Who is Potawatomi Chief Aptakisic?
Updated: Jan 30
What do we know about Potawatomi Chief Aptakisic (also known as Half-Day), and why should we learn about his role in history? Aptakisic was a major force in the region west of Chicago during the Settlement Era and the Black Hawk War in 1832. His actions demonstrate compassion for various white settlers and an awareness of the complex relationships that existed during a time of extreme change; the Potawatomi were being displaced by a rapidly growing white population backed by the powerful U.S. Government. Primary source documents recount Aptakisic's acts of kindness to early pioneers as he helped them survive during dangerous times.
Although accounts of Aptakisic are limited among both contemporary chroniclers and modern historians, Dr. Ann Durkin Keating, author of Rising Up From Indian Country-: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago writes that Aptakisic's village was north of the small trading settlement that became Chicago, along the Chicago River. A historical map of DuPage County
also indicates that this chief frequented a maple grove near present-day Downers Grove, where maple syrup and sugar was made. Daniel Wright, the first permanent white settler in Lake County, said that Aptakisic and his band assisted the settlers in building their homes, planting their crops, and even tending to those who were ill.
Aptakisic also forged a friendship with the Blodgett family near the Naper Settlement west of
Chicago. Israel Blodgett was a blacksmith whose services were needed by the Potawatomi; his son Henry, who was born in 1821, later wrote in his autobiography about Aptakisic's relationship with his family in 1831-32:
... on the night of the tenth of May, old Aptakisic, otherwise known as Half-Day,
chief of one of the bands of the Pottowotamies, and who we had seen a great
deal of during the winter, as he had been often at our house, came about twelve
o'clock at night and gave a whoop. Father sprang out and opened the door, and
he at once began to tell father that he was to take his family and get away from
there as soon as possible, that Black Hawk and the head men of his band had
been at Waubonsie's Village, which is the present site of the City of Aurora, in
consultation with the Pottowotamie head men during the whole of the day before,
endeavoring to influence the Pottowotamies to join him in the war, which he was
determined to make against the white people.*
Not only did Aptakisic warn the Blodgett family and others of the looming attack by Black Hawk in 1832, he accompanied the procession of settlers in their wagons, following behind them until they were near Ft. Dearborn. Blodgett writes at that point, "he waived us good-bye with his hand, turned his horse, and disappeared." The chief also was instrumental in having many Potawatomi braves in the area brought into a camp near present-day Riverside, where they were given food. Blodgett explains that this was done "for fear that their young men, who were ambitious to distinguish themselves in war, would sneak off and join the Black Hawk parties and thus complicate the relations of the tribe with the Government, as well as reinforce the Black Hawk band." The white settlers of the Chicago area were therefore in a more precarious situation in 1832 than is generally recognized. (See "Sources" section of this website.)
The settlers also felt sincere affection toward Aptakisic, who reluctantly signed the 1833 Treaty of Chicago that required the Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi to vacate their lands and move west of the Mississippi River. Aptakisic was not anxious to leave, and informed U.S. commissioners during treaty negotiations that his people did not want to exchange their land for land that they had never seen. Further, according to historian R. David Edmunds (author of The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire), Aptakisic also asked that their annuity payments be made so that his people could return to their villages and harvest their corn. Aptakisic relented, however, and placed an "X" on the treaty by his name, written as Ah-be-te-ke-zhic. When the chief finally departed the area in 1837, Blodgett wrote in a letter, "I well remember the sad face of the old chief as he came to bid our family goodbye...we all shed tears of genuine sorrow." (See Treaty of Chicago 1833 in the "For You" section of this website.) As a parting gesture, Aptakisic gave his ceremonial war club to an early settler named Stephen Gale.
The pioneers of Fullersburg, including Benjamin Fuller, who arrived in the area from New York in 1834, also forged a friendly relationship with the local Potawatomi. Aptakisic is likely to have been an acquaintance, as Fullersburg (formerly Brush Hill) was located by trails that the chief would have used in his travels. Benjamin's first home was also close to Potawatomi who had not yet left the area, and he taught them how to shoe their ponies; in return, Benjamin's young son John was gifted a pony named Ninoldi. As an adult, John raised the consciousness level of the residents of Fullersburg about the treatment of the Native Americans. A journal belonging to the Brush Hill Debate Club was recovered in 2020 by the Fullersburg Historic Foundation, and its contents indicate that in 1857, John argued at a meeting that the "Indian has more cause of complaint against the white man than the Negro." Although John did not prevail in convincing his peers of his position, the topic was a relevant concern to many citizens of the area, who also were active in the Underground Railroad. (See "Journal" section of this website for more information.) Aptakisic's legacy of friendship should not be forgotten, as this relatively unknown Potawatomi chief greatly impacted the lives of numerous white settlers and during a time of exceptional historic transition.
* There are many variations in the spelling of Potawatomi.
Sue Devick, M.A.