Billy Caldwell is a figure of legends but was a real person. Untangling his story has kept historians busy for about two hundred years.
William "Billy" Caldwell Jr. was born near Fort Niagara, in upper New York, on March 17, 1780. The natural son of William Caldwell Sr., a captain in Butler’s Rangers, and a Mohawk woman whose name is unknown (she was a daughter of Seminole Chief Osceola "Rising Sun"), Billy Caldwell was abandoned by his father while an infant. There’s some evidence that Billy was baptized as Thomas.
Caldwell Sr. was ordered west to Detroit. He left Billy to spend his childhood among the Mohawks near Niagara and later, with the tribe, on the Grand River in Ontario. About 1789, Caldwell Sr. brought Billy back into the family; created by his marriage to Suzanne Reaume Baby (birthed 22 children; 11 survived infancy) at Detroit. There, at 9 years old, Billy Caldwell received a basic education aimed at making him into a family retainer (British English: Domestic worker or servant, especially one who has been with one family for a long time), the manager of the Caldwell farm on the south side of the Detroit River. Billy rejected the status of second-class son.
It was in Chicago between 1827 and 1833 that various legends and myths grew up concerning Caldwell’s ancestry, rank, and social status, which eventually made him a “half-breed principal chief” of the Potawatomi. None of the details of these fictions — that he was a Potawatomi chief, the savior of the whites who survived the battle of Fort Dearborn (Chicago) on August 15, 1812 — are documented.
As the myth goes: Caldwell arrived on the scene just after the Potawatomi attacked the American garrison at Fort Dearborn on August 15, 1812, and saved the lives of the John Kinzie family.
Another unproven story: In 1828 the U.S. Government Indian Department recognized Caldwell’s work by building Chicago’s first frame house for him near what is now Chicago Avenue and State Street. The next year he was appointed as "Chief Sauganash" of the Potawatomi Tribe. 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 Sauganash was Mohawk—and only on his mother’s side—they thought he could help them in treaty negotiations. So they accepted him as a tribal Chief.
His supposed Potawatomi-given name, Sagaunash, as it turns out, was not a personal name at all, but an ethnic label, "sakonosh," by which these tribesmen identified him as “English-speaking Canadian.”
|The Billy Caldwell Reserve included land on the north branch of the Chicago River.|
|Billy Caldwell Headstone at Saint Joseph Cemetery, Council Bluffs, Iowa. His plot is in the Northwest corner of the cemetery.|
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.
 Half-breed; a disrespectful term used to refer to the offspring of parents of different racial origins, especially the offspring of an American Indian and a white person of European descent.