August 15

This Day in History

Old West

Aug 15, 1812:

Indian captive William Wells is killed

Potawatomi Indians kill William Wells, an Indian captive turned Indian fighter.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1770, Wells migrated with his family to Kentucky when he was nine years old. Five years later he was captured by Miami Indians and adopted into the family of the Wea village chief Gaviahatte. The young boy quickly adapted to Indian ways. He became a distinguished warrior and married the daughter of a prominent Miami war chief.

For several years, Wells fought with the Miami against American soldiers attempting to push them off their land. In 1792, however, the army captured his wife and adopted mother. In exchange for their freedom, Wells agreed to join the American army as an interpreter. A reunion with a long lost brother helped reinforce the allegiance of Wells to the Americans, though his loyalties remained conflicted for the rest of his life.

For several years, Wells was an invaluable scout and interpreter for the U.S. Army, helping the Americans defeat the hostile factions of the Miami and other tribes. In 1797, he was appointed Indian agent for the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, and other tribes of the Old Northwest (the modern-day Midwest). Yet, increasing pressure for the Indians to give up their lands to white settlers led to renewed conflicts, and Wells was often caught between the two groups.

The outbreak of the War of 1812 with Great Britain heightened an already tense situation as some Indians saw the war as chance to join forces with the British to push out the Americans. Concerned about the safety of the Americans at Fort Dearborn (in Chicago), where his niece was married to the fort commander, Wells quickly raised a rescue party of 30 Miami Indians who were loyal to him and the United States and headed north. When he arrived on August 13, he found the fort surrounded by hostile Indians. Wells argued for staying at the fort and making a stand until a larger force of American soldiers could arrive. But the commander insisted on evacuation.

On this day in 1812, Wells led a small company of men, women, and children out of the fort. They had not gone far before hundreds of Potawatomi Indians ambushed the party, killing more than 50 and taking the remainder captive. Wells, who was dressed and painted as a Miami warrior, fought heroically but was eventually shot through the lungs. When he fell from his horse, witnesses claimed the Potawatomi swarmed over his body, cut out his heart, and divided it among them.

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