Travel down Fort Wayne’s North Wells Street, and you’ll find one of the city’s funkier shopping districts, where a tattoo shop rubs shoulders with a military surplus store, a used bookstore, a Mexican bakery, a stained-glass artist’s gallery and a funeral home.
Ask whom the street is named for, and you’ll likely get a blank stare, even though the story of its namesake, Capt. William Wells, who served as Fort Wayne’s Indian agent in its earliest days, is as compelling as any found in local history books.
When author William Heath heard the tale of the son of Kentucky pioneers orphaned and captured when he was 12 by the Miami Indians and raised as the son of their chief, it captured his imagination – enough for him to spend 12 years researching Wells’ life for a history-based novel published in 2008 and a biography due out next year.
You can’t say he was a white guy, and you can’t say he was an Indian. He was both, really, says Heath, a native of Youngtown, Ohio, and professor emeritus at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmittsburg, Md. who now lives in Frederick, Md.
He shows how complex and tangled the relationship (between settlers and Indians on the frontier) really is.
This weekend, Heath will speak in Fort Wayne twice – at 7 p.m. Saturday during William Wells Day, an event started three years ago by merchants and residents in the Wells Street area, and at 2 p.m. Sunday at The History Center as part of this month’s Miami Indian Heritage Days programming.
Shawna Nicelley, president of the Wells Corridor Business Association, says she’d like to spur more interest in a figure she became fascinated by after hearing a brief talk on a historical trolley ride.
My husband and I both thought, This guy sounds like someone out of a movie,’ she said. We got so excited by his story, we thought, Let’s have a William Wells Day’ and let people hear about this really interesting, colorful person.
After being captured by the Miami in 1782, Heath says, the red-headed Wells became integrated enough into Indian society to take the Indian name of Blacksnake, go on war parties, and marry and father a child with an Indian woman.
When his wife and child were both captured and killed in a raid by U.S. soldiers in 1791, Wells was inspired to organize retaliation against the Americans at the Battle of the Wabash, which led to a stunning Indian victory at what later became Fort Recovery.
Wells then married a daughter of Chief Little Turtle, had four children with her and scouted for the Miami, until he switched sides and began working with Gen. Anthony Wayne and the Americans.
Heath says that development appears to have come about both for sentimental and pragmatic reasons after Wells’ older brother Samuel found him and urged him to come home.
I think he (Wells) never completely forgot his Kentucky roots family, and I also think he realized, as did Little Turtle, that the Indians couldn’t keep winning. So I think there was some self-interest there, Heath says.
I think he was told, If you switch sides you will be a very significant person,’ and he actually made a large amount of money to switch sides by being paid as an Indian scout.
Wells’ path from then on, Heath says, did not exactly run smooth.
Some Indian tribes were not happy with him because of his relationship with Little Turtle, while the Americans weren’t always sure which side the man was on, even though he eventually married a white woman and had a farm at the confluence of the St. Marys and St Joseph rivers in Fort Wayne, Heath says.
There was a lot of controversy around him, Heath says. Allegations of corruption were made at one point.
Nonetheless, Wells was named the U.S. Indian agent to the Miami and visited President George Washington in Philadelphia and Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in Washington, D.C., at one point leading a delegation of chiefs to negotiate with the latter.
Wells was killed in August 1812 by Potawatomi Indians while trying with some Miamis to aid settlers, including some of his white relatives, at Fort Dearborn in what is now Chicago. He was dressed as a Miami; the Potawatomi, according to accounts, ate his heart in order to obtain his strength.
A historical plaque marking the site of the Dearborn Trail stands on the grounds of the Imagine MASTer Academy along North Wells Street.
Heath says he visited 33 archives and searched hundreds of sources, including many primary sources and little-known captivity narratives, in researching Wells. He did some of his research at the Allen County Public Library.
He says he found snippets here and there but not much of any length.
People told me, Someone ought to write a book about him,’ but no one had, he says, adding that he knows of only one other full-length work, Heart of a Warrior: The True Saga of Sweet Breeze and William Wells, by Joseph Krom of Argos and published in 2008.
Heath says he thinks Wells’ story is little known because it’s too grisly for schoolchildren and eludes easy categorization. But he says it’s representative of what life was like outside the original 13 colonies in the early years of America, the territory on which most historians have focused.
And he thinks it’s the kind of tale Americans need to hear more of.
To see him as a pure hero, well, he’s a very complex figure of his time. But I think we’ve outgrown the notion of Hurrah for the pioneers!’ I think it’s become more apparent that the Indians didn’t receive what they should have from the U.S. government, Heath says.
Wells adds a dimension to the story that has been missing way too long.