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 woman whose name is unknown (she was a daughter of Chief Osceola or 'Chief Rising Sun'). There’s some evidence that Billy was baptized as 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. Caldwell began his 37-year association with the Thomas Forsyth–John Kinzie trading partnership in 1797, first in what is now southwestern Michigan and along the Wabash River, later in the northern part of present-day Illinois, where in 1803 he rose to the position of chief clerk in the firm’s new post at the mouth of the Chicagoua River at Chicago. A Potawatomi woman named La Nanette, of the powerful fish clan, was his first wife. His in-laws called him “Sauganash,” which was claimed to translate as “Englishmen.” La Nanette died shortly after the marriage, whereupon he married a daughter of Robert Forsyth and an Ojibwa woman. After his second wife’s death, he again married, this time a person known only as the 'Frenchwoman,' likely the daughter of an influential Métis trader in Chicago. He had some eight to ten children in all, none of whom lived to adulthood or survived him.
By early 1812 he was reputed to be especially influential among the powerful Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Ojibwa communities around Lake Michigan so that both American and British officials vied for his services in the coming war.
Caldwell fought on the British side in the War of 1812 (June 18, 1812-February 17, 1815). 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 Indian languages, he smoothed relations between the Americans and the native peoples.
Until 1820 Caldwell identified himself as a “true Briton,” remaining faithful to the values he had acquired in the Detroit River border communities where he was raised, in spite of the fact that his father never recognized him as his rightful eldest son.
It was in Chicago between 1827 and 1833 that various legends grew up concerning Caldwell’s ancestry, rank, and 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 historically documented.
As the story 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 made-up story: In 1828 the U.S. government 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 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.
They represent the fabrications of his employers, who had him appointed as an American recognized Chief; to better serve their business interests. Some legendary elements, for example, the fable that he was Tecumseh’s private secretary, represented Callwell's own embellishments. Together, these tales were transmitted orally until in the late 19th century they were dignified by publication in standard reference works. His supposed Potawatomi 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 “the English-speaking Canadian.”
In 1830 the Potawatomi started signing off their land. Chief Caldwell became a folk 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.
|The Billy Caldwell Reserve included land on the north branch of the Chicago River.|
Caldwell was influential in aiding the negotiation of the final series of treaties signed by the United Bands of Potawatomis, Ottawas, and Ojibwas of Wisconsin and Illinois, which ended in 1833 when they ceded their last block of lands at the Treaty of Chicago.
His services no longer needed, he was then abandoned by his American patrons and thereafter entered the full-time employ of the united bands. He migrated with them to western Missouri and Iowa, and lived in what became Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he made his final home, managing their business affairs and negotiating on their behalf with American officials until his death.
|Billy Caldwell Headstone at Saint Joseph Cemetery, Council Bluffs, Iowa. His plot is in the Northwest corner of the cemetery.|
Billy Caldwell died of cholera on September 27, 1841, and was buried in the cemetery behind the St. Joseph Indian Mission which was founded in 1838 and the Jesuits served the Potawatomi. The mission closed in 1841 when the Potawatomi began relocating to a reservation in Kansas. In 1857 the bluff was cut down, and the graves were reinterred in the “Old Catholic cemetery,” located somewhere on the bluff that is now Saint Joseph Cemetery, Council Bluffs, Pottawattamie County, Iowa. Then the only marker was a wooden sign, long gone, marked “Indians.”
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.