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William Burnett

"The Trader"

(Waub-Zee or White Swan)


William Burnett was believed to have been born in present day New Jersey. But some historians state that there are no records to indicate this. He might have come from a settlement known as Vincennes, Indiana. His nickname was “The Trader” and was known to the Indians as Waub-Zee or White Swan. He married Kaukema Nanaquiba in 1782, the chief of the Potawatomi’s daughter, because of her beauty and for his protection. William Burnett was documented as a very intellegent, well-spoken, successful businessman with an outstanding personality. He would become a well-known trader and permanently leave his mark in history thoughout the northeast region. He wrote many letters thoughout his expeditions, which are still read to this day. His success as a trader brought him into disfavor with the commandant at Michilimackinac and he was ordered to report to the post. He refused, but being threatened, he agreed to try living at the post for a year. However, when he refused to stay longer, he was sent a prisoner to Montreal when at last he managed to escape. He returned as soon as possible to the St. Joseph to find his property had been almost entirely confiscated by his clerks. And English traders had invaded his territory. But he was keen-witted and formed an alliance with the Neshnabe Potawatomi Indians by marrying the beautiful daughter of the head chief Nanaquiba, the ancient head of the Potawatomi tribes of the region. It was believed that William Burnett was the first known independent trader at the close of the revolution to locate near the mouth of the river and cover the entire valley of the St. Joseph as well as Kan Ka Kee, the Kalamazoo, Chicago and extended even to the Illinois and Wabash in his transactions with the Indians. He was successful all thoughout the region. There seems to be no record of his death, but it is documented in two different ways. One date states December 15, 1808 in St. Joseph. The other is thought he may have been one of the victims of the Fort Dearborn Massacre, August 15, 1812, for he was known to have been there. Rumors indicated that an indian man was looking to kill him. Records of his activity cease at about this time.

William Burnett and his full-blooded Potawatomi Indian wife, Kaukema (Cakimi) Nanaquiba Burnett, had seven biological children. Their names were James, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, John, Rebecca, and Nancy. Kaukema (Cakimi) had two children before her marriage to William Burnett. Their names were Lewis and Mary Ann who would later adopt the last name of Burnett.


Letters written by the hand of William Burnett, courtesy of the Chicago Metro History Fair:

An early trader who writes about his business affairs:

As early as 1775 William Burnett set up as a trader at the mouth of the St. Joseph River in Michigan where he built a house, barn and storehouses. He developed orchards of apple, quince, peach and cherry trees and grew a garden that included corn, cabbage and turnips. He also trapped in the surrounding area. By 1798 he had opened a trading post in Chicago.

As can be seen from his letters he bought and sold a variety of merchandise: fur pelts, gun powder, corn, calico shirts and a host of other items. He dealt with Native Americans in the area as well as merchants in Detroit and other towns. As Chicago historian Henry Hurlburt writes,

“William Burnett, it would appear, had been educated for business – probably as a merchant – and his dispatches indicate, perhaps, the discipline of good training as well as natural ability.”

Burnett died on the St. Joseph River in 1814.

For a fuller biographical note, see

Danckers, Ulrich and Jane Meredith. A Compendium of the Early History of Chicago River Forest, Ill.: Early Chicago, Inc., 2000.
F548.4.D36 2000

Source: Harlbut, Henry H. Chicago Antiquities: Comprising Original Items and Relations, Letters, Extracts, and Notes, Pertaining to Early Chicago. Chicago: The author, 1881.

ST. JOSEPHS, May the 25th, 1786.

DR. SIR—My last to you is per Mr. Tabeau, for Michilmakina, in which I promised to write you more fully for Detroit. I will now begin to let you know how I was received at Montreal when I went down as prisoner last fall. When I arrived there, I waited upon General St. Ledger, who was then commander-in-chief, to let him know that I was the person that was sent down by Captain Robertson, from Michilmakina. “What,” says he, “is your name Burnett?” I answered him it was. He then asked me in what manner I came down as a prisoner; if it was with soldiers and fixed Bayonets. I told him no soldiers came down as a guard over me, But was delivered at every Post as a prisoner, from one Commanding officer to another, to be forwarded down to Montreal. He then said, “By G—d, sir, I now release you from being a prisoner; but you shall not have my permission to go up to Makina again, as Captain Robertson has wrote me you are a dangerous man in exciting sedition amongst the Indians.” I told him it was a false and malicious accusation, and endeavored to represent everything in its true light to him. But the fellow, or rather the Tyrant, being drunk and mad together, would not hearken to me, as he said there was a sufficient number of witnesses against me to support every complaint made against me by Capt. Robertson. He then told me as he had nothing to say with the Civil line, I must go down to Quebec if I wanted a pass and get one from the Lieut. Governor, Mr. Hamilton, and would write down at the same time the complaint made by Captain Robertson. Accordingly I went down and waited upon Hamilton, who received me very politely, and told me he had received a letter from General St. Ledger in consequence of giving me a pass for Detroit. He said he did not see the least difficulty of granting me a pass for that place provided I would give the usual security, and that he would write to General St. Ledger in consequence of granting me one upon those conditions. This was all that passed between him and me upon this subject, and now asked what I sent down for. Relying upon what he had told me, I comes up to Montreal again and waits upon General St. Ledger. “Well,” says he, “has the Governor given you a pass?” I told him he had not, but was to have wrote him to grant me one upon those conditions of giving him proper security. “The Governor has wrote,” says he; “but since he has not given you a pass, I may be d----d if I do, and you may get along, sir.” Finding no satisfaction amongst these Tyrants and hell-hounds, I left h-ll and ascended round to heaven – I mean New York and Philadelphia—from whence I arrived here the 26th of last month only.

With respect of what I wrote you in my first letter, which was for an assortment of goods for this season, I have, in consequence, inclosed to you a memorandum of what things I may want, and which, if you think it convenient, and lays in your power to compleat, let me know your answer by the bearer of this, Ducharme. Should the above take place, I would have all the dry goods brought by pack-Horses, and as for the heavy articles, I would wish to have them sent round by Mackina, such as the rum, powder, and ball. You can easily have them sent in a vessell to Mackina, and from that sent in a boat to Chicago in your name, as the little Bashaw at Mackina would not grant anything to come here in my name; and as you will be at Mackina, I suppose you will endeavor to get me four Winterers, which you will send per the boat. As I have an opportunity of making a god deal of Indian corn, I would wish you could contract with somebody at Mackina to furnish them two or three hundred bushels. Or, otherwise, if you should want it yourself, I will deliver it at the bottom of the river as reasonable as possible; and let me know your price at the same time. Meldrum and Parke has not used me well this last year in your absence, I mean last fall. This is the only reason that I would not wish to have any more business with them.

I remain, Dr. Sir, your humble servant,

N. B. You will see per the memorandum what things there is to be sent per the boat. Should there be a probability of those things coming late by water, I would have some of them brought by land.
To Mr. WM. Hands,
Merch’t, Detroit per


ST. JOSEPHS, Jan. 20th, 1787

Last spring, on my way home from Fort Pitt, I stopped at St. Tuskey; was three days there at one Elliott and McDonald’s’ they charged me seven pounds for lodgings, for which I gave them an order upon Meldrum and Park; and as I have reason to suppose it is not paid, I have sent you five otters, which you will please pay them with. If they are not at Detroit at present, they will be here in the spring, and do not forget to pay them. For I would much sooner owe anybody else as many hundreds. With this goes at the same time another otter, which you will send me tea for. I must here be under the necessity of troubling you with a particular favor: that is to send me some garden seeds, and particular turnip seed and cabbage. I enjoy a very pleasant winter in one respect, and a very lazy one in another, not having anything to do. While I was writing this letter, I have been informed with a bad piece of news by a Frenchman just arrived from the Kaskaski. He says when he left, that an Indian arrived there which told him that there had an Englishman with his [a word missing] had been killed at Lafourche on the Illinois River, on his way from Illinois to Detroit, but cannot learn who it is. Please make my humble respects to Mr. and Mrs. May, and hope they are very well; and am, with regard,
Dr. Sir, your obdt. Servant


ST. JOSEPHS, August 22, 1787

SIR—When Mr. Lalime was in Detroit last, you was pleased to tell him verbally, that if I should want anything at your house, it should be at my service. Upon which I take the liberty of addressing you this letter, to acquaint you with my desire of having an assortment of Indian goods this fall (if convenient to you) to the amount of a thousand pounds’ worth. If this should meet your approbation, please to let me know by the bearer of this. As I have horses of my own, I would everything brought by land. And at the same time, would wish to have made up calico and linen shirts: twelve dozen of calico shirts, twelve dozen of men’s linen shirts of twelve-penny linen, and six dozen of women’s and children’s shirts. If you have any powder, please to send me a hundred weight by the bearer, and remain,
Sir, your humble servant,


ST. JOSEPHS, April 11, 1791

I am at present moving down to the Lake; fear of any accident, as the Indians report that the Americans are coming again against them. If you have any newspapers or magazines by you send me some, if you can spare any. I hope there is a good prospect of the sale of peltries. No packs here this year. I am sincerely yours,


Give the young lads some Bisquet for their voyage

ST. JOSEPHS, Oct. 7, 1792

With pleasure I received your letter per the Speedwell, and has given particular attention to the contents thereof. The things that Mr. Potier sent by the vessel have likewise arrived in good order. I am sorry it is out of my power to procure you the racine of Grand River, as all the Indians are gone out to winter; and another thing, would not have time to dry the roots against the time the vessel would be ready; therefore, will endeavor to get what you want against the spring. McKenzie was telling me you had a pleasant dance before he left Makina. All I am sorry for is, that I was not one of the party. I have twenty packs here at present, and would have sent them by the vessel but were not made up. If not too much trouble, I beg you will have the enclosed memorandum added to the first. I am sorry you did not send me a keg of good wine, as I soon will be out. I am happy to hear that Sayer has settled with the gentlemen you make mention of. With this goes a letter for Sayer, which you will send with the first opportunity. Do me the favor to give Patt McGulphin sixty livres for me.

No certain news to write you. We hear nother of the Americans advancing as yet. The Indians are in hopes they will not come this year. If not, it certainly will be better for trade; but it as it will, there is but poor hopes owing to the too many traders here this year; but all for the best. Wish you would write to some friend for a good spy-glass. Give me respects to Miss Peggy, and to John Reid. I am, in wishing you a pleasant and happy winter, yours sincerely,


Gents: I received your letters, with invoice and other papers, etc., the 27th of December last. But I am very sorry to inform you that I received all the goods in very bad order; all damaged, and some entirely lost. The vessel, by the misconduct of the master, was drove on shore on the point of Mosquigon River. When the vessel struck she filled full of water, and the goods remained ten days after in the hold, from which you must judge in what situation the goods must have been. In the goods arriving so late, left it entirely out of my power to send out; will, therefore, have 2/3 of my goods remaining on hand, the best part of which much damaged. As I do not know rightly what time I will go to Michilmakina this spring, I have enclosed to you two notes, which you will endeavor to get paid. You will remember that I left one with Mr. Pothier last fall belonging to Reaume, which he is to pay on his arrival, answered by him for Caltos, which last you have his note here for the balance of what he owes me. I am surprised I received no letter from Mr. Young, since he went down to Montreal, with respect to the sale of my peltries.

The bearer of this letter is the Reverend Mr. Ledrue, missioner, formerly at the Illinois. He wintered here with me, and beg you will assist him he gets settled at Makina, which I believe intends to do if there is good business for his trade.

I am, dear sir,
your humble servant,


Merch’ts, Makina
OLD MAKINA, Aug. 3, 1794

DEAR SIR: Since I came away, I have taken into consideration the subject we were talking about the other day with respect to getting me a house built. If you can get the half of Mr. Meldrum’s lot for five or six hundred livres, at most, you will then have a house built upon it on the following plan: The House to be thirty foot in front, and twenty-five foot wide. Between the two floors within to be eight foot. The front door to be in the middle, and one on the back right opposite the front door. Two windows to be in the front, one to be on each side of the door, and two windows to be on the back, one on each side of the door, the same as the front. A window to be on each gable end of the house, to be in each front-room. You will have the house covered with bark. The window-lights to be on the same model of those of Mr. Young’s house.

Should the above take place, I expect you will, according to promise, have it built on the cheapest terms as possible.

When I came away, I forgot the kettle, the roll of Bark, and the Cod line which the men brought from St. Josephs, which I beg you will have put up in some safe place till the Spring. The men eat eighty pounds of flour on their way to St. Josephs, which I think they have a right to pay, as they refused to take corn from Mr. Augustin Chabollier when he met them on their way. You forgot to charge the 2 M weight of flour. Inclosed you have Thomas’ account, at least the amount, including the skins he lost when he deserted. He is not charged with the lost time.

I am, sir, your humble serv’t,

MAKINA, July 20th, (?) 1797

As I am under the necessity of leaving this to-morrow for St. Josephs, and cannot wait the arrival of the vessel any longer, I have delivered my packs, which is eighty-four in number, to Mr. Porteous and he has promised me to see them safe shipped, which I hope will arrive safe at Montreal. Upon their arrival, I make not the least doubt that you will dispose of them to the best advantage. As the peltries are good, and every appearance of their selling well, I make not the least dispute but what they will fetch between forty-seven and forty-eight thousand livres. If they should fall much shorter than what is said above, then you will have them shipped to London. However, I mean at the same time that you will act according to the circumstances of the times, that is you will do for the best. Inclosed you have an invoice of the whole.

* * Therefore, I have concluded to inclose you one for the ensuing spring which I hope will be in your power to accomplish, which in part you will have sent up in one canoe by the Grand River, and the next in a Batteau by the way of the Lakes. The heavy articles that cannot lightly be put into a Canoe, must, of course, be put into the Batteau. As the Canoe cannot bring all the Blankets and Strouds mentioned in the memorandum, you will have a few bales of these articles put into the bateau. You will endeavor to send three winterers in the Canoe and three in the bateau. I need not urge the necessity of making choice of a good guide, as you know very well that accidents happen at the Grand River very often for want of such.

I am, Gents, your humble servant,

Messrs. JOHN OGILVY & CO.,
N.B. You will have the loading of the boat; whatever may be wanting for the completing of it, you will have put up in rum

ST JOSEPHS, August 24, 1798

The method of putting the liquor into kegs is certainly much preferable than having it in large barrels, as it will be much easier for the men to unload.

For the dry goods, you will have them sent by the way of the Grand River. You will endeavor to procure me seven winterers, amongst which, if possible, get me a blacksmith; get him for two years.

In the course of last winter, I wrote you that it is expected that there will be a garrison at Chicago, this summer, and from late accounts, I have reason to expect that they will be over there this fall, and should it be the case, and as I have a house there already, and a promise of assistance from head quarters, I will have occasion for a good deal of liquors, and some other articles, for that post. Therefore, should there be a garrison at Chicago this fall, I will write for an addition of articles to my order.

I am, gentlemen, your humble servant, WM. BURNETT


ST. JOSEPHS, [no date.]

Yours of the 8th February last per Mr. Patterson came to hand, and was glad to hear that a general peace has taken place in Europe; but on the other hand, I am sorry to understand that peace will hurt the sale of peltries, and what is still worse, it will fall upon those that comes from this country.

You say that the Montreal people prognosticate the downfall of peltries. I never knew them to be otherwise; for this has been the language when peltries were selling at the highest rates in England, and that for five or six years running. Had I any advice to give the Montrealers, I would advise them to keep their goods and not send them to the Indian country, for I am pretty sure it will take a ship load of our peltries to pay a bateau load of their Indian goods.

I received a note from Mr. Patterson, wherein he mentions that it is your desire that I should get me some juniper berries. If they can be got, you may rely upon my endeavors to procure you all I can get.

I am, with esteem, gentlemen, your humble serv’t,