The 200th Anniversary of the Battle/Massacre of Fort Dearborn

Two centuries after the incident, which took place around what’s now Roosevelt and 18th Street, we’re now fighting over whether it was a “battle” or “massacre” and what that means.

Fort Dearborn

 

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle/Massacre of Fort Dearborn; here are some good reads to catch you up on Chicago’s oldest news:

* “The True Story of the Deadly Encounter at Fort Dearborn,” by Chicago’s own Geoffrey Johnson. What started it? Why, this is Chicago, so of course booze and guns were involved:

Aided by their Native American allies, the British enjoyed early success [in the War of 1812]. 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.”

[snip]

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.”

It was our first attempt at prohibition, and it went about as well.

* Why battle or massacre? Lee Sandlin explains in his review of Ann Durkin Keating’s new history, Rising Up From Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago:

This was the Massacre—or, as Ms. Keating prefers, the Battle. She would rather not say anything bad about any Indians who took part, and the word “massacre,” I think we can all agree, has negative connotations. So Ms. Keating nitpicks at the word relentlessly. In a massacre, she notes, the killings are “indiscriminate”; that can’t apply here, because the Indians had reasons. The targeting of the women and children, for instance, was perfectly logical: “From the perspective of the Potawatomis,” she writes, “these women and children represented an advance guard of American settlers who challenged the bounds of Indian Country.” Once this is understood, we can fix blame for what happened where it really belongs: “squarely on the shoulders of the U.S. government.” Of course; where else?

Sandlin, author of the recent Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, is a better authority on the writing of history than I am, and otherwise likes the book as history; I haven’t gotten to spend much time with it, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read.

* People are still—after about 60 years of debating whether it was a “massacre” or “battle"—mad about this. John Kass sees liberal perfidy in the “political correctness brigade” that conquered the Statue of the Battle of Fort Dearborn lo these many years later. For Durkin Keating’s part, I will acknowledge that this is a good point: “Beyond the dictionary definition, it is worth noting the unequal way that ‘massacre’ has been applied across U.S. history.” But defining massacre down is probably not the best way to address this. That definition is “unnecessary, indiscriminate killing,” but in popular use the emphasis seems to be on unnecessary. (The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was discriminate, but unnecessary.) Massacres have been discriminate war strategy since the Romans saw fit to wipe out the Druids and “consult their deities through human entrails.”

* In 2009, Robert Loerzel got the other side of the story—as much about writing history from the side of the vanquished as “political correctness":

Well, what makes it a massacre? … if we win, it’s a battle. If the other people win, it’s a massacre. And so what we needed to do was find some language that wasn’t making a judgment about right or wrong, but just acknowledging the fact that it was a historical event, and this is the location where it took place.

* The Tribune’s Ron Grossman writes on “15 bloody minutes that shaped a city.”

 

Illustration: Lisel Ashlock

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