Uncovering a 100 year old mystery: Menominee's Chapel

The statue of Chief Menominee

Today marks the 171st anniversary of the beginning of the Trail of Death. Most people in this little swath of the state know what the Trail of Death was, and even who the great Chief Menominee was. But as we prepare for the 100th anniversary of the statue dedication to the peaceful chief we realized that there is a fair amount of misinformation and mystery surrounding the Chief Menominee memorial.


Chief Menominee was leader to a band of nearly 1,000 Pottawatomie. He owned a large amount of land in the Twin Lakes area of Marshall County on which his tribe resided; the area surrounding his lands had been opened up to settlement via the Michigan Road. In 1838, with pressure from new settlers who wanted the Chief's lands, the federal government attempted to make a treaty for the sale of the land. They succeeded in acquiring signatures from a few "under chiefs", but not the key owner, Menominee. On September4 of the same year, armed troops came to Menominee's small village and after holding many of them captive in their log chapel, began to round up the Pottawatomie to begin a long trek of hardship and death to reservation lands in Kansas. The Trail of Death, as it became known, followed the Michigan Road south of Plymouth into Rochester, then Logansport before heading west and south again around Lafayette, then into Illinois. The trail is marked by signage today.

Some years before, the Menominee band had converted to Catholicism and Father Petit from Notre Dame became their priest, erecting a log chapel that was 30' x 40' around 1827-1830. When Petit was away and unable to conduct services, Chief Menominee would assume the role of spiritual leader. Father Petit accompanied the band during the forced removal but became ill in Missouri and died in St. Louis. William Polke, the state's lead surveyor for the Michigan Road, was one of the men in charge of the removal. The log chapel and the rest of Menominee's village were destroyed.

A man by the name of Daniel McDonald was among Marshall County's earliest settlers and is credited as being the key historian of these early pioneer days. He also had a particular interest and sympathy for the Pottawatomie. He began to lobby for a proper monument commemorating Chief Menominee and the forced removal. He was elected to the state legislature and introduced a bill to erect a statue and replica of the log chapel during his first years but it failed; he introduced it again and it passed with the understanding that the county would be responsible for maintenance. Attempts were made to place the statue and chapel on the former site of the Menominee village, but the land owner wanted $800 and free land was offered further south of the village site that had rail access. John McFarlin, a Civil War vet (I live in the house his father built), donated the acreage from a corner of his farm that was cut off by the Vandalia Railroad.

In 1909 a competition was held and a local man by the name of Frank Southworth won the design competition. Southworth's family was also in the stone monument business in Plymouth. They contracted with the firm of Novelli & Calcagni of Barre, Vermont to sculpt and supply the statue made of "Barre Granite". Bids were also received for the construction of the replica chapel. The 17' tall statue was dedicated on September 4, 1909 with great fanfare and included speeches by dignitaries and descendants of Chief Menominee. It was at that time and for decades later the only state funded statue to a Native American in the country.

Chief Menominee Memorial dedication, 1909

Misinformation & Mystery
A few of us wanted to better understand some of the particulars of the memorial site including a clarification of who the sculptor was and why the log chapel was never built. This began an interesting string of emails and some archaeological sleuthing.

A photograph from the firm of Novelli & Corti, later Calcagni

A famous sculptor by the name of James Novelli has been credited with creating the statue in survey data and the authoritative book on James by Josephine Murphy, as well as documents in the Smithsonian's archives. But the firm of Novelli & Calcagni was based in Vermont, not New York, James' home. As best we can tell, a survey of historic outdoor sculpture in Indiana conducted in 1993 created the confusion by leaping to the assumption that Novelli & Calcagni was James Novelli "and another artisit named Calcagni". In fact, it appears the Vermont firm of Samuel Novelli and Calcagni were responsible for the statue. The latter were famous in their own right, supplying statuary across the country. The Smithsonian archives are based off the 1993 survey and Murphy's book is based off the archives. That one solved.

But why, if the state funded the construction of the chapel and it was included in the bids, was the replica never built? No one remembers the cabin being on the grounds, it was never discussed in the dedication of the memorial, and no photographic evidence of it had ever been found. Until recently.

Breaking news....the chapel WAS built!
An exchange of emails ultimately led to the discovery of this rare photo that even historians in Marshall County never knew existed. Evidence of the log chapel at the Chief Menominee site. But what happened to the chapel? And how could this possibly be a replica of the large building? Based on newspaper clippings through the 1950's it appears that county commissioners were slapped on the hands on a few occasions by the state for not fulfilling its agreement for the maintenance of the site (as reported in the Star). This has led to speculation that the log chapel probably fell into disrepair very quickly and likely was removed by the early 1930's. Again, no old timers even remember it.

and the foundation stones are still there!
So, a cohort-responsible for the rededication ceremony, and I made a trip to the site since he was convinced ground impressions he had witnessed may be the cabin foundations. Once there it became clear that those impressions could not match the location of the cabin based on the one photo we have. We began to walk the area directly behind the Chief when the first tiny granite nub showed itself through the grass....it was the northeast corner. Then we found the southeast and southwest corner and a stone for the threshold. The top of the stones being no more than about 3" square and some covered with moss, flush with the ground, the cabin would have been set on four corner stones. The dimensions of the replica appear to be about 12' x 12', a far cry from the 30' x 40' cabin described in McDonald's history. There also appears to be some wildflower vegetation/patch to each side of the chapel footprint likely placed for landscaping but mowed down for decades.

Standing at the northeast corner stone

A missing finger and the chain question.
This statue and I have some history together. Vandals had broken off the top two inches of the Chief's index finger almost 30 years ago. A group I was involved in wanted to repair the statue so we asked permission, which started a media circus about the Chief's lost finger. The finger mysteriously reappeared, kept by a neighboring landowner in a box all these decades. The Associated Press picked up on the story and it was carried as far away as Florida. The finger was reinstalled, only to become the target of vandals again....leading to the newest mystery-who has the finger?

The other more recent controversy surrounding the Chief is whether or not chains should be reinstalled on the concrete anchor posts that surround the base of the statue and line the county road. A heavy metal chain was installed sometime shortly after the statue was dedicated, strung between concrete posts. Speculation is that they were installed to keep visitors from driving teams of horses, or Model Ts, up to the statue and on the memorial grounds. The chains were believed to be stolen several years ago and plastic chain was reinstalled. Most of it was also missing by 2008. One county commissioner proposed that the metal chain should be reinstalled. But Pottawatomie descendants, when seeing the chain at an event some years ago, were troubled since legend states that Chief Menominee was chained and placed into a wagon for the removal. The Pottawatomie have asked that the chains, to them symbolic of captivity and removal, not be reinstalled. What do you think......should the Chief be "rechained"?

I apologize for the lengthy post...but the history detective/archaeological geek in me had to put this out there. The rededication is scheduled on September 18 at 4:00 p.m. I hope to see you at the Chief.


vanilla said…
Nice effort, nice reporting.

Haven't really thought deeply about this, but off the top of the head, so to speak, the "chain" apparently does little to protect the statue, so perhaps sensitivity to the Menominee might be in order.
vanilla said…
My intention was to say "sensitivity to the Pottawatomie." Maybe it's too early in the day to be opining?
hoosier reborn said…

I tend to agree that the chains should probably remain left off; there is a certain historical context that should be considered since they were there for I assume around 80 years of the statue's existence....but sometimes sensitivity today is more important than history.
Anonymous said…
Friend, when you asked me to Chair this rededication effort I had no idea what I was about to be in for. The full spectrum of emotions, frustration,anger, the joy of discovery, the sadness over simple things like the destroyed wildflowers planted by a boy scout, the pleasure of building new friendships, working with people I have known and seeing them in a new bright light. Old beliefs and assumptions confirmed and many disproved.
I am still apprehensive about the eventual outcome but I believe everyone involved in WVPC and from Rochester has done the very best to put together a meaningful, thoughtful and educational event.

You learned that for years the wrong sculptor has been credited with the work on the Chief. We have learned that the chapel was built on the site and through what appears to be county neglect it was allowed to deteriorate and eventually be removed. We learned that in fact the State of Indiana DNR owns the site. Through the pictures we have seen over the past year we see how little effort has gone on over the years to maintain this monument. We have seen a Boy Scout get permission to do an Eagle Scout project and then discover that his wildflowers were cut down and covered. We have met new people, learned new things and have developed a new respect for the people that who treated so poorly 175 years ago we honor in this monument.

hoosier reborn said…

With all of the discoveries, this too has become a rewarding project to see coming to fruition. My concern today, as it has been for some years now, is that we really haven't learned anything-we really haven't changed. Politics today causes hate and prejudice to exist right here in our community. There is a hate/fear of new ideas and true community that one can see any time they pick up the paper. The driving force of the Trail of Death was greed-and greed is alive and doing very well today as it was nearly 200 years ago.

I hold out for hope that good people will one day move our community in a direction that speaks to our country's purest ideals and learned lessons from our mistakes.

Popular Posts