Facts hard to find on life of Billy Caldwell

Originally published in 3-21-09 Reporter and 3-25-09 Press Newspapers
by Brian Nadig 

Most of the life of Billy Caldwell, or Sauganash, who is the namesake of two streets, a golf course, a forest preserve, and a community on the Northwest Side, remains a mystery, according to historian Fred Christensen.

About 100 people attended a talk on Caldwell and his father, Captain William Caldwell, on March 19th at the Edgebrook library. the event was sponsored by the Edgebrook community association and the Edgebrook Historical Society.

Christensen, who serves as a narrator and tour guide for events at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, said that Caldwell is often only a footnote in history books despite the important role he played as a mediator between the federal government and the Native Americans.

"There is no good single book on Billy Caldwell," Christensen said. "Everything written on him before 1978 is highly inaccurate. I don't believe there is a real description of the man."

Christensen said that there are no portraits of Caldwell and that the names of his wives are unknown. He said that there is doubt about the role that Caldwell played in saving the lives of Americans who were captured during the Fort Dearborn Massacre in 1812. Contrary to some accounts, Caldwell may not have been at the fort the day after the massacre, he said.

Christensen credits essays published by professor James Clifton in 1978 as separating the fact from fiction in Caldwell's life. "He cleared up a lot of myths and legends about Billy Caldwell and his father," Christensen said. Some of the essays are available at the library, according to the historical society.

Caldwell's mother was a Mohawk, and his father was a British military officer who helped lead Indian tribes on raids of American stockades during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, Christensen said. He said that despite the fact that Caldwell sided with the British during the war, he kept American business relationships, possibly helped by reports that he assisted Fort Dearborn survivors.

Caldwell, who at an early age had had a trading partnership with Chicago pioneers Thomas Forsyth and John Kinzie, was a popular figure, and his friend, Mark Beaubien, named his tavern and hotel Sauganash, after Caldwell, Christensen said. Local Indians called Caldwell "The Sauganash," which means "The Englishman," in Potawatomi, in reference to his mixed ancestry and ability to speak English, Christensen said.

In the early 1830s Caldwell helped negotiate the Treaty of Chicago, which led to the displacement of the Potawatomi tribe to Iowa. At the time the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs, at the direction of President Andrew Jackson, had the goal of relocating all tribes to territories west of the Mississippi River, and tribes often relied on mediators like Caldwell to help get the the best deal possible from the federal government, although many payments went to creditors who were owed money by the Indians, Christensen said.

Christensen said that Caldwell suffered an identity crisis throughout his life due to his mixed ancestry but that in the end he appeared to identify more closely with his Indian heritage. As part of the treaty, tribe members of mixed ancestry were given land and allowed to remain in Illinois, but Caldwell later sold his property, the so-called "Caldwell Reserve," and lived the rest of his life as a "respected elder" of the Potawatomi in Iowa, Christensen said.