If you’ve lived on the far Northwest Side of the city, around Cicero and Peterson, you know the name Billy Caldwell. There’s Billy Caldwell Woods, Billy Caldwell’s Reserve, Billy Caldwell Golf Course, Billy Caldwell Post of the American Legion. And of course, Caldwell Avenue.
The neighborhood is called Sauganash. That was Billy Caldwell’s other name.
Billy Caldwell is a figure of legend, but was a real person. Untangling his story has kept historians busy for nearly two hundred years.
Billy Caldwell cigar band
William Caldwell Jr. was born near Fort Niagara, in upper New York, in 1782. He was the natural son of a British army officer and a Mohawk princess. There’s some evidence that Billy’s first name was actually 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. By 1803 he was chief clerk in the Forsythe-Kinzie firm’s new post at the mouth of the Chicago River. About this time he married into the Potawatomi tribe. His in-laws called him “Sauganash,” which translates as “Englishmen.”
In 1812 the Potawatomi attacked the American garrison at Fort Dearborn. The story goes that Caldwell arrived on the scene just after the battle and saved the lives of the Kinzie family. That’s the traditional account of what had happened. Historians have been unable to verify it.
Caldwell fought on the British side in the War of 1812. Afterward he lived in Canada. When several business ventures failed, he moved back to Chicago.
Historical marker at Caldwell and Kilbourn—Billy Caldwell was here!
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 languages, he smoothed relations between the Americans and the native peoples.
In 1828 the U.S. government recognized Caldwell’s work by building for him Chicago’s first frame house, near what is now Chicago and State. The next year he was appointed chief of the Potawatomi. And that needs some explaining.
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 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.
In 1830 the Potawatomi started signing off their land. Caldwell became a 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, Billy Caldwell’s Reserve. He lived there with his Potawatomi band for three years.
By the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi gave up the last of their land. At 51, Caldwell was an old man for the time. Now that the native peoples were leaving, there was no need for his unique services, and no reason for him to stay in Chicago. He sold his reserve and left with his adopted tribe.
He’d lived a life on the margins, bouncing around among at least three different worlds, never fully part of any of them. Billy Caldwell spent his final years with the Potawatomi near Council Bluffs, Iowa. He died there in 1841.