Here from the start

Polke helped write state's constitution

History has recorded that William Polke was born Sept. 19, 1775, in Brooke County, Va. As a boy in 1782, he and his mother and three sisters were captured by raiding Native Americans. Handed over to the British at Detroit, the family was held as prisoners for a year before being released in 1783 at the end of the American Revolutionary War.

Later, the Polke family moved to Knox County, Ind. As an adult, William established a career in public service. He was with Gen. Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, helped build the original stronghold at Fort Wayne and was wounded during the Battle of Tippecanoe. In 1814, he served as a Knox County associate circuit court judge and won election to the Territorial Legislature. Polke became one of the 43 delegates to the Constitutional Convention responsible for writing Indiana’s first state constitution in 1816. He served two terms as the state senator of Knox County.

In 1838, Able C. Pepper, Superintendent of Emigration of Indians, assigned Polke as a conductor of the Potawatomi people’s removal from their northern Indiana homeland on their grueling march to Kansas. In “The Papers of William Polke, 1775-1843,” Indiana University professor Cecil K. Byrd wrote, “Polke was genuinely concerned with the welfare of the Indians and, disclaimers to the contrary, personally did everything he could to supply food, clothing and render medical assistance in the exercise of his official duties.”

It was a forced march of more than 800 Potawatomi, known to history as “The Trail of Death.” Upon reaching Danville, Ill., the tribe was handed over to William Polke. Paul Wallace Gates noted in “The John Tipton Papers” that Polke “was convinced that his prompt action had prevented bloodshed between the two races. That he regretted the haste, the lack of preparation, and the suffering is equally clear. And once they reached Kansas he was certain the tribe would be protected … from the encroaching aggression.” In 1841, in recognition of Polke’s patriotic services, President William Henry Harrison appointed him to serve at Fort Wayne as register of the land office.

When Polke died, his April 29, 1843, Fort Wayne Sentinel obituary ended with these lines: “He was buried with military honors; and a large concourse of citizens followed his remains to their last camping ground.” The cemetery name is not mentioned. In the year 1860, the interred remains in the McCulloch Cemetery along Broadway – present-day McCulloch Park – were to be removed and re-interred in present-day Lindenwood Cemetery. However, there is no record of the move having actually happened.

During a research project to identify the burial site of each of the Constitutional Convention delegates, Indiana State Archivist Jim Corridan identified Polke’s long-forgotten grave “in an early Fort Wayne cemetery.” Through a diligent search of records in Polke’s estate filed at the county clerk’s office by SuzAnne Runge, Jim Corridan confirmed that Polke was buried in the old Broadway Cemetery and is interred there today.

First appeared in the September 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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