Focus on Treaties for Native American Heritage Month
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Billy Caldwell

Billy Caldwell was a man of Mohawk-Irish descent who rose to a position of influence within the United Band of Ottawa, Anishinabe, and Potawatomi over the course of the early 19th century. After working for much of the early 1800s in the Indian Department of the British government, Caldwell used trade and kinship connections to rise to a position of power within the United Band community. In the late 1830s, he moved west with this band and served as an important intermediary and leader for them until his death in 1841.

Thomas Caldwell was born in 1780 near Fort Niagara (Canada) the son of an officer in the British Army and a Mohawk woman. Raised among the Mohawk people until the age of eight, he spent his remaining childhood years with his father's second family near Detroit. Caldwell went to a Jesuit school, where he learned both French and English. In his late teens, he began to work for local fur traders, Robert and Thomas Forsyth, and by 1803 had assumed the position of clerk at their Chicago trading post. Over the course of the next decade, he ventured into trading operations of his own, although he never left the umbrella of the Forsyth firm. During this period, Caldwell also created a personal connection with the Potawatomi communities that resided on the St. Joseph River in southern Michigan by marrying La Nanette, the daughter of Wabinema, or White Sturgeon. Following her death, he married the mixed-descent daughter of Robert Forsyth and an Anishinabe woman.

Through both his work and his marriages, by 1812 Caldwell had established himself as a valued middleman and broker among the British, American, and Native American communities in the region. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Caldwell sided with the British, and in 1813 he obtained the rank of captain in the Western Division of the British Indian Department. During his service, he interacted primarily with Potawatomi warriors, who had also allied with the British. After the American victory, Caldwell's fortunes declined within the British service, and he received his discharge in the fall of 1816. Failing to establish a career in the years following his discharge, Caldwell returned to Chicago in 1820 at the age of 40 and reconnected with his former employers, the Forsyths. During this time in Chicago, Caldwell returned to his intermediary position among the diverse communities in the Great Lakes region. He often served as an interpreter for U.S. government agents, and his experience and standing in the community even garnered him a nomination for the office of justice of the peace in 1826.

As a result of his affiliation with the Forsyths, his work for the American government, and his connections to the Potawatomi in the region, Caldwell became a prominent figure in U.S.-Potawatomi relations. Based primarily on the initiative of Indian agent Alexander Wolcott, Caldwell, as a named Potawatomi chief, negotiated and signed the Treaty of Prairie du Chien (1829), that ceded lands claimed by the United Band in and around the Rock River in northern Illinois. He also signed the Treaty of Chicago (1833) in Chicago, which ceded approximately five million acres of land in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin and paved the way for the removal of the United Band to lands west of the Mississippi River. Yet in the years between this last treaty and his death, Caldwell worked solely on behalf of the United Band. He moved west with them and set up his home near Council Bluffs in Iowa Territory. During his brief tenure in the West, Caldwell helped to represent Native interests in all negotiations and interactions with American officials and gained the trust and allegiance of such leaders as Abtekizhek, or Half Day.

Caldwell died on September 27, 1841, one of the many victims of a cholera epidemic that hit the Iowa region. Only a few years later, the comments of Potawatomi leaders during treaty negotiations testified to Caldwell's legacy. The first of many demands was that the United States officially acknowledge the community of Natives formerly known as the United Band as "The Prairie Indians of Caldwell's Band of Potawatomies."

John P. Bowes

Further Reading
Clifton, James A. "Personal and Ethnic Identity on the Great Lakes Frontier: The Case of Billy Caldwell, Anglo-Canadian." Ethnohistory, 25(1): 69–94, 1978; Clifton, James A. The Prairie People: Continuity and Change in Potawatomi Indian Culture 1665–1965. Lawrence, KS: Regents Press, 1977; Edmunds, R. David. The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

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