Conflicting Loyalties

The Story of William Wells

We aren’t quite sure when William was born.  We think it was sometime in 1770 at a place called Jacob’s Creek in Pennsylvania; there is no record of his birth.  He was the son of Captain Samuel Wells, an American patriot who served in the Virginia militia early in the American Revolution.  In 1779, Captain Wells moved his family to an area known as Bear Grass Creek in Kentucky.  His decision to relocate his family coincided with a similar decision made by hundreds of other settlers with their eye on the Northwest Territory.  Captain Wells’ wife, William’s mother, passed away within a year of the family’s arrival in Kentucky.  William would have been around ten or eleven years old.

The Northwest Territories had been a contested area for well over 100 years.  French colonists jealously guarded their territories and their trapping interests.  They did this by enlisting local Indians to help keep British trappers, explorers, and settlers (and their Indian allies), away from New France.  Because both French and British officials enlisted the aid of American Indians, the Northwest Territory became an intensely contested part of the world.  Everyone was a target for violence.

Both French and British officials took advantage of the Native American’s appetite for flattery.  Essentially, the Indians would support whoever gave them the best stuff.  It was not uncommon to find Indians fighting for the French also fighting with the Indians who were friends of the British.  Trade relationships were the key to understanding human affairs in the Northwest Territory.  At the conclusion of the French & Indian War (1763), France ceded all of its North American lands to the British — and did so without first consulting with their Indian allies.  The Indians were not pleased.

The British were every bit as sensitive to Indian trade relations as were the French.  To preserve a healthy relationship with their Indian allies, King George III issued a Royal Proclamation of 1763, which settled the border dispute between colonial Pennsylvania and Virginia and established a boundary for Indian homelands that no British subject could encroach.

By the mid-1760s British colonists had already developed a uniquely American culture.  In addition to hard work, a willingness to take risks, and exhibited extreme loyalty to their wives and children, the settlers were defiant of English authority, stubborn, and fiercely independent — the sort of thing one might expect from a free people.  If western settlers had it in their minds to enter Indian territory, no piece of paper would keep them out.  The King’s prohibition was such an affront to the settlers that it became an early cause of revolutionary thought.  Besides that, from the settler’s point of view, if they could ignore the King, they could damn well ignore the Parliament, as well.

By 1779, famed frontiersman Daniel Boone had already moved west from Boonesborough and established a new settlement called Boone’s New Station in an area known as Cross Plains.  Fifteen families settled at Boone’s New Station.  In 1780, Daniel’s brother James was killed by Shawnee raiders while hunting within present-day Bourbon County.  Two years later, Daniel Boone’s son Israel and his nephew Thomas lost their lives during the Battle of Blue Licks[1].

Captain Samuel Wells lost his life in an ambush during the evacuation of Boone’s New Station in 1782, and William (now an orphan) went into the care of William Pope and his family.  A Miami[2] and Delaware[3] raiding party took thirteen-year-old William Wells and three other youngsters’ captive two years later.  The Indians carried the boys into Indiana Territory, where, in time, Chief Gaviahate (translated to Porcupine) adopted William and raised him along the Eel River in northern Indiana.  Because of his red hair, Gaviahate renamed William Apekonit.

William adjusted to life with the Miami and adopted their ways as a young brave of the tribe.  He frequently accompanied other young warriors on raids and helped decoy flatboats on the Ohio River to go ashore where the Indians robbed them for their cargo.  Historians do not know how many raids William participated in — only that he did — and this tells us that William successfully assimilated into the Miami tribe within a few years.  This relationship was set into stone, more or less, when William/Apekonit married a Miami woman and had a child with her.  The woman, named Wea, was later captured by James Wilkerson in 1791 and taken as a hostage to Cincinnati.[4]

During these formative years, Apekonit came under the influence of a Miami war chief named Little Turtle, whom history remembers as one of the Indian’s more adroit combat leaders.  During the Battle of the Wabash in 1791, where Major General Arthur St. Clair suffered America’s worst defeat by native Americans, Wells served as the leader of Indian riflemen.  A year later, Wells traveled to Louisville in an effort to negotiate the release of Indian hostages.  While there, William met with his brother Sam, who convinced him to travel to Cincinnati to meet with Brigadier General Rufus Putnam.

Putnam was an experienced militia officer whose long service began with the French & Indian War.  He initially commanded engineers[5] in the Continental Army and, later, two regiments in the Battle of Saratoga and under Anthony Wayne, the 4th Regiment of light infantry.  He was also one of the principal organizers of the Ohio (Land) Company.  During Wayne’s Ohio Campaign (1792-93), Brigadier General Putnam confronted Shawnee, Lenape, and Seneca tribes.

In 1792, Putnam hired Wells to help broker a treaty with the Indians at Vincennes.  Through these efforts, Miami hostages were set free.  Putnam then appointed Wells to serve as a captain in the Legion of the United States[6] and assigned him to supervise spies and interpreters targeting the confederated Indian councils in northwest Ohio.

While Wea was in captivity, Wells married the daughter of Little Turtle, a woman named Wanagrapeth.[7]  Wells and Wanagrapeth had four children.

In 1793, Wells filed a report with General Anthony Wayne at Fort Jefferson informing them that efforts to reach an agreement with the Grand Council had failed, primarily because Alexander McKee[8] and Simon Girty disrupted the negotiations.[9]  Additionally, Wells notified Wayne that more than 1,500 warriors awaited him near Fort Washington.  Wayne appreciated the warning, but he found his relationship with Wells somewhat perplexing because Captain Wells would only obey Wayne’s orders if he found them practicable.

Captain Wells led a military recovery operation to the site of St. Clair’s defeat, where he uncovered several field cannon that the Miami Indians had buried.  General Wayne decided to construct Fort Recovery at this location.  In 1794, Wells led the Legion’s advance to the Maumee River (near Fort Wayne, Indiana).  Being aware of an impending Indian attack by the Shawnee war chief Blue Jacket, Wells warned Anthony. Wells’ scouting party later discovered and captured the British officers supplying Indians with shot and powder.  A few days before the Battle of Fallen Timbers, where Anthony defeated Blue Jacket, Wells received a hand-wound while attempting to infiltrate a band of Delaware.  Despite his wound, he escaped with his life and served as an advisor to General Wayne during the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

In 1795, Wells served as an interpreter at the Treaty of Greenville, at which the Indian Confederation of Miami, Piankeshaw, Kickapoo, and Kaskaskia Indians ceded most of the Ohio Country to the United States.  During these negotiations, it must have been uncomfortable for Wells to stand between General Wayne, his military commander, and Little Turtle, his father-in-law, during these negotiations.

Following the Treaty of Greenville, Little Turtle requested that Wells be appointed Indian Agent for the Miami nation.  Wells moved his family into the home constructed for him by the Army at Fort Wayne.  Both Wells and Little Turtle traveled with General Wayne to Philadelphia, where President Washington received them warmly.

During Thomas Jefferson’s administration, Wells wrote a letter to the president recommending the establishment of a trading post at Fort Wayne.  His idea was to encourage friendly relations with area Indians.  President Jefferson did authorize the trading post but appointed John Johnston as its manager.  Jefferson needed Wells to implement his Indian policy, which called for the civilizing Indians and using treaties to gain as much of their homelands as possible — and within the shortest period of time.  Johnson was entirely on board with Jefferson’s scheme — Wells was not, so it is no surprise that the two men had a troubled relationship.

After assuming his duties as territorial governor in 1801, William Henry Harrison appointed Wells as a justice of the peace and charged him with creating a postal service between Fort Wayne and Fort Dearborn.  Three years later, Harrison came to resent that Wells sided with Little Turtle in his opposition to the Treaty of Vincennes of 1804, which proposed that the Indians relinquish large areas to the American settlement.

In 1805, Harrison sent former acting territorial governor John Gibson and militia colonel Francis Vigo to investigate Wells and Little Turtle on suspicion of financial corruption.  Gibson, who spoke several Indian languages and dialects, concluded that “Wells appeared more attentive to the needs of the Indians than he was to the people of the United States.” There being no evidence of corruption, however, Wells was retained.  After Sweet Breeze died in 1805, Wells sent his daughters to live with his brother Samuel in Kentucky.  Afterward, Wells and Little Turtle had an amicable meeting with Governor Harrison.

In 1808, Wells and Little Turtle signed Harrison’s Treaty of Grouse Land, but once more concerned about the Indians, Wells led a delegation of Indian chiefs to Washington, D. C. to meet with President Jefferson.  Whether or not this effort was worthwhile, Wells’ insubordination infuriated Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, who promptly fired Wells and replaced him with John Johnston.

Wells married his third wife, Mary, a daughter of Colonel Frederick Geiger, in 1809.  They and Wells’ children returned to Fort Wayne, where Wells was discharged as Indian Agent by his replacement.  After signing the Treaty of Fort Wayne in the Autumn of 1809, the Shawnee War Chief Tecumseh and his brother began to organize a militant Indian confederation.  Wells gave due warning to the government in Washington, but Dearborn had a long memory and ignored the warning.  The alarm did nothing to help Wells’ relationship with Tecumseh, either.

With the full support of the Miami chieftains and Kentucky Senator John Pope, Wells traveled to Washington to challenge John Johnston’s decisions.  Ultimately, the decision was left to Governor Harrison, who sided with Wells — not because he trusted Wells, but because he feared that the Miami Indians might join Tecumseh.  Wells was able to keep the Miami tribe out of the Shawnee Confederation.  When Little Turtle died in 1812, Wells buried him near his home, a 1,300-acre farm outside Fort Wayne.

Following President James Madison’s momentous decision to declare war on Great Britain in 1812, he notified nearly everyone west of Naples, Italy — except for the settlers living in the Northwest Territory.  They found out when British soldiers and their Indian allies began shooting at them.  Much to the surprise of everyone living at or near Fort Dearborn (present-day Chicago), hundreds of Potawatomi Indian warriors appeared one morning, surrounded the fort, and demanded their surrender.  William Wells led a band of Miami Indians from Fort Wayne to aid in Fort Dearborn’s evacuation.  Captain Nathan Heald, commanding Fort Dearborn, was the husband of Rebekah, a daughter of William Wells.

Captain Wells intended to offer protection to the garrison and their families (around 100 people — about a third women and children) while they abandoned the post and retreated to Fort Wayne.  Wells negotiated with the Indians for the garrison’s release, and this would have been fine had Captain Heald not destroyed the garrison’s supplies before marching away.  Heald’s destruction of whiskey stores is what angered the Indians most; it is why they attacked the withdrawing garrison.  Historians remember the subsequent massacre as the Battle of Dearborn.  It wasn’t much of a battle.  Nathan and Rebekah were both wounded, taken prisoner, and later ransomed to the British.

When Wells learned that Heald had destroyed the whiskey, he knew the Indians would attack.  In the Miami tradition, he painted his face black — a sign that he knew he was about to die.  William Wells was one of the first to die in the Indian assault.  As a sign of respect to Wells, the Pottawatomi consumed his heart. 

William Wells was a man with conflicting loyalties.  The Miami Indians were his adopted family; he had no other.  His country was frequently at war with his only family, and yet he endeavored to serve his country as best as he was able to do so.  One might argue that he served his family with compassion and his country with distinction.  Others have suggested that he was a traitor.  Readers can decide this question for themselves.

Wells County, Indiana, is named in honor of Captain William Wells, Legion of the United States.

Sources:

  1. Carter, H. L.  The Life and Times of Little Turtle: First Sagamore of the Wabash.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  2. Clayton, A. R. L.  Frontier Indiana.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
  3. Heath, W.  William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.
  4. Sonneborn, L.  The War of 1812.  Rosen Publishing Group, 2004.
  5. Sword, W.  President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Endnotes:

[1] One of the last battles of the Revolutionary War, which occurred ten months after Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown.  The battle involved British forces augmented by Indian raiders who attacked the settlement near the Licking River.

[2] Miami Indians in the Illinois area were also called Myaamiaki.  They speak the Algonquian language and are part of the Great Lakes tribes that occupied North-Central Indiana.

[3] Also, Lenape whose traditional territories included Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and the Lower Hudson Valley.

[4] Wea was the mother of William’s son, William Wayne Wells, a graduate of the USMA, West Point.

[5] Responsible for constructing the fortifications at Sewall’s Point, Providence, Newport, Long Island, and West Point.

[6] The Legion of the United States was a re-organization and extension of the Continental Army (1792-96).

[7] Sweet Breeze.

[8] Alexander McKee (1735-1799) was a British-American colonel who served as an Indian Agent with the British Indian Department during the French & Indian War, the American Revolution, and the Northwest Indian War.  He was instrumental in organizing the American Indian tribes against the Americans during the Revolutionary War and Northwest Indian War.

[9] Simon Girty (1741-1818), like Wells, was captured and raised by the Indians.  He assimilated Seneca culture and served as a principal advisor to the Indians during the Northwest Indian War and, like Wells, participated in St. Clair’s defeat.


About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, British Colonies, Colonial America, History, Indian War, Northwest Territory. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Conflicting Loyalties

  1. What a great man.
    So many questions.
    How did his son fair after graduation at USMA?

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    • Mustang says:

      He had a total of ten children, four of which were sons. We don’t know which of these went to USMA and my research does not reveal the name of any possible matches. Disappeared in history, methinks he did.

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  2. Andy says:

    Not sure how anyone could classify Wells as a “traitor.” Seems to me he served his adopted family with honor and distinction. If someone were to call him an enemy, that might be more appropriate.

    In any case, Wells was a colorful, and from this account, talented frontiersman.

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    • Mustang says:

      There was a time in this country when people believed, “Yer either fer us or agin us,” particularly in the circumstances of open warfare in the Northwest Territories. In more recent times, when some number of Islamic people danced in the streets following the 9/11 attacks, they were called traitors. Wells may have been considered a traitor to his own kind, one of those “Indian lovers.” This attitude may not have changed even if those people had understood (or cared) about his circumstances. To my way of thinking, he seems to have made a genuine effort to champion the rights of Indians as a means of finding peace between these two very disparate groups of people.

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