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Chicago’s Last Unclaimed Indian Territory: A Possible Native American Claim Upon Billy Caldwell’s Land

By Scott Priz on Thursday, June 29th, 2017
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This student comment, published in the John Marshall Law review’s 50-1 issue, is a comment that goes into the historical record examining land transfers by a Potawatomi Chief by the name of Billy Caldwell involving land that is currently part of Chicago.

Billy Caldwell, or Chief Sauganash, was appointed a Chief of the Potawatomi Indians to help with the tribe’s treaties with the United States in 1829 and 1833.  As part of the 1829 Treaty of Prairie du Chien, Caldwell received 1600 acres of land.  This land grant carried the protection that Caldwell or his heirs could not convey the land without the permission of the President of the United States of America.  This protection, according to consistent caselaw, is very important, as it treats the land as under the protection and trust of the United States of America.  This protects the land claim from adverse possession, and without the permission of the President of a conveyance, the land remains under the ownership of the heirs of grantee from the treaty.  Normally, land claims like this would be wiped away by adverse possession after twenty years of use by another.  Not so when the land is protection by the United States.

The comment goes into the land transfer records of the 1840s to determine whether Caldwell properly conveyed all his land.  It not only goes deep into the records maintained by the Cook County Clerk’s office, but also into the federal archives, and the archives maintained by the lawyer Caldwell retained to sell the land, Arthur Bronson. It concludes that while most of the land was conveyed with the permission of the President, as reflected in the records kept in the United States’ archives 160 acres were never conveyed according to the terms of the federal treaty.

Going off that conclusion, the comment analyzes what would happen now to the 160 acres, which are currently divided between a Cook County Park (Caldwell Woods) and the neighborhood of Wildwood.  If the comment’s analysis of the old land records is correct, would anyone have any sort of claim upon the land as the true owner of it?  What sort of a claim could they bring, if any, and against what parties?  It is no small claim.  160 acres of Chicago’s northwest side is (roughly) estimated to be worth five hundred million dollars.

The comment proposes that the United States Department of the Interior not only review this possible claim, but also review similar grants to Native Americans that had this protection in the treaty.  It concludes that, under modern case law, that a suit for ownership of the land would fail.  But a suit against the United States for breach of trust would be able to bring value to the heirs of the land for the United States failure to protect the land, if it had been taken without value from the owners.  It is a proposal to attempt to right a little of wrongs committed against Native Americans in the 19th century treaty period, to at least make the United States live up to the promises that it made in these treaties to protect these land grants.

The comment can be viewed in full on the law review’s website, at http://repository.jmls.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2714&context=lawreview.

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