The True Story of the Deadly Encounter at Fort Dearborn

For nearly two centuries, the events that transpired in Chicago on August 15, 1812, had been known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre. With the dedication of a new park, the bloody encounter between 95 soldiers and settlers and some 500 Potawatomi has been recast as the Battle of Fort Dearborn. What really happened on that hot August morning in Chicago 197 years ago?

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Illustration by Lisel Ashlock
Chicago, 1812: This illustration is inspired by a diorama from the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition showing an unnamed Native American, the Kinzie house, Fort Dearborn, and the dunes at the lakeshore on the horizon.
 

It didn’t matter that the snowdrifts stood tall as a man nor that an intense cold battered his tiny cabin. Simon Pokagon was hot. For most of his 67 years he had heard the tales of Potawatomi savagery at Fort Dearborn. Now, pacing the floor of his Michigan home and fulminating at a reporter from the Chicago Daily Tribune, the old man—the son of a great Potawatomi leader—vowed to fire back using the same weapon as others before him: a book.

“The whites have books, many books,” he said, clenching his fist. “And in those books they tell of the Indians—and what the white man writes, the white man reads and believes. I have read many stories of the fight in Chicago, and they all speak of the deviltry and the treachery of the Indians. I am writing a book that will tell of the treachery of the white man. I will tell the truth as my father told it to me when he was middle-aged and when he was old and dying, and all the time the tale was unchanged in the telling. Some men and a woman—whites, all of them—have written stories of the fight between the soldiers and the Potawatomi. Now let an Indian tell it.”

As his own words suggested, Pokagon was not yet born on that sweltering August day in 1812 when some 500 Potawatomi (likely accompanied by warriors from a few other tribes) descended upon a small column of white soldiers and civilians as they evacuated Fort Dearborn. But the tale told by his father—who had been there—differed from the narrative known to most Chicagoans. Now Pokagon promised to set the record straight.

Simon Pokagon
Simon Pokagon

Unfortunately, Pokagon—a Potawatomi known for his occasional writings and his appearances at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893—never did write his book about Fort Dearborn. (In quoting Pokagon—his name is pronounced “poe-KAY-gun”—I compressed his remarks and modernized some spelling and punctuation.) On January 27, 1899, two years after his interview with the Tribune, he died in his Michigan cabin. Shortly after his death, a long article he had written appeared in Harper’s magazine under the title “The Massacre of Fort Dearborn at Chicago.” Pokagon might have balked at that use of the word “massacre,” presumably put in the title by an editor, though he used the word frequently himself. “When whites are killed, it is a massacre,” he had told the reporter from the Tribune, “but when Indians are killed, it is a fight.”

* * *

As it turns out, Pokagon’s comment anticipated a semantic controversy in modern-day Chicago. On August 15, 2009—the 197th anniversary of what for decades had been known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre—people gathered at 18th Street and Calumet Avenue for the dedication of a new park. The park occupied the site of the violent encounter, yet the rather unwieldy name chosen for that patch of green was the Battle of Fort Dearborn Park. Battle? What gives?

Naming the park was no snap decision. Sparked by the efforts of Mark Kieras, a resident of the historic Prairie Avenue district, city officials and neighborhood leaders, along with representatives of the Illinois National Guard and a local band of Potawatomi, had been discussing potential names for more than two years. Almost from the beginning, any inclusion of the word “massacre” had been off the table. “The problem with the word ‘massacre’ is that it’s a loaded descriptor,” says John N. Low, a member of the Michigan-based Pokagon Potawatomi and a visiting assistant professor in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Low helped decide on the name, and he describes a series of conversations conducted in a spirit of compromise and consensus. “History is not truth; it’s memory,” he says. “And a part of remembering is considering what we forgot. This name helps us reimagine history, helps us reconsider what’s important and not important to tell our grandchildren.”

So the Battle of Fort Dearborn Park it is. But lost in this debate over names were the more fascinating details of what happened nearly 200 years ago at 18th and Calumet. (“Calumet” is a French word for the long-stemmed ceremonial tobacco pipes used by various Native American tribes; today we might call it a peace pipe.) It’s not a subject that consumes people today, but in 1912, the centennial of the conflict, many Chicagoans were still wondering about the circumstances that left more than 60 men, women, and children dead on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Juliette Magill Kinzie
Juliette Kinzie

At that time, there was one accepted authority on the subject: Juliette Magill Kinzie, the daughter-in-law of the trader John Kinzie, whose base of operations in 1812 had been a log house across the Chicago River from the fort. In 1844, Juliette anonymously published a pamphlet about the battle, and, despite its errors and assumptions, it instantly became the accepted account. Twelve years later her story achieved even greater circulation when Kinzie included it in her 1856 memoir, Wau-Bun.

That version might be the story told today were it not for the assiduous detective work performed by a dour historian named Milo Milton Quaife, who in 1913 published Chicago and the Old Northwest, a book that presents as definitive an account of the Fort Dearborn incident as we are likely to have. Nearly 20 years later, in his introduction to a new edition of Wau-Bun, Quaife worried that Kinzie’s tale had so “permeated the local mind, that not all the efforts of all the historians” would ever produce a correct understanding of what had happened.

But what Quaife could not have foreseen was that time and indifference would combine to obliterate the story of the incident from the minds of most 21st-century Chicagoans. A few astute urbanites might know that the first red star in their city’s flag represents Fort Dearborn or that a series of rectangular bronze plaques embedded in the pavement just south of the Michigan Avenue bridge represents the original site of the fort. Beyond that, most Chicagoans are clueless.

So what exactly did happen on that sultry August day in 1812? To use a Quaife-ism, let’s draw back the curtain and take a look.

 

Illustrations: (Chicago, 1812) Lisel Ashlock, (portraits) John Kenzie

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