In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. I believe presentism is a form of cultural bias, and it creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. I'm well aware that historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present articles that are fact based and well researched, without interjecting any of my personal opinions.
William Wells (1770–1812), also known as Apekonit ("Wild Carrot"), was the son-in-law of Chief Little Turtle of the Miami Indian tribe.
Wells was born at Jacob's Creek in 1770, Pennsylvania, the son of Samuel Wells, a captain in the Virginia militia during the American Revolutionary War. The family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1779, and settled on Beargrass Creek when William was nine and shortly after, his mother died. After Miami warriors ambushed settlers evacuating Squire Boone's station in 1782, Wells' father was killed in a second ambush the following day, and young Wells went to live with the family of William Pope. Two years later in 1784, he and three other boys were taken captive by an Eel River Miami and Delaware raiding party and taken to Indiana. Wells was 13 years old at the time.
Wells was adopted by a chief named Gaviahate ("Porcupine"), and raised in the village of Kenapakomoko [Snakefish Town] on the Eel River, six months up from Logansport in northern Indiana. His Miami name was "Apekonit" (Wild Carrot), perhaps in reference to his red hair. He seems to have adapted to Miami life quite well, and accompanied war parties—perhaps even serving to decoy flatboats along the Ohio River.
Wells was located and visited by his brother Cary around 1788 or 1789. He visited his family in Louisville but remained with the Miami, perhaps because he had married a Wea woman and had a child. His wife and daughter were later captured in a raid by General James Wilkinson in 1791, and taken to Cincinnati. Meanwhile, under the command of the great Miami war chief Little Turtle, Wells led a group of Miami sharpshooters at St. Clair's Defeat in 1791, the biggest victory the Indians ever won against the U.S. Army. The next year, in an effort to free the Indians held hostage, Wells returned to Louisville, where his brother Sam encouraged him to meet with Rufus Putnam in Cincinnati, who hired Wells to help him make a treaty with the Indians in Vincennes, Indiana, where the hostages were freed. Putnam then hired Wells to spy on the confederated Indian councils in 1792 and 1793 along the Maumee River in Northwest Ohio.
While his first wife was held captive in Cincinnati, Wells married Little Turtle's daughter Wanagapeth ("Sweet Breeze"), with whom he had four children.
|Jane (Wells) Griggs and Grandson.|
Her mother was Man-wan-go-path, or Sweet Breeze,
Little Turtle's only daughter; her father was Captain William Wells.
On 11 September 1793, Wells arrived at Fort Jefferson with news of the Grand Council's failure, blaming the failure of the council on Alexander McKee and Simon Girty. He also brought a dire warning that a force of over 1500 warriors was ready to attack Fort Jefferson and the Legion of the United States, then camped near Fort Washington.
Wells became the equivalent of a captain in the Legion of the United States, acting as the head of an elite group of spies and interpreter, and agreeing to obey the orders of General "Mad Anthony" Wayne "as far as practicable." Captain Wells led the First Sub-Legion to the battleground of St. Clair's Defeat (which he had fought in), and located several abandoned U.S. cannons, which the American Indians had buried. General Wayne ordered the Legion to bury the bones found, and then build Fort Recovery on the battle site. Wells's scouts led the way when Wayne's legion marched toward the Maumee in the summer of 1794, where their numerous adventures were almost legendary. When Native American forces under Blue Jacket attacked Fort Recover on 30 June 1794, Wells warned of the danger and afterwards led a scouting mission that discovered British officers who had brought cannonballs and powder, not knowing that the United States had already recovered the buried cannons.
Wells was wounded a few days before the Battle of Fallen Timbers, but he still was able to give Wayne crucial advice about when to attack that helped secure the victory. The next year he was an interpreter for the Wabash Indians (Miami, Eel River, Wea, Piankeshaw, Kickapoo, and Kaskaskia) at the Treaty of Greenville, in which the Indian confederation ceded most of Ohio. As interpreter he stood between his father-in-law Little Turtle, who was the only chief to vigorously resist the terms imposed by General Wayne, Wells's commander in chief. Little Turtle, who was the last to sign the treaty, requested that Wells be sent as an Indian agent to the Miami stronghold of Kekionga, now under American control and renamed Fort Wayne.
As Indian Agent, Wells brought delegations of chiefs first to Philadelphia and then to Washington DC to meet with presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. Little Turtle, in particular, was a very impressive figure as a great war chief who had become a leading advocate for peace. His protests against the liquor trade's lethal influence were especially eloquent. Wells was expected to implement Jefferson's Indian policy, which called for "civilizing" the Indians while, at the same time, using treaties to gain as much of their land as quickly as possible. Needless to say, this was a plan doomed to failure, at least as far as the Indians were concerned. Wells thought he and Little Turtle could teach the Indians how to farm better than the Quakers sent by the government, which put him in conflict with his government. He helped Governor William Henry Harrison negotiate various land treaties, but afterwards often had second thoughts and encouraged the Indians to protest the very treaties he had urged them to sign.
Particularly the last treaty at Fort Wayne in 1809 was hated by the Indians and led directly to a more militant stance on the part of Tecumseh and his visionary brother the Shawnee Prophet. Wells warned that government about this new and dangerous development, but was largely ignored in Washington while earning the hated of the Tecumseh and his followers. Having become a lightning rod for controversy, Wells was fired as Indian Agent in 1809 and spent the rest of his life trying to get his old job back.
William Wells, U.S. Indian Agent
Following the Treaty of Greenville, Chief Little Turtle asked that Wells be appointed as a US Indian Agent to the Miami. The U.S. built an agent's house in the newly renamed Fort Wayne, and William and Sweet Breeze, with their children, moved from Kentucky to resettle with the Miami. At the suggestion of General Wayne, Little Turtle and Wells traveled to Philadelphia to visit President George Washington. They were warmly received. Washington presented Little Turtle with a ceremonial sword, and Wells was given a pension of $20 a month, in compensation for his wounds at Fallen Timbers. The two traveled east again in 1797 to visit the new president, John Adams.
|Captain William Wells|
In 1805, Governor Harrison sent General John Gibson and Colonel Francis Vigo to investigate Wells and Little Turtle on suspicion of fiscal corruption and instigation of the Miami against the United States. Their report concluded that Wells "seems more attentive to the Indians than the people of the United States."
After Sweet Breeze died in 1805, William sent his daughters to live with his brother, Samuel Wells, in Kentucky. He and Little Turtle traveled to Vincennes, where they gave a "friendly disposition ... toward the government," Harrison wrote. "With Captain Wells, I have had an explanation, and have agreed to a general amnesty and act of oblivion for the past." William and Little Turtle signed Harrison's Treaty of Grouseland. In 1808, however, Wells led a group of Indian chiefs from different tribes, including Miami Chiefs Little Turtle and Richardville, to Washington, D.C. to meet directly with President Jefferson. This infuriated Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, who fired Wells and replaced him with his rival, John Johnston.
In 1809, William married his third wife, Mary Geiger, daughter of Colonel Frederick Geiger. They and Wells' four children returned to Fort Wayne, where he received a discharge from the new U.S. Indian agent John Johnston.
Wells had the support of the Miami chiefs and of Kentucky Senator John Pope and went to Washington, D.C. to challenge Johnston's decision. Ultimately, Well's position was left in the hands of territorial Governor William Henry Harrison who, though distrustful of Wells, sided with the Miami out of fear that they could join Tecumseh if provoked. William Wells continued to act as United States Indian Agent in Fort Wayne, and was able to keep the Miami out of Tecumseh's confederacy. He was the first to warn Secretary Dearborn in 1807, of the growing movement led by Tecumseh and his brother. William's eldest brother, Colonel Samuel Wells, and his father-in-law, Frederick Geiger, were both at the Battle of Tippecanoe; Geiger was wounded in the initial attack.
Wells also established and managed a farm in Fort Wayne, which he jointly owned with his friend Jean François Hamtramck. He petitioned Congress for a 1,280-acre tract of land at the confluence of the St. Joseph and St. Mary rivers in 1807, which was granted and signed by President Jefferson. Little Turtle died in his home in 1812, and was buried nearby.
The Fort Dearborn Massacre
Among the many major blunders made by the Madison administration in 1812 was its failure to tell the frontier that it was about to declare war on Great Britain. As a result, the British and Indians knew several days before the Americans that hostilities had broken out.
|Captain William Wells|
|The First Fort Dearborn. 1803-1812|
Wenemeg, who knew the purport of the order, begged Mr. Kinzie to advise Captain Heald not to evacuate the Fort, for the movement would be difficult and dangerous.
The Indians had already received information from Tecumseh, of the disasters to the American arms, and the withdrawal of Hull's army from Canada, and were becoming daily more restless and insolent.
Heald had an ample supply of ammunition and provisions for six months; why not hold out until relief could come from the southward? Winemeg further urged that if Captain Heald should resolve to evacuate, it should be done immediately before the Indians should be informed of the order, or could prepare for formidable resistance. "Leave the fort and stores as they are," he said, "and let them make the distributions for themselves, and while the Indians are engaged in that business the white people may make their way in safety to Fort Wayne." Mr. Kinzie readily perceived the wisdom of Winemeg's advice, and so did Captain Heald's officers—but the Commander blindly resolved to obey Hull's order strictly as to evacuation and the distribution of the public property. He caused that order to be read to the troops on the morning of the 8th and then assumed the whole responsibility.
His officers expected to be summoned to a council but were disappointed. Toward evening they called upon the Commander, and when informed of his determination they remonstrated with him. The march, they said, must necessarily be slow on account of the women and children and infirm persons, and therefore, under the circumstances, extremely perilous. Hull's orders, they said, left it to the discretion of the Commander to go or stay, and they thought it much better to strengthen the fort; defy the savages and endure a siege until relief should reach them.
Heald argued in reply, that special orders had been issued by the war department, that no post should be surrendered without battle having been given by the assailed, and that his force was totally inadequate to an engagement with the Indians. He should expect the censure of his government, he said, if he remained, and having full confidence in the professions of friendship of many of the Chiefs about him, he should call them together, make the required distributions and take up his march for Fort Wayne. After that, his officers had no more communications with him on the subject.
The Indians became more unruly every hour, and yet Heald, with fatal procrastination, postponed the assembling of the savages for two or three days. They finally met near the Fort, on the afternoon of the 12th, and there the commander held a farewell council with them. Heald invited the officers to join him in the council, but they refused. They had received intimations that treachery was designed; that the Indians intended to murder them in the council circle, and then destroy the inmates of the Fort. The officers remained within the pickets and opening the port of one of the blockhouses, so as to expose the cannon pointed directly upon the group in the council, they secured the safety of Captain Heald. The Indians were intimidated by the menacing monster and accepted Heald's offers with many protestations of friendship.
He agreed to distribute among them, not only the goods in the public store, blankets, broadcloths, calicoes, paints, etc. but also the arms, ammunition, and provisions, not necessary for the use of the garrison on its march. It was stipulated that the distribution should take place the next day, soon after which the garrison and white inhabitants would leave the works. The Pottawattomies agreed on their part to furnish a proper escort for them through the wilderness to Fort Wayne, on condition of being liberally rewarded on their arrival there.
When the result of the council was made known, John Kinzie warmly remonstrated with Captain Heald. He knew the Indians well and their weakness, in the presence of great temptations, to do wrong. He begged the commander not to confide in their promises at a moment so inauspicious for faithfulness to treaties. He especially entreated him not to place in their hands' firearms and ammunition, for it would fearfully increase their power to carry on those murderous raids, which for months had spread terror throughout the frontier settlements.
Heald perceived his folly, and resolved to violate the treaty, so far as arms and ammunition were concerned. On that very evening when the Chief of the council seemed most friendly, a circumstance occurred which should have made Captain Heald shut the gate to his dusky neighbors, and resolve not to leave the fort.
Black Partridge, a hitherto friendly Potawatomi Chief, and a man of much influence came quietly to the Commander and said: "Father, I came to deliver to you the medal I wear. It was given to me by the Americans, and I have long worn it in token of our mutual friendship. But our young men are resolved to imbrue their hands in the blood of the white people. I cannot restrain them and I will not wear a token of peace while I am compelled to act as an enemy." This solemn and authentic warning was strangely unheeded.
|"Father, I came to deliver to you the medal I wear. It was given to me by the Americans, and I have long worn it in token of our mutual friendship. But our young men are resolved to imbrue their hands in the blood of the white people. I cannot restrain them and I will not wear a token of peace while I am compelled to act as an enemy."|
A large quantity of alcohol belonging to John Kinzie was poured into the river, and before morning the destruction was complete. But the work had not been done in secret. The night was dark and vigilant Indians had crept to the fort as noiselessly as serpents, and their quick senses had perceived the destruction of what under the treaty they claimed as their own.
In the morning the work of the night was made more manifest. The powder was seen floating upon the surface of the river and the sluggish water had been converted by whiskey and the alcohol into strong grog, as an eye witness remarked.
Complaints and threatenings were loud among the savages, because of this breach of faith, and the dwellers in the fort were impressed with the dreadful sense of impending destruction, when the brave Captain Wells, Mrs. Heald's uncle, and adopted son of the Chief Little Turtle, was discovered upon the Indian trail near the sandhills on the border of the lake not far distant, with a band of mounted Miamis of whose tribe he was considered a Chief.
He had heard at Fort Wayne of the orders of Hull to evacuate Fort Dearborn, and being fully aware of the hostilities of the Potawatomi, he had made a rapid march across the country to reinforce Captain Heald, assist in defending the fort or prevent its exposure to certain destruction by an attempt to reach the head of the Maumee, but he was too late. All means for maintaining a siege had been destroyed a few hours before, and every preparation had been made for leaving the post the next day.
When the morning of the 15th arrived, there were positive indications that the Indians intended to massacre all the white people. They were overwhelming in numbers and held the fate of the devoted band in their grasp. When at nine o'clock, the appointed hour, the march commenced, it was like a funeral procession.
The band struck up the dead march in Saul. Captain Wells with his face blackened, with wet gun powder in token of his impending fate, took the lead with his friendly Miamis, followed by Captain Heald with his heroic wife by his side. Mr. Kinzie accompanied them hoping by his personal influence to soften if he could not avert the impending blow. His family were left in a boat in charge of a friendly Indian to be conveyed around the head of the lake to Kinzie's trading station, on the site of the present village of Niles, Michigan. Slowly the procession moved along the lakeshore, until they came to the sandhills between the prairie and the beach, when the escort of Potawatomi, about five hundred in number, under the Blackbird, filed to the right and placed those hills between themselves and the white people. Wells and his Miamis had kept in the advance, suddenly they came dashing back, the leader shouting, "They are about to attack us! Form instantly." These startling words were scarcely uttered when a storm of bullets came from the sandhills, but without serious effect.
The treacherous and cowardly Potawatomi had made those hillocks their cover for a murderous attack. The troops hastily brought into line charged up the bank when one of their number, a white-haired man of seventy years, fell dead from his horse, the first victim. The Indians were driven back, and the battle was waged on the open prairie between fifty-four soldiers and twelve civilians, and three or four women, against about five hundred Indian warriors. Of course, the conflict was hopeless on the part of the white people, but they resolved to make the butchers pay dearly for every life which they destroyed.
The cowardly Miamis fled at the first onset, their Chief rode up to the Potawatomi, charged them with perfidy and brandishing his glittering tomahawk declared that he would be the first to lead Americans to punish them. He then wheeled and dashed after his fugitive companions who were scurrying over the prairies as if the evil Spirit were at their heels. The conflict was short, desperate and bloody, two-thirds of the white people were slain or wounded, all the horses, provisions and baggage were lost, and only twenty strong men remained to brave the fury of about five hundred Indians, who had lost but fifteen in the conflict. The devoted band had succeeded in breaking through the ranks of the assassins who gave way in front and rallied on the flank and gained a slight eminence on the prairie near a grove called the oak woods.
The savages did not pursue. They gathered upon the sandhills in consultation and gave signs of willingness to parley.
Further conflict with them would be rashness, so Captain Heald, accompanied by Parish, the Clerk, a half-breed boy in John Kinzie's service, went forward, met Blackbird on the open prairie and arranged terms for a surrender. It was agreed that all the arms should be given up to Blackbird and that the survivors should become prisoners of war, to be exchanged for ransoms as soon as practicable; with this understanding, captured and captors all started for the Indian encampment near the fort. So overwhelming was the savage force at the sandhills, that the conflict after the first desperate charge became an exhibition of individual prowess, a life, and death struggle in which no one could render any assistance to his neighbor, for all were principles. In this conflict, women bore a conspicuous part. All fought gallantly so long as strength permitted them. The brave ensign, Ronan, wielded his weapon even when falling upon his knees because of loss of blood.
Captain Wells displayed the greatest coolness and gallantry. He was by the side of his niece when the conflict began. "We have not the slightest chance for life", he said. "We must part to meet no more in this world, God bless you, my child." With these words, he dashed forward with the rest. In the midst of the fight, he saw a young warrior, painted like a demon, climb into a wagon in which were twelve children of the white people, and tomahawk them all. Forgetting his own immediate danger Wells exclaimed, "If that is your game, butchering women and children, I'll kill too." He instantly dashed toward the Indian camp where they had left their squaws and little ones, hotly pursued by swift-footed young warriors, who sent many rifle balls after him. He lay close to his horse's neck, and turned and fired occasionally upon his pursuers; when he had got almost beyond the range of their rifles, a ball killed his horse and wounded him severely on the leg. The young savages rushed forward with a demoniac yell to make him a prisoner and reserve him for torture, for he was to them an arch offender.
His friends, Winnemeg and Wanbansee, vainly attempted to save him from his fate. He knew the temper and practices of the savages well and resolved not to be made captive. He taunted them with the most insulting epithets to provoke them to kill him instantly. At length he called one of the fiery young warriors (Persotum) a Squaw, which so enraged him, that he killed Wells instantly with a tomahawk; jumped upon his body, cut out his heart, and ate a portion of the warm and half palpitating morsel with savage delight.
The wife of Captain Heald, who was an expert with the rifle and an excellent equestrian, deported herself bravely. She received severe wounds, but faint and bleeding she managed to keep the saddle. A savage raised his tomahawk to kill her when she looked him full in the face and with a sweet, melancholy smile, said in the Indian tongue, "Surely you will not kill a squaw." The appeal was effectual. The arm of the savage fell and the life of the heroic woman was saved. Mrs. Helm, the stepdaughter of Mr. Kinzie, had a severe personal encounter with a stalwart young Indian, who attempted to tomahawk her. She sprang to one side and received the blow intended for her head, upon her shoulder, and at the same instant, she seized the savage around the neck and endeavored to get hold of his scalping knife, which hung in a sheath upon his breast. While thus struggling, she was dragged from her antagonist by another Indian, who bore her, in spite of her desperate resistance, to the margin of the lake, and plunged in at the same time, to her astonishment holding her so that she would not drown. She soon perceived she was held by a friendly hand. It was Black Partridge, who had saved her. When the firing ceased and capitulation was concluded he conducted her to the prairie where she met her father and heard her husband was safe. Bleeding and suffering she was conducted to the Indian camp by Black Partridge and Persotum, the latter carrying in his hand a scalp which she knew to be that of Captain Wells, by the black ribbon that bound the queue. The wife of a soldier named Gorford believing that all prisoners were reserved for torture, fought desperately and suffered herself to be literally cut in pieces rather than surrender.
|Deadly Encounter at Fort Dearborn|
When the captives were taken to the Indian camp, a new scene of horrors was opened; the wounded, according to the Indian's interpretation of the capitulation, were not included in the terms of surrender.
Proctor had offered a liberal sum for scalps delivered at Maiden. So nearly all the wounded men were killed and the value of British bounties, such as is sometimes offered for the destruction of wolves, was taken from each head.
In this tragedy, Mrs. Heald played a part but fortunately escaped scalping. In order to save her fine horse, the Indians had aimed at the rider. Seven bullets took effect upon her person. Her captor, who was about to slay her upon the battlefield, as we have seen, left her in the saddle and led her horse toward the camp. When insight of the fort his inquisitiveness overpowered his gallantry, and he was taking her bonnet off her head in order to scalp her when she was discovered by Mrs. Kinzie, who was yet sitting in the boat, and who had heard the tumult of the conflict; but without any intimation of the result, until she saw the wounded woman in the hands of her savage captive. "Run! Run! Chandonnai!" exclaimed Mrs. Kinzie, to one of her husband's clerks, who was standing on the beach. "That is Mrs. Heald. He is going to kill her! Take that mule and offer it as a ransom." Chandonnai promptly obeyed and increased the bribe by offering in addition two bottles of whiskey. These were worth more than Proctor's bounty, and Mrs. Heald was released. She was placed in Mrs. Kinzie's boat and there concealed from the prying eyes of other scalp hunters. Toward evening the family of Mr. Kinzie were allowed to return to their own house where they were greeted by the friendly Black Partridge. Mrs. Helm was placed in the house of Antoine Louis Ouilmette, a Frenchman, by the same friendly hand.
But these and all the other prisoners were exposed to great jeopardy by the arrival of a band of fierce Potawatomi, from the Wabash, who yearned for blood and plunder. They searched the houses for prisoners with keen vision, and when no further concealment and safety seemed possible, some friendly Indians arrived and so turned the tide of affairs that the Wabash savages were ashamed to own their bloodthirsty intentions.
In this terrible tragedy in the wilderness, twelve children, all the masculine civilians but John Kinzie and his sons, Captain Wells, Surgeon Van Vorhees, Ensign Ronan, and twenty-six private soldiers were murdered. Wells was shot and killed by the Potawatomi, who decapitated him and ate his heart. His opponents, although considering him a traitor to their cause, nonetheless sought to gain some of his courage by consuming his heart.
The prisoners were divided among the captors and were finally reunited or restored to their friends and families. Of all the sad tragedies to which human life is susceptible, none surpassed that of the death of Captain William Wells. The English language in its rich vocabulary of words fails to express adequately the courage and heroism manifested by this little band of men and women on that fatal Saturday morning of August 15, 1812. The day dawned clear and warm, and as Seymour Curry, tells us, in his "Story of Old Fort Dearborn", scarcely a breath of air was stirring. The lake, unruffled, stretched away in a sheet of burnished gold. But the gold which shown most brilliant on that fatal day was that of this immortal band, which towered to the hall of fame.
Although his exploits are still little known, William Wells was one of the most illustrious frontiersmen of the Old Northwest.
A tale of war, a tale of woe;
A tale of savage wild o'erflow;
A tale of dark and bloody hue;
Of old Fort Dearborn, a story true.
William Wells holds the following honors:
Wells Street in Chicago, Illinois
Wells County, Indiana
Wells Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana
A sculpture on Chicago's Michigan Avenue Bridge shows William Wells fighting in the Battle of Fort Dearborn.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.