Years ago, someone painted a red cross on a wall inside the Potawatomi Mission in Topeka.
Although we may never know who drew that cross, the artist may have been a Potawatomi student at the mission's boarding school here in 1850, or a child playing in the building when it was used as a barn in 1950.
Today the faded red cross is preserved by the Kansas Historical Society in the original stone mission building, built in 1848. The red cross represents the mysteries surrounding the Potawatomi children who lived at the school. It is difficult to tell the mission's story from the children's viewpoint because they left no written records. Records of the white missionaries also are incomplete.
Further complicating the matter is the complex history of American Indians in the United States. As with most tribes, the Potawatomi have a complicated past after they came into contact with white settlers.
Forced to move from their traditional lands around the Great Lakes, the Potawatomi settled on reserves in present-day Kansas in the 1830s. Treaty money poured into the area from Washington, D.C., and traders, land speculators, and railroad companies all battled for the tribe's money and land.
Religious organizations also vied for the money, but their motives were mainly charitable. The missionaries believed they best served society by converting and "civilizing" the Potawatomi, but in the process destroyed traditional tribal culture. Although their attitude seems repulsive today, in 1850 it was "politically correct" to try to assimilate native peoples into mainstream society.
Two close competitors for treaty money were the Potawatomi Baptist Manual Labor School, just south of the Kansas River near present-day Topeka, and St. Mary's Catholic Mission about 12 miles up-river. Both missions received start-up money from the federal government and from $50 to $75 for each student on their rolls. In exchange, the missions fed, clothed, and schooled the children.
The experiences of two Potawatomi brothers are typical of the competition between missions. Richard and Bernard Bertrand are listed on the rolls of both schools from 1848 through 1850. Many Potawatomi children attended both schools sporadically, and the two missions often listed the same students on their rolls to keep their numbers up and receive continued payments from the federal government.
A child's early days at the mission was traumatic. Native dress was taken away and replaced with "white" clothing, and Potawatomi names were replaced with Christian ones. Family visits were discouraged because they exposed children to the very way of life the missions were trying to eliminate.
After the seasonal pace of tribal life, the mission's highly scheduled days must have been a difficult adjustment for the children. Mission life followed a strict schedule of prayers, study, and classroom work. Girls also learned to cook, sew, and launder clothes. Boys like the Bertrand brothers worked in the fields, cared for livestock, and learned blacksmithing.
The Potawatomi Mission near Topeka operated just 13 years, from 1848 to 1861. It suffered from sporadic shortages of funds and staffing throughout its short history, but the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 made these problems insurmountable. When Kansas became a state that same year, the Potawatomi reservation was reduced dramatically in size, and most of the tribe moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
The stone building was converted to a barn after the mission closed its doors, and it operated as Prairie Dell Farm for a time. The Kansas Historical Society bought the property and surround 80 acres in 1974, where its headquarters are now located.
Entry: Potawatomi Mission
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2009
Date Modified: June 2011
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.