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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At nine o’clock on the morning of August 15, 1812, a hot and sunny Saturday, a motley column paraded out of Fort Dearborn. Leading the way was William Wells, mounted on a giant thoroughbred, and 15 of his Miami, riding ponies so small that their feet almost scraped the ground. A onetime captain in the U.S. Army, Wells was likely wearing his old blue uniform jacket. Remembering his Miami heritage, he had painted his face black, like a warrior prepared for battle—and for death.
Behind Wells followed 55 soldiers, 12 civilian militiamen, 9 women, and 18 children. Some of the women were on horseback, and most of the children rode in one of the two wagons. The remaining Miami brought up the rear. Two fifers and two drummers played a tune that time has forgotten—although it seems preposterous that those desperate musicians would have been so tone-deaf as to perform the Dead March, as Juliette Kinzie reports.
In 1812, the main branch of the Chicago River did not follow a straight course into Lake Michigan. Instead, just east of the fort, it curved south (to near modern-day Madison Street) and then emptied into the lake. It’s also important to recall that the lake’s shoreline was then much closer to what is now Michigan Avenue. After the column left the fort, accompanied by the Potawatomi, it marched south along the river and shoreline, following a course that today would have lain a little east of Michigan Avenue. Around what is presently Roosevelt Road, a series of low sand dunes sprang up, separating the shoreline from the prairie. At this point the troops from Fort Dearborn kept to the shoreline, while the 500 or so Potawatomi kept to the west side of the dunes, where they were mainly hidden from view.
What occurred next happened hurriedly. Swinging his hat around his head, Wells rode back to the main column shouting that the Potawatomi were about to attack. Captain Heald ordered his troops to charge, and the soldiers gamely scurried up the dunes with bayonets pointed, breaking the Potawatomi line. (Simon Pokagon criticized the whites because they “rushed headlong through [the Potawatomi] lines before a bow was bent or a gun was fired,” but he’s alone in making this charge; even John N. Low acknowledges that the Potawatomi had gathered in ambush.) The Potawatomi fell back, allowed the soldiers in, and enveloped them on their flanks. Eventually the soldiers retreated to the shoreline, making a defensive stand on a high piece of ground. By then, the 30 Miami had fled.
The soldiers’ charge had led them away from the wagons, and there it was, writes Quaife, that “the real massacre occurred.” Even Pokagon, who insisted that the Potawatomi were only fighting a patriotic battle for their homeland, regretted what happened there, where, as he writes in Harper’s, “the Angel of Mercy seems to have been asleep.” Hundreds of Potawatomi surrounded the wagons, which were defended by the 12-man militia, desperate to protect their wives and children. The men discharged their muskets and then wielded them like clubs before they were all slain. A solitary Potawatomi climbed into the wagon with the children and indiscriminately bludgeoned them to death with his tomahawk—“for which he was hated by the tribe ever after,” writes Pokagon.
From the bloody melee, two incidents, essentially grounded in fact, emerge. Aware of the slaughter at the wagons, Wells rushed to the aid of the women and children. (Another account, told by Pokagon and others, had Wells rushing back to the Potawatomi camp intent on revenge.) Overcome by sheer numbers, he never made it, though his bravery earned the hyperbolic admiration of Pokagon. “[Wells] fought one hundred or more single-handed, on horseback,” he writes, “shooting them down on right and left, in front and rear, until his horse fell under him and he was killed.” One Potawatomi took Wells’s scalp, while another cut out his heart, divided it into small pieces, and distributed them among the other warriors. Honoring their slain antagonist and hoping to imbibe a little of his courage, the warriors consumed the heart of William Wells.
Then a Potawatomi—Pokagon says it was the same warrior who had tomahawked the children in the wagon—attacked Margaret Helm, the wife of the fort’s lieutenant. As the two grappled, a second Potawatomi stepped in, seized Mrs. Helm, and dragged her down to the lake, where he proceeded to drown her. Or so it appeared. In fact the warrior was Black Partridge, and the pretend drowning was a ruse to save Mrs. Helm’s life.
It must have seemed like an eternity, but only about 15 minutes had passed. The battlefield grew quiet. Captain Heald, seriously wounded—he would walk with a cane the rest of his life—agreed to parlay with the Potawatomi, who were led by a chief named Black Bird. After receiving promises that survivors would be spared, Heald agreed to surrender. By Quaife’s count, 67 people had lost their lives: Wells, 25 regular soldiers, the 12 militiamen, 12 children, 15 Potawatomi, and 2 women, including Mrs. Heald’s black slave, Cicely. (Though wounded, Rebekah Heald survived the battle.) The victorious warriors led their captives back to the fort and, that night, tortured to death several badly wounded soldiers. There may have been some confusion as to whether soldiers already near death were included in the surrender agreement.
On the morning of the 16th, the Potawatomi divided up the captives, set fire to the fort, and dispersed. Some of the whites would die among their captors, but most of them were eventually ransomed and returned to their families. (Protected by her mother, who was forced to run a gauntlet between club-wielding Potawatomi women and children, six-month-old Susan Simmons survived. She died in California in 1900, the battle’s last survivor.)
Four years later, when soldiers arrived at Chicago to build a second Fort Dearborn, the bleached bones of the battle’s dead still lay unburied on the Lake Michigan shoreline.