|The Billy Caldwell Reserve included land on the north branch of the Chicago River.|
Billy Caldwell is a figure of legends but was a real person. Untangling his story has kept historians busy for nearly two hundred years.
William Caldwell Jr. was born near Fort Niagara, in upper New York, on March 17, 1780. He was the natural son of a British army officer and a Mohawk princess (a French/English name given to an Indian woman of high order or the wife or family member of a Cheif). There’s some evidence that Billy’s first name was actually Thomas.
The boy didn’t have much standing in the society of his time—he was both a bastard and a “half breed.” Billy was raised by the Mohawks, then spent some time in his father’s household. At 17 he moved out on his own.
Caldwell apprenticed himself into the fur trade. By 1803 he was the chief clerk in the Forsythe-Kinzie firm’s new post at the mouth of the Chicagoua River. About this time he married into the Potawatomi tribe. His in-laws called him “Sauganash,” which translates as “Englishmen.”
In 1812 the Potawatomi attacked the American garrison at Fort Dearborn. The story goes that Caldwell arrived on the scene just after the battle and saved the lives of the John Kinzie family. That’s the traditional account of what had happened. Historians have been unable to verify it.
Caldwell fought on the British side in the War of 1812. Afterward, he lived in Canada. When several business ventures failed, he moved back to Chicago.
In Chicago, Caldwell worked in the Indian trade, as a merchant, and as an appraiser. He made friends among the settlement’s leaders. Because of his tribal connections and his fluency in several languages, he smoothed relations between the Americans and the native peoples.
In 1828 the U.S. government recognized Caldwell’s work by building Chicago’s first frame house for him, it was near what is now Chicago Avenue and State Street. The next year he was appointed as chief of the Potawatomi. The Potawatomi knew that the Americans were going to force them out of the area. They wanted to get the best deal possible. Even though Chief Caldwell was Mohawk—and only on his mother’s side—they thought he could help them in treaty negotiations. So they accepted him as chief.
In 1830 the Potawatomi started signing off their land. Chief Caldwell became a hero among the American settlers. Chicago’s first hotel was named the "Sauganash" in his honor. The U.S. government awarded him a 1600-acre tract of land northwest of the city, known as the Billy Caldwell Reserve. He lived there with his Potawatomi band for three years.
By the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi gave up the last of their land. At 51, Chief Caldwell was an old man for the time. Now that the native peoples were leaving, there was no need for his unique services and no reason for him to stay in Chicago. He sold his reserve and left with his adopted tribe.
Billy brought the Potawatomi to Iowa, settled along the Missouri River, and he lived in what became Council Bluffs, Iowa where he spent his final years. He died there on September 27, 1841, and is buried in the Saint Joseph Cemetery, Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.