Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Life & Times of Billy Caldwell, (1780-1841), Whose History was Mostly Fabricated.

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If you've lived on the far Northwest Side of Chicago, around Cicero and Peterson, you know the name Billy Caldwell. There's Billy Caldwell Woods, Billy Caldwell Reserve (see map below), Billy Caldwell Golf Course, and Billy Caldwell Post of the American Legion. And, of course, Caldwell Avenue. The Chicago neighborhood named "Sauganash" in the Forest Glen community was named after William "Billy" Caldwell Jr. He claimed "Sauganash" was his given Potawatomi name.

Billy Caldwell is a figure of legends but was a real person. Untangling his story has kept historians busy for the last 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 nine years old, Billy Caldwell received a primary 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 a second-class son.

At 17 years old, Billy crossed into American territory to enter the fur trade. Billy apprenticed himself into the fur trade, beginning 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. After that, he married the daughter of Robert Forsyth, 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 eight to ten children, none living to adulthood or surviving him.

By early 1812, he was reputed to be incredibly influential among the powerful Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Ojibwa communities around Lake Michigan, so 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 appraiser. He made friends among the settlement's leaders. Because of his tribal connections and 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, even though his father never recognized him as his rightful eldest son.
An illustration of Billy Caldwell's house. It was believed to be the first frame house in Northern Illinois. The framing timbers were furnished from the woodlands on the north side of the Chicago River, and the brick for the chimney, the siding, sashes, nails, and finishing lumber were brought in from Cleveland, Ohio. 

In Chicago between 1827 and 1833, various legends and myths grew concerning Caldwell's ancestry, rank, and social status, eventually making 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. 
THE MYTH: 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 TALE: 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 "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.
The above represents fabrications told by his employers, who made up facts; Billy Caldwell was appointed as an 'American-recognized Chief.' A really big deal on the frontier. All to serve the business revenue interests. 

Some legendary elements have reached fable status. Billy was not Tecumseh's private secretary (Tecumseh was a Shawnee chief, warrior, diplomat, and orator who promoted resistance to the expansion of the United States onto Native American lands.). Caldwell added some of his own embellishments, too. Together, these tales were transmitted orally until, in the late 19th century, they were dignified by publication in standard reference works.

Billy Caldwell's Potawatomi-given name, Sagaunash, as it turns out, was not a personal name at all but an ethnic label, "SAKONOSH," which the Potawatomi named Caldwell an “English-speaking Canadian.”

In 1830, the Potawatomi started signing off their land. Caldwell became a folk hero among the American settlers. Chicago's first hotel was named the "Sauganash" in Caldwells' honor.

The U.S. government awarded him a 1600-acre tract of land northwest of Chicago called the Billy Caldwell Reserve. Billy 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 Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Ojibwa of Wisconsin and Illinois, which ended in 1833 when they ceded their last block of lands at the Treaty of Chicago

His services were no longer needed. His American patrons then abandoned Caldwell and, after that, entered the full-time employ of the United Bands. He migrated with them to western Missouri and Iowa. He 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.

The tree, which stood here until 1933, marked the northern boundary of the Fort Dearborn Reservation. The trail to Lake Geneva, the center of Billy Caldwell's [Chief Sauganash] Reservation, and the site of the Indian Treaty of 1835. Erected by Chicago's Charter Jubilee. Authenticated by Chicago Historical Society 1937

This marker at Rogers and Kilbourn in Chicago's Sauganash neighborhood commemorates the "Treaty Elm," originally a frontier trail marker used in the Billy Caldwell reserve's first and second government surveys. The elm stood until 1933. Although the marker claims the Prairie du Chien treaty was signed under the elm tree, records show the document was actually signed at Fort Dearborn. Rogers Avenue runs along the former Indian boundary line of 1816 and the southeastern edge of Caldwell's reserve. In 1912, a small portion of the Billy Caldwell Reserve, 260 acres, was purchased by the real estate firm Koester and Zander and named it "Sauganash." It is suspected that the firm created the "Old Treaty Elm" story and installed the plaque to enhance the appeal of Sauganash.
Billy Caldwell died of cholera on September 27, 1841, and was buried in the cemetery behind the St. Joseph Indian Mission, founded in 1838, where 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 long-gone wooden sign marked "Indians." 

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. I was raised in the area and know it well. A house attributed to him is in Forest Glen; Chicago. There is also a coach house on the property on Forest Glen St. just north of Elston.

  2. I grew up next to Forest Glen and spent many days poking around in those woodland trajls. Lots of memories...

  3. Very interesting. All unknown to me.


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