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In laying out his sources for his version of the Fort Dearborn story, Milo Quaife bemoans the “history of lost manuscripts.” Nowhere is that loss more lamentable than when trying to reconstruct the early days of Chicago, a city that saw some of its most valuable archives destroyed in a great fire. But Quaife’s jeremiad obscures his own efforts at single-handedly tracking down crucial evidence relating to August 15, 1812. Without Quaife, any Chicagoan interested in the past would likely be telling the same story spun by Juliette Kinzie more than 150 years ago.
Born in Connecticut in 1806, Juliette Magill had married John Kinzie’s son, John H., in 1830. Three years later the couple moved to Chicago, where Kinzie’s family had registered and begun selling the 102-acre tract of land—extending north of the Chicago River between State Street and Lake Michigan—still known today as the Kinzie Addition.
Inspired by Eleanor Kinzie, her mother-in-law, Juliette started writing about her life in the West; she also recorded Eleanor’s recollections (augmented by other sources) of what had happened at Fort Dearborn. Juliette’s account depicts her father-in-law, John Kinzie, as a sage, calm presence during those fearful days at the fort. (Ably protected by their Native American friends, Kinzie and his family emerged physically unscathed from the battle; Eleanor wasn’t even at the scene, having sat out the fight in a boat anchored back at the mouth of the river.)
Captain Heald did not fare so well. He is rendered as a disliked officer whose incompetence bordered on imbecility. Most damning, in Juliette Kinzie’s opinion, was Heald’s decision to evacuate the fort. Regrettably, she based her evaluation on a terrible assumption. Though she had never seen the order from General Hull (few had), she quoted the dispatch. Hull, according to Kinzie, had ordered Heald “to evacuate the fort, if practicable” (emphasis added). Those last two words branded Heald as a fool—for in the face of 500 hostile warriors, what commander would abandon a well-fortified position and lead soldiers, women, and children to certain death? Even Simon Pokagon points to Heald’s decision as another reason the Potawatomi were in some ways blameless for what had happened.
Milo Milton Quaife—the man who would, among other things, rescue Heald’s reputation—respected Kinzie’s charms as a “literary artist.” (He also admired her “sympathetic appreciation” for Native Americans.) As for the “historian’s calling,” however, she had “but the vaguest comprehension,” writes Quaife. “Accuracy of statement is clearly not her forte, while to the objective detachment of the historian she is a complete stranger.” Ouch.
After earning a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago in 1908, Quaife taught at the Lewis Institute (a forerunner of the Illinois Institute of Technology) and began the serious research that would lead to Chicago and the Old Northwest (which covers the years from 1673 to 1835). Among other things, the book toppled John Kinzie from his perch as the city’s first settler; that honor, demonstrated Quaife, belonged to a black man, by then almost forgotten, named Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. Thrown into a “ruction” by these revelations, the Chicago Historical Society—which, according to contemporary reports, held the Kinzie family in high esteem—declined to publish Quaife’s book. The University of Chicago Press stepped in, and the book appeared in 1913.
Quaife’s greatest achievement was his success in unearthing some of those lamentably lost manuscripts—some of which had lain hidden in libraries across the Midwest. One of those discovered documents was Hull’s order to Heald, which Quaife found among papers stored at the Wisconsin Historical Society. “It is with regret I order the Evacuation of your Post,” Hull had peremptorily commanded from Detroit. Nowhere in Hull’s brief note appears the phrase “if practicable,” a qualification seemingly invented by Juliette Kinzie—and repeated by such esteemed historians as Henry Adams. Receiving Hull’s clear command, Heald, the dutiful soldier, had obeyed.
Hull’s order wasn’t Quaife’s sole discovery. Among other things, he uncovered Heald’s lost journal; a self-serving account of the battle by Lieutenant Helm; and a muster roll from Fort Dearborn dated May 31, 1812, that helped Quaife prepare the first definitive list of the fight’s participants, casualties, and survivors. Even Quaife, the sober historian, was moved by the resurrected names of those “humbler members” of the Fort Dearborn tragedy. In his account, just as the battle looms, he pauses to imagine the forgotten as they faced death. If not strictly history, it is a solemn moment of remembrance and three of the saddest pages of Quaife’s book—surpassed, perhaps, only by his account of the Potawatomi gathering one final time in Chicago in August 1835 on the eve of their expulsion from the land they had long regarded as their birthright.