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?

(page 1 of 5)

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



5 years ago
Posted by nanleetree

I enjoyed your article on the Fort Dearborn Massacre. I have read extensively on the subject in recent months in order to compile a detailed and accurate history of my ancestor, Susannah Millhouse Simmons, a survivor of this historic event. Though she managed to save herself and her infant child (Susan Simmons Winans), her young son and husband fell victim that day.

I have followed articles about the controversy of the naming of the park with great interest. I find it ridiculous that Chicago's history is allowed to be distorted to mollify those who want to stand in the way of truth.

Who is John N. Low and why should we care what he thinks? Why should the statue that honors Black Partridge be warehoused when he valiantly saved a white woman from being killed? It's because some Native Americans still see him as a traitor for doing so. Isn't that a sad commentary that any American would still feel that way today?

Nearly 200 years have passed, but time doesn't change facts. The American public is sick to death of political correctness getting in the way of truth. It's time to tell it like it is and stop catering to fringe groups who want to retell history to their own satisfaction.

Were there any descendents of the victims of the Fort Dearborn Massacre on this board that decided the name of the park? I doubt it. I'm surprised our government hasn't apologized for building the fort there in the first place. Maybe that's next.

Nancy Margraff

4 years ago
Posted by chicagoboy

I will have to agree. I know the Americans did horrible things to the Inidans. However, the Indians I am sure did horrible things to others too. For example, do you think the Aztecs and Inca politely asked other tribes to move off of their land?

Correcting false history is one thing, re"writing" it is another. I agree with the name Battle of Fort Dearborn Park. I will accept that. However, how can it ever be justified to kill innocent children from an Indian, whiteman , or any race. Erasing statues reminds me of something Stalin would have done?

Our country is always looking for the "boogyman". First it was the Indiand who was evil, then the Blackman who was evil, now it's the whiteman who is evil. Moral superiority does not exist....and any hint towards it is a dangerous path to take!!

I say keep the old statue up, but educate Children about how both sides benefited our country.

Ok sorry for the rant!!!

4 years ago
Posted by LuckyBlessed

As usual ashamed at the ignorance of white folk. I think Simon Pokagon put it best, "It is true that the Indian retaliated, and was in many cases the aggressor, if we can call people the aggressors who object to having their native land taken from them by aliens."
"Of the savagery and brutality exhibited by the Indian in many cases, I would merely observe that it is manifestly unfair to judge them by the standards of a people who have enjoyed Christian civilization for many centuries and who have behind them the lessons and warnings, the glory and the gloom of Roman, Grecian, Syrian, Chaldean, and Egyptian civilizations. Moreover, if one calls to mind the methods which marked the terrible religious struggle of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe, and will remember how human ingenuity was taxed to its utmost to devise methods of horrible torture which were remorselessly meted out by those claiming to be Christians to others claiming to be Christians, he will, I think, feel it wisest to pass very lightly over the charge of excessive cruelty on the part of those he flippantly terms savages. Had the Indian submitted more tamely he would have been characterized by this same self-engrossed class, who delight in echoing the brutally false phrase that "there is no good Indian but a dead Indian," as cowardly and unworthy of the land which for unnumbered generations had been the land of his fathers."
"An Interesting Representative of a Vanishing Race"
The Arena 16
B. O. Flower
Arena Publishing Co.
Boston, MA
July, 1896
Published: July, 1896

4 years ago
Posted by Michigan

bohzo (hello)
I do not want to sound angry or argumentative but what happened to Native Americans was not just 200 years ago. My grandmother was sent to a Indian boarding school in the early 1930's, she was taken from her family to learn the ways of the whites. It traumatized her until her death, it followed my mother and still follows me.

You can't erase what happened, it was and is part of your history and my life. My grandmother was beat for speaking the only language that she knew, when she grew up she carried a fear that she could not or would not speak her native tongue. She actually would stop speaking to other native elders when I would enter a room. I realize that it is because of what happened when they were young, so when you have an attitude of 200 years ago get over it, I can't help but wounder if you could step into the life of a Native American would you think in a different way? Do you even know any real Native Americans? Have you ever met a real Native American? We just want to be left alone and in peace, the same as your 200 years ago.

For the record I know of this John Low, he is a very smart and humble man who loves his culture and people, that is why he speaks.

4 years ago
Posted by Jeri

What's being discussed is people. Homo sapiens behaves the same the world over and throughout time.

When Cortéz arrived in Mexico, the Tlaxcalans helped him, because they hated the Mexíca (Aztecs) who had enslaved all of the countryside around Tenochtitlán that their military could manage to subdue.

The Tlaxcalans were wearing clothing made of woven mats, according to Díaz's diary of the conquest -- because the Mexíca forced the subdued tribes to surrender all their cotton to them.

And so people behaved like they always do and helped an invader, because it was to their advantage.

4 years ago
Posted by Tacitus

Geoffrey Johnson deserves credit for re-telling in a short space and with helpful illustrations the story of what happened at Fort Dearborn. Certainly the most popular version, Juliette Kinzie's Wau-Bun, is lively reading but highly unreliable. Milo Quaife's account is far more valuable, and better yet he collected most of the primary sources in his volume Chicago and the Old Northwest. Pokagon's account is of interest, but not nearly as solid as a few accounts written immediately after the battle. His description of Wells's fighting a hundred Indians single-handed is "hyperbolic" as Johnson notes; Kinzie and other romancers credit Wells with killing more Powawatomi than died in the entire battle (Johnson's estimate of 15 is too high). The word "massacre" is not a misnomer (there was an ambush of a force that had surrendered and women and children were killed indiscriminately), but it is also true that when settlers "massacred" Native Americans, as at Gnatenhutten and Sand Creek, that word is not used. Those interested in more information about this battle might read two recent novels, William Heath's Blacksnake's Path: The True Adventures of William Wells, and Jerry Crimmens, Fort Dearborn.

3 years ago
Posted by Mickoneno

Interesting a bus load of Potawatomi will be coming from Sarnia Ontario Canada. Plan on visiting Chicago no particular agenda dates are from 28 August 2011 to 01 September 2011.
I personally am interested in the location of the Chicago Ft Dearborn Massacre.
We will be staying at the Embassy Suites. I would be delighted if contacted.
I will be regristered under my name Winston Williams. My screen name was our orginal surname.
My parents both attended Residential School at Muncey Ontario Canada. Both died before monies were paid out to survivors only. I attended Native day school up until 1953 then the Native Community were put into the Sarnia Schools.
I would like to apologize on behalf of the Potawatomi for any blood shed uncalled for Forgiveness brings relief for prayers to be answered.

3 years ago
Posted by Mickoneno

Interesting a bus load of Potawatomi will be coming from Sarnia Ontario Canada. Plan on visiting Chicago no particular agenda dates are from 28 August 2011 to 01 September 2011.
I personally am interested in the location of the Chicago Ft Dearborn Massacre.
We will be staying at the Embassy Suites. I would be delighted if contacted.
I will be regristered under my name Winston Williams. My screen name was our orginal surname.
My parents both attended Residential School at Muncey Ontario Canada. Both died before monies were paid out to survivors only. I attended Native day school up until 1953 then the Native Community were put into the Sarnia Schools.
I would like to apologize on behalf of the Potawatomi for any blood shed uncalled for Forgiveness brings relief for prayers to be answered.

2 years ago
Posted by Cyclops1

From the Providence Gazette, Oct. 10, 1812 page 2

Above the following article is stated:
Mr. Greely is a "Republican" attached to the present administration, and one of its officers. He too is a man of truth and honour. etc.....


Mr. Greely states the following facts, respecting the capture of Fort Dearborn (Chicauga) The assailants were all Indians. The garrison capitulated with them that they should spare the lives of the garrison, who were to have as much of the arms, ammunition, provisions &c. as they could carry away. But, the Indians finding that in the night Capt. Wells, who had come from Fort Wayne to conduct the garrison to that place, had ordered a quantity of powder and ball to be thrown into the Chicauga river, the Indians became incensed, fired upon the garrison as they marched out of the fort, killed Capt. Wells, and wounded Capt. Heels and his lady; whose lives were saved by a Mr. Burnett, an Indian trader, who claimed them as friends, and offered to purchase their ransom. Capt. H. and his lady are now at St. Joseph's with Mr. Burnett. Mr. Greely had this information from a Pattawatimie chief, who came to Fort Dearborn, to assist the garrison, but was compelled by the hostile Indians to join them.

Submit your comment