Born to Anglo-American parents on the Appalachian frontier, captured by the Miami Indians at the age of thirteen, and adopted into the tribe, William Wells (1770–1812) moved between two cultures all his life but was comfortable in neither. Vilified by some historians for his divided loyalties, he remains relatively unknown even though he is worthy of comparison with such famous frontiersmen as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. William Heath’s thoroughly researched book is the first biography of this man-in-the-middle.
A servant of empire with deep sympathies for the people his country sought to dispossess, Wells married Chief Little Turtle’s daughter and distinguished himself as a Miami warrior, as an American spy, and as an Indian agent whose multilingual skills made him a valuable interpreter. Heath examines pioneer life in the Ohio Valley from both white and Indian perspectives, yielding rich insights into Wells’s career as well as broader events on the post-revolutionary American frontier, where Anglo-Americans pushing westward competed with the Indian nations of the Old Northwest for control of territory.
Wells’s unusual career, Heath emphasizes, earned him a great deal of ill will. Because he warned the U.S. government against Tecumseh’s confederacy and the Tenskwatawa’s “religiously mad” followers, he was hated by those who supported the Shawnee leaders. Because he came to question treaties he had helped bring about, and cautioned the Indians about their harmful effects, he was distrusted by Americans. Wells is a complicated hero, and his conflicted position reflects the decline of coexistence and cooperation between two cultures.
Awards for William Wells
Western Writers of America has declared “William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest,” the 2016 Best Western Historical Nonfiction and Best First Nonfiction Book by awarding William Heath with two Spur Awards. This award “honors writers for distinguished writing about the American West…Since 1953 the Spur Awards have been considered one of the most prestigious awards in American literature.” For more information on the award visit the Western Writers of America web site
Selected by True West Magazine as one of the best books of 2016 on the Frontier History of the Early Republic.
Finalist for 2016 Ohioana Book Awards – best book about Ohio or an Ohioan.
Nominee for Midwestern History Association for the Jon Gjerde Prize for Best Book on Midwestern History published in 2015.
Praise for William Wells
One of the most important but shadowy characters from the story of the Old Northwest is William Wells, the “white Indian,” who lived and died between two worlds in conflict. William Heath brings a novelist’s graceful style and a historian’s impeccable research to this fascinating biography. —Paul Andrew Hutton, author of Phil Sheridan and His Army
William Heath has given us a thoroughly researched, detailed, and comprehensive account of the life and times of one of the most interesting and enigmatic figures on the early American frontier. —Colin G. Calloway, author of The Victory With No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army
The truth-is-stranger-than-fiction remarkable life of William Wells has found an ideal biographer in novelist-turned-historian William Heath. This deeply researched reconstruction of Wells’ side-shifting odyssey brilliantly illuminates the confusing choices and challenges that confronted Indians and pioneers as they struggled against one another and with themselves on the early American frontier. —Stephen Aron, author of How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay
William Heath, in this superbly researched and written book, places William Wells back into the historic limelight he so deserves…. The book is a tour de force, covering events that took place over 25 years in an area located between Louisville and Cincinnati in the south and Detroit and Chicago in the north. The author masterfully combines social, military, and political history, bringing to life events that shaped the United States. This book is a must read for anyone interested in our nation’s formative years. —Charles H. Bogart in, The Journal of America’s Military Past
William Heath unravels an unbelievable warp and weft of an American story that rivals one Hollywood might create. But Wells’s story is true; it is the dynamic and exciting tale of a man caught between two worlds…. Heath’s remarkable research about William Wells is a must-read, a detailed and fully documented account of a remarkable life…[William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest] has to be one of the best histories of the “Indian War era” to date. —Kenneth C. Carstens in, Michigan Historical Review
Wonderfully written, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest is a must read for anyone interested in frontier life, the relationship between Natives and settlers, Washington’s Indian Wars, and/or the War of 1812. The life of William Wells exemplifies Richard White’s The Middle Ground. Adding to the scholarly field, Heath helps complete the story of settlement and provides an amazing example of the “intricate systems of coexistence” between Natives and Americans on the Ohio Valley frontier. —Janet Rozick in, Northwest Ohio History
This book is the best accounting of Wells’s life available to scholars. Heath impressively pieces together evidence from nineteen archives, the abundant published primary sources, and scholarly treatments. —William H. Bergmann in, Western Historical Quarterly
William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest recreates the life and times of a fascinating liminal yet wholly representative figure whose story is essentially the story of Ohio and Indiana between 1790 and 1812…. Wells’s story is well worth knowing, and Heath is certainly the person to tell it…. Heath depicts Wells as a figure increasingly split between his Miami and white identities. —Edward Watts in, Ohio History