Potawatomi chief left his mark on Kansas

His Potawatomi name was Nan-Wesh-Mah.

He was the son of Potawatomi Chief Shau-Uque-Be and Cone-Zo-Quah; educated first at a Baptist missionary school in Fort Wayne, Ind., and later at a Choctaw Academy in Kentucky. He served as an interpreter and mediator for Rev. Isaac McCoy, who established several Indian reservations in Kansas during the first half of the 19th century.

Nan-Wesh-Mah was born in November 1812 in Indiana by the Tippecanoe River. After his father died, he was adopted by his mother’s cousin, Abraham Burnett, and given the name Abram Burnett.

According to Kansas State Historical society records, Chief Burnett was removed with other Mission Band Potawatomis to a reservation in Kansas in 1838. He eventually farmed the area now known as Burnett’s Mound in Shawnee County along Shunganunga Creek.

An obituary from an unmarked newspaper published at the time of his death in 1870 provides some insight not only into the life of Chief Burnett but how a predominately “white society” viewed his role in early Topeka’s history.

“Mr. Burnett is well known to the citizens of Topeka. For years, as often as once a week he has been seen in his lumber wagon on our streets, and he never failed until last Saturday, to be present at every circus that has exhibited here. He was the largest male in Kansas, weighing 496 pounds at the time of his death.”

What isn’t said is how Chief Burnett undoubtedly struggled to maintain the traditional ways of a Potawatomi Indian while living in a predominately white world. He cut his hair, dressed in a coat and trousers, wore a hat and carried an elaborate cane with a handle of rose quartz with a silver collar.

His son-in-law was William Greiffenstein, a trader and one of the early founders of Wichita.

“He followed the migrations of his tribe and his superior education made him a useful man among his people,” the 1870 obituary continued. “He was a constant reader of newspapers, and was a subscriber to the state record from the date of its establishment.”

Although Chief Burnett died in 1870, his legacy continues. Most Kansans are familiar with a prominent bluff on the south edge of Topeka known simply as “Burnett’s Mound.”

A ghost town in Potawatomie County, Okla., is also carries his name. The town of Burnett was founded in the late 1880s by Greiffenstein and his wife, Catherine Burnett.