Fort Dearborn | The Massacre Tree | Last Great War Dance in Chicago | A Wolf Hunt in Early Chicago | Christmas at Fort Dearborn | Fort Dearborn Memorial Tablet
The national and international newsweekly Niles’ Register is well known today only to those historians and genealogists who have sampled its treasures. But in the first half of the 19th century, the Register was as well known as the New York Times and Washington Post are known today. From 1811 to 1849, it was the principal window through which many Americans looked out on their country and the world. The scope of the work was immense, its circulation was large (the largest in the United States, by some accounts), and its influence was reflected in generous compliments from such readers of the publication as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson.
From Niles’ Weekly Register, May 8th, 1813, Vol. iv., p. 160.
Extract of a letter from Walter Jordan, a non-commissioned officer of the Regulars at Fort Wayne, to his wife in Allegheny County, Dated Fort Wayne, October 19, 1812:
—I take my pen to inform you that I am well, after a long a perilous journey through the Indian country. Capt. Wells, myself, and an hundred friendly Indians, left Fort Wayne on the 1st of August, to escort Captain Heald from Fort Chicauga as he was in danger of being captured by the British. Orders had been given to abandon that Fort and retreat to Fort Wayne, a distance of 150 miles. We reached Chicauga on the 10th of August, and on the 15th we prepared for an immediate march, burning all that we could not fetch with us. On the 15th, at 8 o’clock, we commenced our march with our small force, which consisted of Capt. Wells, myself, and 100 Confute Indians, Capt. Heald’s 100 men, 10 women, and 20 children—in all 232. We had marched half a mile when we were attacked by 600 Kickapoo and Wynbago Indians. In the moment of trial our Confute savages joined the savage enemy. Our contest lasted ten minutes, when every man, woman, and child was killed except fifteen. Thanks be to God I was one of those who escaped.
Attack of Indians at Fort Dearborn
Cassell’s History of the United States Vol: 2
First they shot the feather off my cap, next the epaulet from my shoulder, and then the handle from my sword. I then surrendered to four savage rascals. The Confute chief, taking me by the hand and speaking English said, “Jordan, I know you; you gave me tobacco at Fort Wayne. We won’t kill you, but come and see what we will do with your captain.” So leading me to where Wells lay, they cut off his head and put it on a long pole, while another took out his heart and divided it among the chiefs and ate it up raw. Then they scalped the slain and stripped the prisoners, and gathered in a ring with us fifteen poor wretches in the middle. They had nearly all fallen out about the divide, but my old chief, the White Raccoon, holding me fast, they made the divide and departed to their towns. They tied me hard and fast that night, and placed a guard over me. I lay down and slept soundly until morning, for I was tired. In the morning they untied me and set me parching corn, at which I worked attentively until night. They said that if I would stay and not run away, that they would make a chief of me; but if I would attempt to run away they would catch me and burn me alive. I amused them with a fine story in order to gain their confidence, and, fortunately, made my escape from them on the 19th of August, and took one of their best horses to carry me, being seven days in the wilderness. I was joyfully received at Wayne on the 26th. On the 28th they attacked the Fort and blockaded us until the 16th of September, when we were relieved by Gen. Harrison under the direction of Capt. Wells. The situation of the country rendered it necessary for us to take the beach, with the lake on our left, and a high sand-bank on our right, at about one hundred yards distance. We had proceeded about a mile and a-half, when it was discovered that the Indians were prepared to attack us from behind the bank. I immediately marched up, with the company, to the top of the bank, when the action commenced; after firing one round, we charged, and the Indians gave way in front and joined those on our flanks. In about fifteen minutes, they got possession of all our horses, provisions, and baggage of every description, and finding the Miamies did not assist us, I drew off the few men I had left, and took possession of a small elevation in the open prairie, out of shot of the bank or any other cover. The Indians did not follow me, but assembled in a body on the top of the bank, and, after some consultation among themselves, made signs for me to approach them. I advanced toward them alone, and was met by one of the Pottawatomie chiefs, called Black-Bird, with an interpreter. After shaking hands, he requested me to surrender, promising to spare the lives of all the prisoners. On a few moments consideration, I con luded it would be most prudent to comply with his request, although I did not put entire confidence in his promise.
After delivering up our arms, we were taken back to their encampment near the Fort, and distributed among the different tribes. The next morning they set fire to the Fort, and left the place, taking the prisoners with them. Their number of warriors was between 400 and 500, mostly of the Pottawatomie nation, and their loss, from the best information I could get, was about fifteen. Our strength was about fifty-four regulars and twelve militia, out of which, twenty-six regulars and all the militia were killed in the action, with two women and twelve children. Ensign George Ronan and Dr. Isaac V. VanVoorhis, of my company, with Capt. Wells, of Fort Wayne, to my great sorrow, are numbered among the dead. Lieut. Linai T. Helm, with twenty-five non-commissioned officers and privates, and eleven women and children, were prisoners when we separated. Mrs. Heald and myself were taken to the mouth of the river St. Joseph, and, being both badly wounded, were permitted to reside with Mr. Burnett, an Indian trader. In a few days after our arrival there, the Indians went off to take Fort Wayne, and in their absence, I engaged a Frenchman to take us to Michilimackinac, by water, where I gave myself up as a prisoner of war, with one of my Serjeants. The commanding officer, Capt. Roberts, offered me every assistance in his power to render our situation comfortable while we remained there, and to enable us to proceed on our journey. To him I gave my parole of honor, and came on to Detroit, and reported myself to Col. Proctor, who gave us a passage to Buffaloe; from that place, I came by the way of Presque-Isle, and arrived here yesterday.
The Fort Dearborn Massacre on the 15th August, 1812
By Samuel Page.
The painting represents Mrs. Helms being rescued from her would-be slayer Nau-non-gee by Black Partridge. To her left os Surgeon Van Voorhes falling mortally wounded. Other characters depicted are Capt. William Wells, Mrs. Heald on horseback, Ensign Ronan, Mrs. Ronan, Mrs. Holt, Mr. John Kinzie, and Chief Wau-bun0sie. In the background are Indians, the wagons containing children, and off on the lake is the boat bearing Mr. Kinzie’s family to safety.
From Niles’ Weekly Register, Saturday, April 3, 1813. Vol. iv., p. 83.
—Mrs. Helm, the wife Lieut. Helm, who escaped from the butchery of the garrison of Chicauga, by the assistance of a humane Indian, has arrived at this place [Buffaloe]; the account of her sufferings during three months’ slavery among the Indians, and three months’ imprisonment amongst their allies, would make a most interesting volume; one circumstance alone I will mention. During five days after she was taken prisoner, she had not the least sustenance, and was compelled to drag a canoe, (barefooted and wading along the stream), in which there were some squaws, and when she demanded food, some flesh of her murdered countrymen and a piece of Col. Wells’ heart was offered her. She knows the fact, that Col. Proctor, the British commander at Maiden, bought the scalps of our murdered garrison of Chicauga, and thanks to her noble spirit, she boldly charged him with his infamy in his own house. She knows further, from the tribe with whom she was a prisoner, and who were perpetrators of those murders, that they intended to remain true, but that they received orders, from the British, to cut off our garrison whom they were to escort.
Oh! spirits of the murdered Americans, can ye not rouse your countrymen, your friends, your relations, to take ample vengeance on those worse than savage blood-hounds?
March 8, 1813. An Officer.
From Niles’ Weekly Register, 4th June, 1814, Vol. vi., p. 221.
Chicago. —Among the persons who have recently arrived at this place (says the Plattsburg [N.Y.] paper of the 21st ultimo) from Quebec are James Van Horn, Elias Mills, Dyson Dyer, Joseph Knowles, Joseph Bowen, James Corbin, and Paul Grummow, Nathan Edson, Phelim Corbin, of the 1st Regment of U.S. Infantry, who survived the massacre at Fort Dearborn or Chicago, on the 15th of Aug., 1812. It will be recollected that the commandant at Fort Chicago, Capt. Ileald, was ordered, by Gen. Hull, to evacuate the Fort, and proceed with his command to Detroit; that having proceeded about a mile and a-half the troops were attacked by a body of Indians, to whom they were compelled to capitulate. Capt. Heald, in his report of this affair, dated October 23rd., 1812, says: “Our strength was fifty-four regulars and twelve militia, out of which twenty-six regulars and all the militia were killed in the action, with two women and twelve children. Lieut. Linai T. Helm, with twenty-five non-commissioned officers and privates, and eleven women and children, were prisoners when we separated. “. Lieut. Helm was ransomed. Of the twenty -five non-commissioned officers and privates, and the eleven women and children, the nine persons above mentioned, are believed to be the only survivors. They state that the prisoners who were not put to death on the march, were taken to the Fox River, in the Illinois Territory, where they were distributed among the Indians as servants. Those who survived remained in this situation about nine months, during which time they were allowed scarcely a sufficiency of sustenance to support nature, and were then brought to Fort Chicago, where they were purchased by a French trader, agreeable to the directions of Gen. Proctor, and sent to Amherstburg, and from thence to Quebec, where they arrived Nov. 8th, 1813.
John Neads, who was one of the prisoners, formerly of Virginia, died among the Indians between the 15th and 20th of January, 1813.
Hugh Logan, an Irishman, was tomahawked and put to death, he not being able to walk, from excessive fatigue.
August Mott, a German, was killed in the same manner for the like reason.
A man by the name of Nelson was frozen to death while a captive with the Indians. He was formerly from Maryland.
A child of Mrs. Neads, the wife of John Neads, was tied to a tree to prevent its following and crying after its mother for victuals. Mrs. Neads afterwards perished with hunger and cold.
The officers who were killed on the 15th of August had their heads cut off and their hearts taken out and broiled in the presence of the prisoners.Eleven children were massacred and scalped in one wagon.
Mrs. Corbin, wife of Phelim Corbin, in an advanted stage of pregnancy, was tomahawked, scalped, cut open, and had the child taken out and its head cut off.
From American State Papers, Indian affairs, Vol. II., p. 59.
Estimate of Losses Sustained by the Indian-Factory Department during the late War by Destruction of Buildings, etc., by the Enemy, viz.:
LATE FACTORY AT CHICAGO
|Amount Merchandise on hand at this Factory on its evacuation, which was delivered to the Indians by the commanding officer, Captain Heald||
|Amount Furs and Peltries shipped to Mackinac, and there taken by the British,||
|Amount Soldier’s due-bills on hand, most of whom, it is believed were murdered by the Indians||
|Amount debts due from officers and soldiers of the Fort||
|Amount debts due from Indians||
|Amount household furniture left in the Factory||
|Amount Factory buildings, estimated||
Left: Detail of the 1893 Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument by Carl Rohl-Smith.
Right: “Defense” by Henry Herring, 1928. This sculpture adorns the wall of the south western bridge tender’s house on Michigan Avenue Bridge
Excerpted from The Chicago Tribune, August 12, 2012
It wasn’t the Fort Dearborn Massacre
By Patrick T. Reardon, a former scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library, is a member of the board of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
What happened two centuries ago on Aug. 15, 1812, on the Lake Michigan shore near what is now 18th Street has long been called the Fort Dearborn Massacre.
But it wasn’t a massacre.
It was a battle in two simultaneous wars. Some 500 Potawatomis and their allies encircled the 110 men, women and children who had marched out of Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River that morning, heading for Fort Wayne in Indiana Territory. The soldiers from the garrison formed a line and advanced on the Indians.
Sixty-eight of the Fort Dearborn contingent lost their lives in the fighting and its aftermath. Fifteen of the Indian attackers were killed.
Battle of Fort Dearborn
It was a planned attack, part of a series of assaults that a pan-Indian confederacy had determined to make against forts on the outskirts of U.S. territory in late summer 1812 in an effort to push back the tide of settlers invading their land.
It also turned out to be one of the opening battles in the American-declared War of 1812 against Great Britain. The British enlisted many of the Indians around Lake Michigan as allies, and, after the war, bestowed a gold medal on Blackbird, who led the attack on the Fort Dearborn soldiers and families.
The word “massacre” was used immediately after the battle as a rallying cry for the American war effort. It led to a series of attacks by U.S. forces on Indian villages. The Aug. 15 battle was itself in partial revenge for an American assault on the village at Tippecanoe 10 months earlier.
Calling the battle a “massacre” cast the engagement in stark black-and-white terms and demonized the Indians. Good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. Indeed, at the dedication of the Fort Dearborn Massacre sculpture in 1893, the director of the Chicago Historical Society described the attackers as “invaders” and “barbarians.”
In 1812, there were three visions of the future of Indian Country:
Indians wanted to retain their wide-open spaces where they could freely range and hunt as they had for centuries.
American presidents and officials wanted to take the Indian land and “turn it into real estate,” to use Keating’s phrase — land that could be bought, sold and developed.
Trader John Kinzie and other Americans and Europeans who lived and prospered on the edge of white civilization, often marrying Indian women, wanted to keep Indian Country as it was.
Looking back from the 21st century, we may be tempted to say, well, the victory of the white civilization was inevitable. That misses the point — even if true.
The story of Fort Dearborn is a creation narrative of our city. The real story isn’t about good guys and bad guys. It isn’t about a massacre.
It’s about three groups of people with three drastically different visions of the future. It’s about how each of those visions had validity. None of the three was, by nature, “righter” than the others.
The real story of Fort Dearborn is a collision of those visions.
This is important to Chicagoans today because we live in an increasingly multicultural, multiethnic city — and an increasingly multicultural, multiethnic nation.
If we recognize the competing visions that were present at our city’s inception, we will have an easier time recognizing, understanding and dealing with the competing visions of our own time.
If we insist on the false and simplistic good-versus-bad view of an event 200 years ago, we’re going to have a hard time ever finding common ground.
Fort Dearborn Massacre