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The Story of Billy Caldwell: With Author Sue Kelsey

By: George Houde

His name is prominently stitched in places on the northwest side of Chicago.

Caldwell Avenue. Caldwell Woods. Billy Caldwell Golf Course. Billy Caldwell Post of the American Legion.

And his other name, Sauganash, the one who speaks English, seemed etched into the pavement of the North Side neighborhood known by that Native American phrase. Those were names that sparked curiosity in Sue Kelsey when she moved to the neighborhood with the enigmatic name in the 1980s.

Who was Billy Caldwell and why was he famous? Where did Sauganash come from? The questions lingered over the years until curiosity led her on a road to what she said were surprising discoveries.

Billy Caldwell was not only Native American, he was Irish.

In her new book, Billy Caldwell - Chicago and the Great Lakes Trail, Kelsey details the often difficult life of Caldwell, born at Fort Niagara in 1780 of a Mohawk mother and an Irish father. (Billy Caldwell - Chicago and the Great Lakes Trail 1780-1841, by Susan L. Kelsey. Arcadia Publishing).

“There’s not a lot written about Billy,” Kelsey said in an interview at a recent book signing and lecture in Lake Forest. “That’s how this story begins, in Sauganash, where I was living. I tried to find out about him and that eventually led to the book.”

Irish herself with lineage of Fergusons and Burns, Kelsey said the path of discovery took her from Fort Niagara on Lake Erie to Illinois to Missouri to Nebraska to Iowa and to dusty book shelves and coffee shops with helpful locals. It put her on the Great Lakes Trail, a network of Native American paths that linked rivers and tribes to the Great Lakes and to each other.

She contacted historical societies, libraries, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. One of the surprises was the secret society, she said.

“There’s a kind of a secret Billy Caldwell club,” she divulged. “People leave tobacco, feathers and flowers at his memorial. So there’s a below-the-radar group of people who do that.”

Kelsey was instrumental in creating that memorial in Council Bluffs, Ia., where Caldwell died. She helped create it because she could find no statue or memorial to him in Chicago in spite of his famous name there. There is the small, obscure “Old Treaty Elm” plaque on the corner of Rogers and Caldwell Avenues which marks his reservation boundary and the ancient trail to Lake Geneva, but nothing else.

“I liked the detective work of finding out who this person was,” said Kelsey, who has had a 35-year a career in finance following graduate school at De Paul University.

Kelsey has written several books on the history of Lake Forest, where she now resides. Her recent work on Caldwell led her to road trips around the Midwest and to Canada, following Caldwell’s trail

Caldwell was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1780 (other sources say 1782) outside of Fort Niagara, Canada, now New York. Baptized Thomas Caldwell, he did not have an easy life, Kelsey wrote.

His father, William Caldwell, a captain in the British army and a native of Co. Fermanagh left the toddler and his Mohican mother, Rising Sun, to marry a French-Canadian woman.

“He was challenged in his life,” Kelsey said. “There was a lot of abandonment.”

Caldwell’s father came back, however. He took Billy from his mother at the Six Nations reservation and re-inserted him into the white man’s world in about 1786, Kelsey said. It was the beginning of a complicated life in which Billy Caldwell would play an important role in the emerging United States, most of it in the Great Lakes region, Kelsey wrote in the book.

“He was an entrepreneur,” Kelsey said. “He created commerce. He built a mill. He was a trader.”

Caldwell was educated by Jesuits and learned to speak English and French, as well as Potawatomi and Mohican. During the War of 1812, he served as a captain near Detroit in the service of the British along with his father.

Discharged from British service in 1816, he began a trading business between Detroit and Fort Dearborn. When his father left him out of his will, leaving his possessions to his other children, Caldwell moved to Chicago.

Caldwell became involved in politics and tribal affairs, eventually becoming a chief of the Potawatomi, Kelsey wrote. He also was appointed a justice of the peace and became involved in treaty negotiations between Native Americans and Europeans.

He was involved in the Treaties of Prairie du Chien – there were four of them – which ceded to the U.S. the lands of the Sac, Fox, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) people, among other tribes, from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

The territory included tracts in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.

“His major accomplishment was the treaty negotiations,” Kelsey said. “It must have been an amazing time. He was a survivor who became a leader, able to work with a diverse population.”

He also negotiated the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 for the United Nations Tribes, composed of the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi people. This led to the final removal of Native Americans from the area to west of the Mississippi.

For his part in negotiations, Caldwell was awarded 1,600 acres of land along the north branch of the Chicago River. This would eventually become Caldwell Woods, the nearby golf course and parts of Sauganash. He also received $10,000 and an annuity of $400, according to Kelsey.

She said he sold the land in 1833 when the fur trade declined.

Caldwell was a man who lived in several different worlds – negotiator, justice of the peace and tribal chief, according to Kelsey. In the end, he stayed with his Potawatomi band, leading them eventually to Council Bluffs after the Treaty of Chicago.

“He ended up dying as a Native American,” Kelsey said. “He identified that way.”

Kelsey said his burial site remains a mystery, although it is believed to be on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. At his new memorial in Council Bluffs, besides traditional Native American mementos, sometimes one can find an Irish flag.

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