Like many Chicagoans, Susan Kelsey was likely familiar with Caldwell Woods and the Billy Caldwell Golf Course on the northwest side, but her first introduction to the historical figure behind the name happened when she found the historical marker at the intersection of Caldwell, Kilbourn, and Rogers. Caldwell, a Métis (a person of mixed European and Native American descent) was born the son of a Mohawk mother and an Irish Captain in the British Army in 1790, outside of Niagara Falls. He later migrated, living in early Chicago and moving further west as he and fellow Native Americans were removed from their lands. During this time, Caldwell worked as a fur trader, soldier, and justice of the peace. Eventually he served as a translator between the US government and the Ojibwa, Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi tribes. He was appointed as a chief, taking the name Sauganash, and negotiated several treaties, including the Treaty of Chicago, which resulted in the removal of the Potawatomi from the area to lands west of the Mississippi.
Despite this, Caldwell remains a little-known figure in Chicago history. Kelsey pursued her subject across several states, finding a complex and controversial individual. I chatted with her recently about Caldwell and her recent book, Billy Caldwell (1780-1841): Chicago and the Great Lakes Trail.
What particularly sparked your interest in Caldwell’s story?
I was walking around my Sauganash neighborhood and saw a plaque on the ground. The plaque indicated the edge of Fort Dearborn and the signing of the 1833 treaty. I wondered who Sauganash (Billy Caldwell) was and why our neighborhood was named after him.
Is that the rock that marks the location of the Old Treaty Elm? I remember driving by it one day and getting out to read it.
Ha! Funny. There are very few Native American markers and historical sites in Chicago. You found one!
What happened once you started your research?
I started my research in 1993, before the Internet. I visited Newberry Library and the Chicago Historical Society and read everything I could on him. As the Internet started, I would try to gather more info. In 2014, I travelled to his birthplace and followed his trail all the way to Iowa. Two countries, 13 states, and thousands of miles. All over 25 years.
Specifically, what sort of research did you perform beyond the Internet, and how easy was it to come by information about Caldwell? Did you visit any smaller historical societies, museums, or the like?
There was not much in Niagara Falls, but as I got to Amherstburg, Ontario, the local genealogical society had a large folder of information about him, letters he wrote, family trees, and documentation. The Canadian info was better than the US—which figures, we erased most of Native American history in this country. Interestingly, the info in Chicago has not changed in 25 years, but [I found] the real good stuff in Council Bluffs, IA. I met an 85-year-old woman who had been researching Caldwell longer than me! She had great info and primary research used in the book.
Can you tell me a little about her?
Mary Lou McGinn of Council Bluffs, IA. Irish-Catholic. Caldwell was Irish Jesuit. She had been fascinated with him for years. She is the one who told me where he had actually died—at the log cabin down by the Missouri River—and was carried back to the blockhouse on top of the hill and buried behind the blockhouse. We found the old footings of a mill he built in 1841, a few months before he died.
It’s always great when research leads you to reality. Do you have any other anecdotes about your research or people you met along the way?
There is an underground culture of people that have been interested in Billy Caldwell and they are spread across the states. Two things I was always curious about, one was why did he go to Missouri for 18 months before he moved to Iowa? Using an old map, I found where he had camped and the reason he went there was the commerce and jobs were better. But the Louisiana Purchase was completed and he was kicked out north to Iowa where it was desolate. The second question I had was what happened to his tribe after he died in 1841? They left Iowa in 1846, and moved to Kansas. I found where they moved to.
In 2016, I received a call from someone who claims to be his descendent. We did DNA [testing] and are trying to put the family tree together, but we are missing a generation.
I found [the document right and above] in the Missouri archives. What I love about it is Sauganash is spelled Socanois, so Google didn’t pick it up. It was new information.
Let’s get philosophical. How much of Caldwell’s story is Chicago’s story, and vice versa?
Well I consider Caldwell one of the early citizens of Chicago. When he was here around 1816, there were just a few people. He had a house at State and Wabash—now since gone. He was in the right place at the right time in terms of Chicago leadership. If it wasn’t for him and his two buddies, Alexander Robinson and Shabbona, the Treaty of 1833 may have not been negotiated so early. Pretty soon after he negotiated over 5 million acres in the treaty, the westward expansion of the US exploded.
What do you want people to learn about Caldwell/Sauganash? Tell me three facts people should know.
- It was interesting to learn how his family and friends stayed with him throughout his journey from the Niagara Falls area, through Michigan, through Chicago, to their final homes in Iowa and Kansas. These were loyal friends and I can’t imagine how hard it was for them to keep moving away from their land and burial sites.
- Caldwell was in a unique position to negotiate for the best deal he could for the Potawatomi, the Ojibwa, and the Ottawa. Some see him as a traitor, but I believe, given his life experience in the east, he knew he had to bargain for the best deal he could for Native Americans.
- I believe when he lived in Iowa, he created a community, finally found a home and lived an independent life as a Métis on the edges of the frontier.
Susan L.Kelsey’s book Billy Caldwell (1780-1841): Chicago and the Great Lakes Trail, may be purchased at the Arcadia Publishing site.