(page 2 of 5)
A map showing the settlement of Chicago in 1812 and the location of the battle (up on this map is west)
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The first necessity is getting the lay of the land, geographically and politically. Two hundred years ago, the little fort at Chicago, manned by fewer than 60 soldiers, was the westernmost U.S. outpost on the Great Lakes. Around it stood hundreds of thousands of acres of prairie and woodland peopled by roving bands of Native Americans—not only Potawatomi, but also Shawnee, Miami, Ojibwa, Winnebago, and others. Small pioneer settlements were scattered helter-skelter across this area; at that time, Quaife estimates, the entire non–Native American population of the future state of Michigan comprised fewer than 5,000 people.
For the nascent U.S. government—just 23 years old in 1812—defending these settlers was as problematic as it was essential. Dependent on circuitous waterways and hazardous woodland trails, communication and cooperation among the tiny settlements and forts were difficult at best. What’s more, the settlers and their Native American neighbors were caught in a great international conflict. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, may have ended the Revolutionary War, but England and the United States were still grappling for control of the vast North American interior. Displaced by encroaching settlers, and alternately siding with the British and the Americans, the Native American people intuitively understood that this moment might offer their last chance to preserve their vanishing way of life.
The location of Fort Dearborn superimposed on today’s street grid
Though initially scoring several major victories over U.S. troops, a confederacy of local tribes was defeated by General “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (near modern-day Toledo) in 1794. In the subsequent Treaty of Greenville, the Native Americans ceded much of modern-day Ohio to the U.S. government, as well as six square miles on Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River, an indication that the government already appreciated the site’s strategic importance.
In 1803, a U.S. captain named John Whistler arrived at Chicago to design and build Fort Dearborn (named after Henry Dearborn, who then served in Thomas Jefferson’s Cabinet as the secretary of war). Fortunately, we know exactly what the fort looked like because Whistler, a capable draftsman—his grandson was the painter James McNeill Whistler—left behind an evocative rendering of the place. Nine years later, Captain Nathan Heald commanded the fort as war broke out with Great Britain during the summer of 1812.
Aided by their Native American allies, the British enjoyed early success. Crucially, that alliance compelled the surrender of the 79-man garrison at Mackinac, where a U.S. fort defended the strait that connected Lakes Huron and Michigan. With the fall of Mackinac on July 17, 1812, Chicago could neither be supplied nor reinforced; from his base in Detroit, General William Hull, the commander of all U.S. troops in the Old Northwest, ordered Fort Dearborn evacuated. Captain Heald immediately complied, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to what Quaife calls “Chicago’s grimmest tragedy.”
As it was, the settlers at Fort Dearborn were already consumed by fear. Incited by the British and the exhortations of their own leaders—including the Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh—the Potawatomi and other Native Americans had been conducting raids on white settlements for months. That April, hostile Winnebago had killed two men at a farm on the South Branch of the Chicago River (in modern-day Bridgeport), and during the summer, young Potawatomi had taken brazen potshots at the fort’s cattle and sheep. When Hull’s evacuation order arrived on August 9th, Heald resolved to march overland either to Detroit or to Fort Wayne. Heald’s decision likely met some resistance—a case could be made to remain within the defensible fort, which had an adequate supply of food—but for the moment, let’s withhold any judgment.
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Milo Milton Quaife
On August 13th, as soldiers and civilians prepared to abandon the fort, a man named William Wells arrived from Fort Wayne. Essentially forgotten today, Wells in 1812 had already attained an almost mythic stature on the U.S. frontier. Born in 1770, he had been living in Kentucky around 1784 when a party of Miami tribesmen kidnapped him. Wells soon put aside his white ways, adopting a Miami name—Apekonit, or “Carrot-top,” for his red hair—and earning a reputation as a fierce warrior. Wells married into the tribe, taking as his bride Wakapanke (“Sweet Breeze”), the daughter of the great Miami leader Little Turtle. The couple eventually had four children and remained together even after Wells left the Miami and settled at Fort Wayne as the government’s Indian agent.
When news of Fort Dearborn’s pending evacuation reached Wells, he raced to Chicago, where his niece, Rebekah, was married to Captain Heald. Thirty Miami accompanied him. It’s unclear what role Wells played leading up to the evacuation—did he, for instance, try to convince Heald to consider options other than evacuation?—but ultimately those things don’t matter. “He alone of all the company . . . was present from choice rather than from necessity,” writes Quaife, who singles out Wells as “the real hero of the Chicago massacre.”
Now Heald made a fateful decision. Hoping to win over the Potawatomi and secure their help as escorts, he had promised to give them the contents of the fort—food, calico, and other provisions. But at the last minute he opted to destroy the fort’s supply of alcohol and ammunition, concluding that whiskey would only inflame the Potawatomi and that any powder or shot given them might eventually be used against the fort’s occupants. Simon Pokagon identifies Heald’s decision—a perceived violation of his original pledge—as one of the causes of the Potawatomi attack. John N. Low, the American Indian Studies professor, concurs, pointing out that the Potawatomi could have used the shot and powder for hunting, to feed their hungry families. “[Heald’s reneging] was just another in a long history of broken promises,” he says. “It really ignited a very volatile situation.”
On the night of August 14th, Heald received a visitor, a Potawatomi named Mucktypoke, remembered today as Black Partridge. A friend of the Americans, Black Partridge understood he could no longer restrain the angry young warriors. Speaking to Heald through an interpreter, he returned the medal of friendship given to him by the U.S. government. “I will not wear a token of peace,” he reportedly said, “while I am compelled to act as an enemy.” Heald had been warned.
Photograph: (Fort Dearborn drawing) Chicago Tribune
Illustration: (portrait) John Kenzie