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 2 of 5)

Fort settlement map
A map showing the settlement of Chicago in 1812 and the location of the battle (up on this map is west)

* * *

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.

Fort map present
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.

* * *

Milo Milton Quaife
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


4 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