their knees, while the chief with uplifted hands, and eyes rolled back in their sockets, prayed to the Great Spirit, for the preservation of the bones of departed friends. For some time the Indians remained on their knees chanting, while the squaws stood by beating their breast with their hands, weeping and wailing with loud acclamations of grief for departed loved ones.

Again the chief tapped his drum, when the Indians sprang to their feet, and commenced singing a song to the dead. This song was sung in a low plaintive key, and sounded like a funeral dirge; while thus engaged, the squaws with baskets of flowers, which had been gathered for the occasion, strewed them over the graves. After the conclusion of these exercises, the Indians again returned to their village.

One of their number, an old man of more than four score years, refused to leave their graves, saying, 'Here lie my father, my squaw, and my papooses, all that was near and dear unto me; no one is now left to love or care for me, and my blood no longer runs in the veins of any human being.' Over the graves of his departed friends, the old man's form was bent, and here he wished to die; no persuasion could induce him to leave this spot, and by force alone he was taken away, and placed on a pony, to be carried westward with the rest of the band.

At the village, the Indians loaded their ponies with camp equipage, preparatory to their departure. On some of their ponies were placed willow baskets, filled with papooses, and these ponies were turned loose, without bridle or halter, to follow the procession. The squaws rode astride of their ponies, many of whom carried an infant on their back, placed in a pocket in their blanket, with its head sticking out. Everything being ready, the procession started for the west, when old and young joined in singing their farewell song.

Although the Potawatomi and Sac held different positions regarding war against the white settlers, they both felt similarly regarding sacred burial grounds. The deep reverence that the Sac felt toward the gravesites of their loved ones is described by Sac war leader Black Hawk in his autobiography as he writes about the contrasts between the cultures of the white settlers and Native Americans:

With us it is a custom to visit the graves of our friends and keep them

in repair for many years. The mother will go alone to weep over the

grave of her child. The brave, with pleasure, visits the grave of his father,

after he has been successful in war, and repaints the post that marks where

he lies. There is no place like that where the bones of our forefathers lie

to go to when in grief. Here prostrate by the tombs of our fathers will the

Great Spirit take pity on us.

Black Hawk's plan for a widespread war against the white settlers was spoiled by Potawatomi chief Shabbona (or Shaubena), who was at that time as the chief of the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Odawa tribes. Shabbona realized the futility of engaging the U.S. Army in war, as the Native Americans were outnumbered and did not have comparable weapons. Shabbona warned the pioneers in northern Illinois about Black Hawk's intentions, thereby allowing most of them to seek safety in fortified locations such as Fort Dearborn in Chicago as hostilities began. However, Shabbona's loyalty to the white settlers did not prevent him from losing his wooded homesite near DeKalb after the Black Hawk War. Although the U.S. government had granted him rights of ownership as a reward for his actions, the conditions for ownership were changed without the chief's knowledge, resulting in the land's sale.

Matson personally knew Shabbona and wrote about him in Memories of Shaubena: Incidents Relating to the Early Settlements of the West. The author describes the chief's devastation when questionable circumstances resulted in his forced departure from his traditional homesite:

This grove had been Shaubena's home for nearly fifty years; here was

the grave of his first squaw and of two of his papooses, and where he

expected to lay his bones. He had been a friend to the whites for many

years, having saved some of their lives at the risk of his own... . He was

now old---past three-score and ten---no longer capable of getting a living

by the chase, as in former days... . With a sorrowful heart, Shaubena

looked for the last time upon the graves of departed loved ones, and

then left the grove forever.

While Shabbona's sad farewell to the burial sites of his family members is documented, this scenario was undoubtedly repeated countless times as the terms of the 1833 Treaty of Chicago were enforced. Many local historical sources describe the existence of Potawatomi burial sites in and around Chicago.* About fifteen miles west of the city, the village of Sauganakka was the largest Potawatomi village in DuPage County; it was located in and around Fullersburg. This village's features are detailed in the "Scharf" map, which can be found in the Sources section of this website. The map indicates that a signal station, chipping station (where tools and weapons were made), camps and burial mounds were located along Salt Creek, which was called Wewanippissee by the Potawatomi, translated as "the pretty little river." The research upon which the map's legend was based is contained in notes that comprise the "Scharf manuscript," which is also found in this website's Sources section. Similarly, Hugh Dugan, author of Village on the County Line, includes similar findings regarding the features of this Potawatomi village, including a burial mound (labeled as "Indian mound") in a historical map in the front cover of his book, also found on this website.

Local author and historian George Ruchty, author of The Fullers of Fullersburg, writes about Native American burial mounds which were known by the local residents of the Fullersburg area as late as in the early twentieth century. (This booklet is also found on this website in the Sources section.) Ruchty, a descendant of Benjamin Fuller, the founder of Fullersburg, writes:

For as long as I can remember the people of Fullersburg were particularly

fascinated by the two circular mounds about eight feet high and fifteen feet

in diameter which were said to mark the burial site of tribal chiefs. The area,

known as the "wiccibottom," is now the forest preserve parking lot. In 1933

the Civilian Conservation Corps leveled off the mounds, obliterating the last

major visible remnants of the days when the Indians roamed freely in the

Fullersburg area. Remaining, perhaps, are archeological sites, yet to be


The Potawatomi who inhabited this area felt sadness when leaving their villages due to the terms of the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, which required them to relocate west of the Mississippi River. One of the local Potawatomi chiefs, Aptakisic, had formed a strong friendship with the pioneer family of Isaac and Avis Blodgett, who had settled west of Chicago. Aptakisic warned the Blodgetts about the imminent war with Black Hawk and accompanied the family to safety at Ft. Dearborn. Henry Blodgett, son of Isaac and Avis, writes in a letter about the mutual sadness felt by the Blodgetts and Aptakisic when saying their final farewells after the forced relocation of the Potawatomi, stating, "I well remember the sad face of the old chief as he came to bid our family goodbye. ... We all shed tears of genuine sorrow... his generous kindness to my parents has given me a higher idea of the red man's genuine worth." It can be assumed that Aptakisic also regretted leaving behind the gravesites of his friends and relatives as he moved to unknown lands across the Mississippi River.

Fullersburg Historic Foundation acknowledges the proud heritage of the Potawatomi and other Native Americans who occupied the land in this area before the Settlement Era. Our research continues about the location of the Native American burial sites in

historic Fullersburg and the former Sauganakka. We commend numerous organizations that have announced Land Acknowledgement Resolutions recognizing the indigenous people whose traditional homelands were in this vicinity. The foundation pledges to act responsibility and ethically as we learn about indigenous cultures and educate others about their rich history, including by honoring sacred indigenous burial sites.

Sue Devick, M.A.

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