William Wells: How the tide could have turned in battle for Kekionga

| November 19, 2013
William Wells

William Wells

By Terry Doran
Special to Frost Illustrated

I liked Eric Hackley’s piece on Anthony Wayne and Little Turtle a lot and especially his question: “What would have happened if Anthony Wayne had lost?”

I posed that very question a couple years ago to William Heath, who was giving a lecture at the History Center on William Wells, the subject of Heath’s excellent novel, “Blacksnake’s Path: The True Adventures of William Wells.” Blacksnake was the name the Miami Nation gave Wells, after they adopted him. Details of Wells are missing from Eric’s previous account (probably from lack of space.) So, I’d like to fill in a little here. William Wells is, in my opinion, the most important relatively unknown figure of not only the history of this region but of American history.

A brief look at his life will tell us, had he made a different decision, that Mr. Hackley’s question would not be hypothetical. Anthony Wayne would not have defeated the Indians of this region. That he did is largely the credit, or blame, of William Wells.

Kidnapped when he was a boy, Wells came to love his Indian captors and became a member of the Miami Nation, serving as a scout for Little Turtle in 1791 and helping him to crush American troops under the command of Arthur St. Clair. Just a year before, Little Turtle had soundly thrashed General Josiah Harmar. But not too long after the defeat of St. Clair, Wells had switched sides, going back to live with his white birth family, in the process becoming a scout for Anthony Wayne. Wells knew all the Indians’ secrets, their way of fighting, their strategies, which he passed onto Wayne and was instrumental in Wayne’s victory at Fallen Timbers in 1794.

By this time Wells was not just Little Turtle’s friend, he was family, having married Little Turtle’s daughter Sweet Breeze. (Mary, one of their four children, married James Hackley. Any relation Eric?) Such was the bond between these two extraordinary men that even after Wells turned back to his white heritage, they remained close friends and worked together for peace after it was clear fighting was futile—Little Turtle as a famous diplomat, Wells as a distinguished interpreter. Had William Wells not switched, I’m convinced Anthony Wayne’s name would be on the list with Harmar and St. Clair as Americans who bowed to the military genius of Little Turtle. At the very least, the name of this city would not be Fort Wayne and that right there would be a blessing. I’ve had many stimulating conversations with Eric on this topic and discussed it with him on his cable access TV show. There are so few of us who see Anthony Wayne for what he is, a war criminal, which makes Eric’s efforts to keep the truth in front of us so important.

In closing I am trying to adapt Heath’s novel, based on extensive research, into a documentary or feature film. Our public library describes the book this way:

“This splendid novel about an unsung hero of American history recreates an entire period (1779-1812), showing how the Indians lived, fought for their homeland, and dealt with defeat, while also capturing the lives of the men and women who settled the territory north of the Ohio River.”

In this “splendid novel” there is violence, romance, love, humor, pathos and betrayal. The description of Wells’ inner battles as he bounces between loyalties is perhaps its most gripping feature. I highly recommend it.

Terry Doran is an area activist, writer and award winning public access television producer.

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