Thomas Forsyth (Indian agent)

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Thomas Forsyth
Born (1771-12-05)December 5, 1771
Detroit, Michigan
Died October 24, 1833(1833-10-24) (aged 81)
St. Louis, Missouri, United States
Nationality American
Other names Major Forsyth
Occupation frontierman, spy, army officer, Indian agent, trader
Known for Illinois frontiersman who served as U.S. Indian Agent to the Sauk and Fox prior to the Black Hawk War
Title U.S. Indian agent to the Sauk and Fox
Term 1818-1830
Successor Felix St. Vrain
Spouse(s) Keziah Malotte (m. 1804–33)
Partner(s) John Kinzie, Robert Forsyth (son)
Children 4
Parent(s) William Forsyth

Major Thomas Forsyth (December 5, 1771 – October 29, 1833) was a 19th-century American frontiersman and trader who served as a U.S. Indian agent to the Sauk and Fox during the 1820s and was replaced by Felix St. Vrain, prior to the Black Hawk War. His writings, both prior to and while an Indian agent, provided an invaluable source of the early Native American history in the Northwest Territory. His son, Robert Forsyth, was a colonel in the United States Army and an early settler of Chicago, Illinois.

Early life and family[edit]

Thomas Forsyth was born in Detroit, to William Forsyth a Scots-Irish Presbyterian, who immigrated from Ireland, around 1750. A veteran of the French and Indian War, his father was twice wounded, while under General Wolfe, at the capture of Quebec in 1759. Shortly, after Thomas Forsyth was born, his father was imprisoned as a loyalist during the American Revolutionary War. Thomas Forsyth became a successful Indian trader in his youth, spending several years living with the Ottawas, on Saginaw Bay and, as early as 1798, he spent the winter on an island in the Mississippi, a short distance downstream from present-day Quincy, Illinois.

Indian trader, spy, and United States Indian agent[edit]

Thomas Forsyth later, became partners with his half-brother, John Kinzie and his son, Robert Forsyth. The two established a trading post in 1802, at the site of what is present-day Chicago, Illinois. After marrying a Keziah Malotte near Malden in 1804, Forsyth moved to Peoria Lake, where he became a successful trader and businessman. During the Peoria War, he served as a spy for Governor William Clark and was later, an agent for the tribes in the region and was able to persuade the Illinois River Pottawatomie to remain neutral during the War of 1812. In December of that year, he and a number of others at the agency were arrested, by the Illinois Rangers, under Captain Thomas E. Craig who later, ordered Peoria to be burned. Forsyth was bitterly resentful of Craig's actions, however Craig defended himself claiming he, nor anyone else outside Washington, D.C., knew of his status as an Indian agent. "It was supposed by the President that Mr. Forsyth would be more serviceable, to both sides, if his friends, the Indians, did not know this situation."

Thomas Forsyth and the others were eventually released by Craig, dropping them off on the riverbank below Alton, Illinois, where they were "in a starving condition (and) they were landed in the woods ... without shelter or food." He would later, distinguish himself, as an outspoken supporter of peace for, both Native Americans and the U.S. government and, often risking his own life, negotiated with tribal leaders for the release of American prisoners. This was most evident in his securing the release of the survivors of the Fort Dearborn massacre, among whom included Lieutenant Lenai T. Helm, the son-in-law of John Kinzie.

Officially appointed a U.S. Indian subagent for the Sauk and Fox at Rock Island, Illinois, he was later stationed at Fort Armstrong and reported the movements of the Sauk and Fox as well as its ever-increasing strength in the region during the early 1820s. He became a respected figure in the region, however he was eventually replaced after 18 years of service by Felix St. Vrain due to Forsyth's insubordinate attitude, unwillingness to remain at the fort, and the criticism of his supervisor. His successor, 31-year-old Kaskaskia sawmill operator Felix St. Vrain, proved to be unpopular and his inexperence eventually resulted in the St. Vrain massacre. It has been speculated by historians such as Lyman Copeland Draper that his removal from the position as Indian agent to the Sauk and Fox could have prevented the Black Hawk War.


Forsyth retired to St. Louis, Missouri where he died on October 29, 1833. He was survived by his wife, who died only four years later, and his four children.[1]


  1. ^ Thrapp, Dan L. Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography: In Three Volumes, Volume I (A-F). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988. ISBN 0-8032-9418-2

Further reading[edit]

  • Forsyth, Thomas and Lyman Copeland Draper, ed. "Journal of a Voyage from St. Louis to the Falls of St. Anthony, in 1819". Wisconsin State Historical Society Collections. Vol. VI. Madison: Wisconsin State Historical Society, 1872.
  • Transcripts of the Illinois State Historical Society. Pub. 9 (1904). Springfield, Illinois: Philips Brothers, 1904. (pg. 138-142)

External links[edit]