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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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.
 

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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
Chicago

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.....

ATTACK ON FORT DEARBORN

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.

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