Words from Billy Caldwell's land

Potawatomi leader's property on the Northwest Side is where many enjoy birding and other pursuits in the outdoors.

There are places on the Northwest Side of Chicago that resemble something of our pre-European settlement past. There are wet meadows, sloughs and oxbows in the depressions left by the retreat of glacial Lake Chicago. There are a few flatwoods and prairies at the higher points. It’s a patchwork where dozens of breeding and migratory bird species find comfort and refuge. For that, we have to thank Billy Caldwell. 

Definitive accounts on Caldwell can be hard to find, though he’s the namesake for a golf course, a forest preserve and a major thoroughfare. According to a Wikipedia article, he was a British-Potawatomi fur trader who moved from Canada to the United States in 1818. He undoubtedly was a key figure in early Chicago. He served as a justice-of-the-peace and worked for the U.S. government, and the first tavern in Chicago was said to be named after him. Later, he was Chief Sauganash, representing the Council of Three Fires in negotiations with the U.S. government in the 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien, which ceded portions of Chicago and lands to the west and into Wisconsin. Those cessions of the early 19th century were prompted by the infamous Indian Removal Act spurred by President Andrew Jackson.

The United States gave Caldwell 1,600 acres on the North Branch of the Chicago River in return for his role in the negotiations. He quickly sold much of this land, though, save for a portion that eventually became 80 acres of Cook County Forest Preserve. These are some of the parcels, now lined by bedroom communities, that so many people enjoy for jogging, picnics or simply a walk in the woods.

The rest of Chicago was soon ceded to the U.S. government. Within a decade, Caldwell went from early Chicago leader to someone who was no longer welcome in his own land. Caldwell eventually moved all the way to northwestern Missouri. From Missouri, he and 2,000 other Potawatomi were removed to the area around Council Bluffs, Iowa. One can only imagine the upheaval those folks faced and all that Caldwell saw from his early time in Chicago into the 1830s moving west.

Caldwell lived in Iowa until his death in 1841. Some questions have occasionally arisen as to whether Caldwell’s descendants may still have rights to some of this land. It’s a worthy thought to ponder when exploring local natural areas on this Indigenous Peoples Day.

TWiB acknowledges that we are on the ancestral homelands of the Council of Three Fires—the Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes—and a place of trade with many other tribes, including the Ho-Chunk, Miami, Menominee, Sauk and Meskwaki.