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A Beacon of History: Shirley Willard

Indiana Daughter illuminates her state’s important stories

When Shirley Willard taught middle school history in the 1970s, textbooks were still glossing over one of the state’s darkest chapters—the forced removal of the Potawatomi American Indians from Indiana to Kansas in the fall of 1838.

“I remember there was one paragraph dedicated to it,” recalled the member of Manitou DAR Chapter, Rochester, Ind., and former president of the Fulton County Historical Society (1971–2001). “And it made it sound like the Potawatomi went West and then fell off the face of the earth.”

The reality was much harsher: Some 859 Potawatomi Indians were forcibly removed from Indiana at gunpoint and forced to walk or ride horseback approximately 660 miles, through Illinois and Missouri, to Osawatomie, Kan. Water was scarce, and disease was rampant. The journey later became known as the Trail of Death, a reference to the 42 Potawatomi, mostly the elderly and infants, who died along the way and were buried in unmarked graves.

“It’s a black mark on Indiana’s history, but to ignore it like it never happened is a great disservice,” she said. “We can’t go back and change it, but we can recognize that it happened and reach out with our hand in friendship and be good neighbors.”

And that’s exactly what she has done. Since 1976, Mrs. Willard has been dedicated to building relationships with Potawatomi leaders and conducting time-consuming research—all in the name of bringing light to one of Indiana’s darkest moments.  

In 1976, she helped establish the Trail of Courage Living History Festival. The event is now in its 43rd year of celebrating the contributions of the Potawatomi Indians and the settlers who lived in northern Indiana in the early 1800s. The festival features re-enactments, period music and other activities.

Later, Mrs. Willard oversaw the construction of a new Fulton County Museum in Rochester, Ind., and founded a living history village called Loyal, where 14 historic buildings rescued from across Fulton County are now located.

To celebrate Indiana’s bicentennial in 2016, Mrs. Willard played a central role in restoring the forced Potawatomi removal to its rightful place in history—by getting it included in four Indiana history textbooks. The removal route now boasts 82 historical plaques on boulders and 150 historic highway signs. (See www.potawatomi-tda.org to learn more.)

She’s also the author of four history books and writes a newspaper column about history and preservation for The Rochester Sentinel.

“I’ve been writing every single week for the past 20 years,” she said. “People are always contacting me with ideas. The public knows if they give me a story, I’ll help them tell it.”

On September 17, 2018, after the Trail of Courage Living History Festival ended, Mrs. Willard and more than two dozen other historians, descendants and others began a journey retracing the steps of the Potawatomi—but this time in cars, trucks and campers. Every five years since 1988, a group led by Mrs. Willard and George Godfrey, a member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has made the week-long trip from Rochester, Ind., to Osawatomie, Kan.

For all of her work in historic preservation and education, Mrs. Willard received the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Indiana Historical Society.

“It was an amazing honor to be recognized,” she said. “Looking back, it’s kind of unbelievable that we were able to accomplish all that we did.”

Mrs. Willard technically is retired, but she still keeps an office at the Fulton County Museum, which she goes to a couple of times a week. Otherwise, she’s at home on her farm with her husband, Bill. Their 2-year-old great-grandson and family live next door.

“He’s the joy of our lives,” she said. “He’s constantly spouting off lines, and it’s so fun wondering what he’s trying to say. Usually it’s ‘Tractor.’ As in, ‘Take me for another tractor ride!’”

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