The Native America tribe that is called the Potawatomi originally lived in the heavily forested region of the northern Great Lakes with their close relatives the Ojibwe and Ottawa tribes in what is now the state of Michigan. The rapidly expanding non-Indian population along the eastern seaboard pushed the Eastern tribes west into Potawatomi territory, straining intertribal relations and food resources. In order to reduce the increasing tension the Potawatomi moved south into Wisconsin and Illinois.
By the mid-1700s a clash of native philosophy and historical events forged the destiny of the Potawatomi. Native peoples believed the land belonged to all living creatures, both man and beast, there was no land ownership. This was the direct opposite of the U.S. Government's laws of property rights and landownership. The U.S. Government created official tribal boundaries, and then through a series of "cession treaties" purchased the tribal lands for white settlement and/or entrepreneurial activities.
Once the struggle for control of the North American continent began, Native tribes joined forces with their friends the French during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and then 12 years later many tribes allied themselves with the British during the American Revolution (1775-1783). The bloody conflict and defeat of the Native American forces in both major historical turning points shaped the government's policy and treatment of all Native Americans for the next 150 years.
In 1830 the Federal Government passed the Indian Removal Act that required the sale of all Native American lands and the emigration of Native tribes from all the states east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in the segregated, exclusively Indian, territories of Kansas and Oklahoma. The U.S. Government then proceeded to move the Native tribes located east of the Mississippi River west to the reservations.
The new tribal lands or reservations were supervised by religious denominations that provided schooling, training in farming practices, health care and religious conversion. Historically, a variety of organized religious denominations had conducted missionary activities with many Native American tribes. The Catholic Church's missionary activities among the Potawatomi began in the 1600's with the work of French Jesuit missionaries in Michigan, and their missionary activities continued here at St. Marys.
St. Marys was founded in 1848 as "St. Marys Catholic Mission to the Pottawatomie" and served as the headquarters for the 30-square miles of the Pottawatomie Reservation that had been established the year before. Father Felix Verrydt chose the site north of the Kansas River for the new Catholic mission. This was not a popular decision; the Potawatomi feared raids from the Pawnee and felt that the site was too low and only a mile from the Kansas River. On September 9, 1848, Jesuits and Sisters arrived at the site of St. Marys Mission.
Father Verrydt wrote: "The Kansas River flows through very fertile land, generally covered with large timber, oak and walnut trees, also sycamore, locust, elm, and cottonwood. Unfortunately, there are no sugar trees, which greatly disappointed the Indians. We used a great deal of timber for our church, buildings, and fences. As to the prairie, it is the best grazing place in the west."
In 1850 Dr. John F. Snyder wrote: "after leaving the Kansas [River] ten miles, we arrived at the 'Pottawattamie Mission,' establ. [sic] here by the catholics [St. Marys]...it is a very neat looking place, consisting of three, or four two story log houses belonging to the church, and about twenty small log huts. The Indians here have large farms, and seem to be very industrious."
The Potawatomi Indian Agency was established at the St. Marys Mission in 1848. The U.S. Government constructed a one-story, two-room stone building which became known as the Indian Pay Station where annual payments were made to the Potawatomi in accordance with the treaties they had signed ceding their lands in the East. The last payment was made in 1870. The reservation was originally owned by the entire tribe, but the land was divied into individual allotments and distributed to individual owners, and this action split the Potawatomi into the Prairie and Citizen bands.