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Sunday, June 23

Gapers Block

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Q: Who has had two streets, a neighborhood, an inn, a stretch of forest preserve and a golf course all named in his memory?

A: Billy Caldwell, also known as Sauganash.

Billy Caldwell was born in 1780 near Fort Niagara, the illegitimate son of William Caldwell, an Irish officer in the British service, and a Mohawk Indian woman. His father, being the stand-up guy he was, abandoned his infant son when he was transferred to Detroit, and Billy grew up among the Mohawk near Lake Ontario. Then William Caldwell married a Detroit woman, Suzanne Baby, around 1789. He subsequently sent for young Billy to live with them and saw that Billy received a formal education.

In 1797 the teenaged Billy Caldwell ran off westwards and found work in the fur trade, becoming an apprentice in the partnership of Thomas Forsyth and John Kinzie. The contacts he made among the Potawatomi Indians during this period formed the beginning of an important life-long relationship with the tribe. After a few years, Billy Caldwell was promoted to head clerk in the fur trade business, and he settled near the trading post at Fort Dearborn.

When the War of 1812 was fought, Caldwell left the Chicago region and secured an appointment in the British military as a liaison between the British and the Indians. His mixed Irish and Native American ancestry and his experience working with the tribes in the fur trade made Caldwell a desirable candidate. In addition, he was fluent in several languages, including French, English and certain Indian dialects.

Although no one can say exactly when, sometime during his adulthood, Caldwell was given the nickname "Sauganash" by the Indians. The name had various spellings, but its meaning was decidedly unremarkable. Sauganash simply meant "Englishman." Yet the name stuck, and Chicago remembers it to this day.

Billy Caldwell finally returned to Chicago in 1820, where his business associates and friends pushed him to continue to act as an intermediary between the Chicago settlers and the Native Americans. In 1828, the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs recognized his accomplishments by building for him Chicago's first frame house, located near the present-day location of the intersection of State Street and Chicago Avenue. A bronze plaque near the southeast corner of the intersection marks the spot today.

The Department of Indian Affairs also awarded Billy Caldwell 1,600 acres of land along the North Branch of the Chicago River. That area of land remembers him still. The memorials include Sauganash, the secluded Chicago neighborhood that makes you swear you've suddenly taken a wrong turn and ended up in Winnetka. Then Caldwell Avenue forms one of the boundaries of the stretch of Cook County Forest Preserve known as Caldwell Woods. And we cannot forget the nearby Billy Caldwell Golf Course ("3,029 yards of pure golfing fun"). Finally, in his own time, early Chicagoan Mark Beaubien named his inn The Sauganash after his good friend.

I'm not sure what Billy Caldwell would have made of these remembrances. He left Chicago in 1833 after a treaty signed by the Potawatomi banished the tribe from Illinois and pushed them west of the Mississippi. Caldwell helped negotiate the treaty, but, as ever, he walked the thin line between all of the parties involved, working on behalf of both his Chicago associates and those he identified as his Indian brethren. He sold his land and led the Potawatomi west to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he died in 1841. He never returned to Chicago.


Clifton, James A. "Caldwell, Captain Billy." American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Heise, Kenan and Ed Baumann. Chicago Originals. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1995.


Join the Gapers Block Book Club! Just sign up for the email list for news, announcements and more. This month we are reading The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. We will be meeting to discuss the book on Monday, June 13, at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave. The meeting will begin at 7:30pm.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a Chicago librarian. She welcomes questions and topic suggestions for her column at . Due to the volume of email received, she may not reply to every query, but you may be contacted if your question is selected for the column.

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