William Wells: The soldier with the double life

Chicagoans know Wells Street for its picturesque bridge and summer art festival, but most do not know the iconic Chicago fairway is named after a spy who was married to the daughter of a famous American Indian chief. Not that they should, however, and that is the foundation of this new piece, to track and explain how Chicago infrastructure—its roadways, bridges, tunnels, etcetera—and amenities—parks, fountains, statues, etcetera—were named and when.

Wells Street is named after an American soldier who died at the Battle of Fort Dearborn, but William Wells once fought as a Native American and only changed sides once his family was taken prisoner. (Photo courtesy of Fort Wayne Public Library)

William Wells was an orphan taken in by the Miami Native Americans. He changed sides once his family was taken prisoner by the U.S. military. (Photo courtesy of Fort Wayne Public Library)

William H. Wells was a U.S. Army officer who died at the Battle of Fort Dearborn in what became Chicago in August 1812. He was trying to protect American soldiers from a Potawatomi attack and died in the attempt. In his younger years, Wells served as a spy for General “Mad” Anthony Wayne and a translator for the U.S. government. He helped to negotiate several American Indian treaties, including the pivotal Greenville Treaty of 1795. During his heyday, he met Presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, and, somehow, Wells managed to do all of this while juggling two lives.

Wells was not just a spy and soldier for the U.S. government; he also considered himself a Miami warrior. Raised on the Kentucky frontier, Wells was orphaned by age twelve and captured by the Miami Indians when he was fourteen. His captors saw promise in young “Apekonit” or “Carrot top,” naming him after his red hair. They took him to Indiana, where he became a member of the tribe, going through initiation rites and participating in major battles (where he killed American soldiers). He married two Miami women, raising five children with his second wife, Sweet Breeze, daughter of the great Miami chief Little Turtle.

Wells began service for the U.S. Army only when his first wife and adoptive mother were taken prisoner. In exchange for their release, he agreed to serve as a translator at Fort Wayne. From then on, Wells was stuck in the middle. The Americans doubted his allegiance at every turn, and Native Americans viewed him as a spy and traitor. At the Battle of Fort Dearborn, it is rumored the Potawatomi singled him out before the fighting even began. They killed him early in the fight, taking his scalp and eating his heart.

Like its namesake, Wells Street had a dramatic history of its own. It was part of the city’s original plat of survey, putting Wells’ name alongside George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. By 1870, however, Wells Street had become a string of brothels and gambling halls. It was re-named Fifth Avenue south of the river in an effort to revamp the street. Almost half a century later, the city reinstated the original name. During that time, two train stations were built along the southern half of Wells Street: Chicago’s Grand Central Station in 1890 and the Wells Street Terminal in 1904. These hubs, now demolished, were instrumental in reviving Wells Street.

About the author

Sarah Lahey is a freelance writer with an English doctorate from Northwestern University. She most recently worked as a lecturer at Loyola University.

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