Chief’s descendants demand return of slice of Cook County Forest Preserve Records show government stole land from them, say heirs, who hope to build casino
Tuesday, February 09, 2010
by Mark Konkol
Macky Pamonicutt hikes the buckthorn-choked wood along the Des Plaines River, and it feels like home.
giant oak trees, he smokes the family peace pipe and beats the "big
drum" as he strolls the Cook County Forest Preserve land that once
belonged to early Chicago settler and Indian chief Alexander Robinson
-- Pamonicutt's great-great-great-great-grandfather. "There's peace and
quiet and harmony there. Trees, animals. What nature put out there," he
says. "It's like walking on our own reservation."
quartzite boulder marks Robinson's grave near Lawrence and East River
Road in a tiny clearing on two square miles given to Robinson by the
federal government as a reward for helping persuade local tribes to
abandon their territories without a fight in 1829.
That land was for Robinson and his heirs "forever," and no one could
lease or sell any of it without "permission of the president of the
United States," President John Tyler wrote in the treaty ratification
Today, much of that "Robinson Reservation" is Cook County Forest
Preserve and a Schiller Park subdivision. None belongs to Robinson's
kin. After years scouring thousands of public records, some of
Robinson's heirs say they're certain the biggest chunk of the family
land was stolen from them by Cook County government leaders who
condemned the land without presidential approval.
And even more of the 1,280 acres -- dotted with homes, gas stations,
a Denny's and more -- might have been acquired illegally, family
members say. Now, the family wants it back -- they hold out hope to
build a casino there one day -- and are looking for "investors" to help
pay for a legal battle.
"We want to take care of future generations. We feel that's why
Robinson had his children and heirs forever written into the paperwork.
The man wasn't a dummy," Robinson descendant Buzz Spreeman of Norridge
says. "He was a wheeler and dealer. He was thinking business."
And so is the committee overseeing the Robinson family trust. "Some
people think this is a joke," Pamonicutt says. "Well, this is not a
joke. This is for real."
Opened city's first tavern
The son of an Ottawa Indian woman and a Scottish trader, Alexander
Robinson beached his canoe on the Lake Michigan shore on Aug. 5, 1812,
to help fleeing survivors of the Fort Dearborn Massacre, Chicago's
first white settler John Kinzie among them.
For a fee, Robinson paddled them to safety in Michigan.
That act of kindness earned Robinson -- Chief of the Pottowatomi,
Ottawa and Chippewa tribes also known as Chee Chee Pin Quay or
"Blinking Eye" -- the gratitude of early pioneers. Robinson returned to
Chicago and became one of the city's most prominent citizens. He was a
farmer who opened Chicago's first tavern at Canal and Lake, voted in
the city's first two elections, paid taxes on the new city's first two
parcels of land, and at one point was the fifth-richest man in Cook
County, his family says. He was a powerful man who was close to early
Chicago leaders and was an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, according
to published reports.
Robinson helped the U.S. government negotiate with native Indians
and was instrumental in the signing of at least three land treaties,
including the Prairie Du Chien treaty that landed him the choice
"reservation" along the windy banks of the Des Plaines.
Robinson lived there most of his life. He was married twice. First
to Menominee Indian Cynthia Sahsos. They had one daughter, Margaret,
who Spreeman says is his family's connection to Robinson.
In 1826, Robinson took a second wife, Catherine Chevalier,
apparently without getting divorced from Sahsos, who lived with them.
Robinson fathered 12 children.
On April 22, 1872, Robinson died on his reservation and was buried next to his family home alongside his wife and children.
"Alexander Robinson's power was real and never abused; a strong and
sensibly conducted influence, that stood the early settlements of
Northern Illinois in good stead, and this with substantial and
well-recognized service to his tribesman," according to an obituary
published in the Chicago Tribune.
N.Y. casino developer gave tip
About 10 years ago, some of Robinson's descendants were contacted by
New York casino developer Thomas Wilmot, who told them he believed the
forest preserve illegally acquired the reservation without presidential
approval. Wilmot, who did not return calls seeking comment, was
interested in building a casino on the land and wanted to pay "a
handful of relatives $10,000 each for rights to the land," according to
Robinson descendant Beverly Fernandez, chairman of the family trust.
"Obviously that was not going to work," Fernandez said.
But Wilmot's query sparked a decadelong quest to find out if that forest preserve rightfully belongs to Robinson's family.
They found that before Robinson died he wrote a will and got
permission from President Ulysses S. Grant to divide the reservation
among his children. Forest preserve records show Grant did OK the plan,
but it's unclear if the process was finalized or if the move would have
nullified the treaty.
Fernandez says that Robinson's only child with Sahsos was not
included in the will. Since the treaty designated the land for Robinson
and "his children," the omission of Margaret would go against the
treaty, which takes precedent over the will, lawyers told Fernandez.
In the early 1920s, the Cook County Forest Preserve acquired 384
acres of the Robinson reserve for $25,000 through condemnation,
according to published reports. Robinson's daughter and granddaughters
continued to live in the family home until the place burned down in the
In 1941, Cook County filed a lawsuit to oust Robinson's
granddaughters, Indian "princesses" Frances Winters and Catherine
Boettcher, from the house. During that court fight, the women claimed
the county's land purchase was illegal without presidential approval,
according to published reports.
Spreeman, who has collected about 1,000 pages of public documents
regarding the reservation, has a copy of a 1952 forest preserve letter
that states county officials believed acquiring Robinson Reserve land
"including the graveyard and the property occupied by his descendants
did not require permission by signature of the president of the United
"The only way that land could be transferred is with presidential
approval, otherwise the family still has title to the land," Spreeman
said. "Without it, the treaty supersedes anything Cook County or the
state can do. There is no such thing as eminent domain on a federal
reserve. They need to prove that we don't own the land and they have
legal title to it."
Ready for a fight
A search of forest preserve records did not turn up any documents
showing presidential approval of the land acquisition, but spokesman
Stephen Mayberry said the district has "clear title to the property."
"To date we have not uncovered any evidence that suggests the forest
preserve district violated provisions of the treaty," he said.
That's not enough to satisfy Robinson's heirs, who say they're gearing up for a fight.
Last week, they mailed, faxed and even Tweeted a "public
proclamation of ownership" of the reservation. They also are soliciting
the help of "investors" to aid a future legal fight to get the land
back on a bet that putting a casino there might bring in big bucks.
"A casino or whatever we decide to put there would be to take care
of Robinson's descendants," Fernandez said. "But first, we have to get
the land back."