Friday, September 3, 2010

The Writings of William Wells

Most people interested in Fort Wayne's history are familiar with Captain William Wells (1770-1812), who played a large role in the history of the fort and establishing fair relations with local Indian tribes. Born in Pennsylvania, he was brought by his parents to Kentucky at a young age and orphaned. In 1784 while on a hunting expedition, he was captured by Indians and taken to Snake-fish Town on the Eel River, near Logansport. Given the name "Wild Carrot," he was adopted into the Miami tribe by a village chief. He assimilated quickly, learning all of the tribal rituals, and participated with the Indians in their attacks on Josiah Harmar's army of U.S. Regulars in October 1790 and again in 1792 against the army of Gen. Arthur St. Clair. He was eventually persuaded to switch sides and become a scout for Gen. Anthony Wayne in 1794. He was married several times, and among his wives was Sweet Breeze, the daughter of Chief Little Turtle.

Because Wells was able to straddle both the Indian and white worlds, he enjoyed a unique position that gave him access to leaders on both sides during the Indian wars that culminated in the War of 1812. He served as a translator during the Treaty of Greenville negotiations in 1795 and later headed the Indian Agency at Fort Wayne. He made a number of enemies, however, and was eventually relieved of his position, even though he had warned William Henry Harrison and other army officials about the threat of renewed Indian attacks prior to Tecumseh's revolt. Wells was killed during the famous Fort Dearborn massacre at what is now Chicago in 1812, and Wells Street in Fort Wayne bears his name.

A recent article in the June 2010 issue of the Indiana Magazine of History, published by the Indiana Historical Society, discusses the strong possibility that Wells had intended to write an autobiography prior to his untimely death. Some manuscript pages were located in the nineteenth century and published at that time, which describe in detail the speeches of various chiefs at the Greenville treaty conference, the various battles fought between the Indians and whites from the time of Pontiac's uprising in 1763 to the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Even more significant is a detailed description of Miami rituals, including hunting, vision quests, adoption, coming-of-age, and marriage customs that seem to have been written by a white man with first-hand knowledge of their intricacies. Portions of the manuscript appear to be written by Wells, and portions updated by his son-in-law, Dr. William Turner.

The article is well worth reading and sheds new light on Wells, who has taken on an almost mythic persona in Fort Wayne history. He seems to have been a person of unusual insight and clarity, and had he lived, might have had an even greater impact on the history of Indian-white relations in our area.

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