Fort Dearborn | The Massacre Tree | Last Great War Dance | A Wolf Hunt in Early Chicago | Christmas at Fort Dearborn
Andreas’ History of Chicago, 1884
The tree is long gone today. But in 1884, there was huge speculation that a large cottonwood tree standing in Eighteenth Street, between Prairie Avenue and the lake, marks the site of the Massacre of 1812. In fact, it was believed that this same tree may actually have been standing at the time of the disaster. In order that the appearance of this landmark might be preserved, and that the memories clustering about it might not pass from mind, the tree has been photographed and engraved and has also obtained documentary evidence that the Kinzie family regarded both the site and this particular tree as historic.
This photo on the right was taken about 1888 by George Glessner, shows it towards the end of its life. It was felled during a windstorm on May 18, 1894.
On the morning of 15 August 1812, the troops and settlers left Fort Dearborn, proceeded southward about a mile and a half, and were attacked by the Indians.
Having ascertained that Mrs. Juliette A. Kinzie had, during her lifetime, informed her friend, Mrs. Henry W. King, of the belief concerning the tree, a reply was sent:
151 Rush Street, Chicago
January 25, 1884
Dear Sir, I am very happy to tell you what I know about the tree in question, for I am anxious that its value as a relic should be appreciated by Chicago people; especially since the fire (1871) has obliterated nearly every other object connected with our early history. Shortly before the death of my friend, Mrs. John H. Kinzie, I called upon her and asked her to drive with me through the city and point out the various locations and interests that she knew were connected with the “early days” of Chicago. She said that there were very few objects remaining, but localities she would be happy to show me. She appointed a day, but was not well enough to keep her appointment; went East soon afterward for her health, and died within a few weeks. However, at the interview, I mention, she said that to her the most interesting object in our city was the old cottonwood tree that stands on Eighteenth Street, between Prairie Avenue and the lake. She remarked that it, with its fellow, were samplings at the time of the Indian massacre, and that they marked the spot of that fearful occurence; though she was not sure but the smaller one had either died or cut down. I expressed surprise at the location, imagining a massacre occured further south, among the small sandhills which early settlers remember, in the vicinity of Hyde Park. I remember her answer to this was:
“My child, you must understand that in 1812, there was no Chicago, and the distance between the old fort and Eighteenth Street was enormous.” Said she, “My husband and his family always bore in mind the location of this massacre, and marked it by the cottonwood trees, which, strange to say, have stood unharmed in the middle of the street until this day.”
The above facts, I communicated to the Chicago Historical Society, soon after Mrs. Kinzie’s death, and believe, through them, was the means of preventing the cutting down of the old tree, which the citizens of the South Side had voted to be a nuisance. I sincerely hope something may be done to fence in and preserve so valuable a relic and reminder of one of the most sad and interesting events in the life of Chicago. Trusting the above information may be of some use to you, and that you may be able present the matter in a more entertaining form than I have done. Believe me, sir,
Yours most respectfully,
Mrs. Henry W. King
Although there is no way of positively determining that the tree pictured is the identical one that stood, a mere sapling, on the spot during the massacre, there is strong, almost conclusive, cause for declaring it the same. At all events, the proof of the site is satisfactory, and the view herewith presented is an interesting one, as showing how the scene of barbaric treachery appears after a lapse of nearly seventy two years.
Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1894
Early yesterday morning a crowd of people collected on Eighteenth street, near the residence of George M. Pullman, and began digging through the asphalt pavement of the roadway. They were as excited and industrious as if they were a rescuing party, digging entombed miners. The occupants of the Pullman mansion ran out to see what was the matter, and found the crowd was digging for the roots of the historic cottonwood tree, which after standing there for century or more, and witnessing at short range the Fort Dearborn massacre Aug. 12, 1812, went down before Friday’s storm at 5:15 o’clock in the afternoon.
This celebrated tree might have lived another century if it had been let alone, but civilization killed it. Long after it had attained a great size the grade of Eighteenth street, where it stood, was raised six feet and the earth piled deep over its roots and around its trunk. Then the inevitable gaspipe, which is always death to trees, was laid near it, and finally the whole street was covered with asphalt close to the very bark of the tree. There was nothing left for it but to die, which it did several years ago, and the northwest wind did the rest. The howling of the blast prevented its fall being heard, so that it sank to rest apparently as noiselessly as a rose leaf falls to the ground.
A Rush for Souvenirs.
The significance of this event was fully appreciated in M. Pullman’s neighborhood. The venerable trunk had no sooner struck the ground than everyone within a quarter of a mile who gad a saw or hatchet came to hack a piece off it as a souvenir until the Pullmans got scared. It is probable the tree belonged legally to the city, but Mr. Pullman has been its proprietor so long that he seemed to own it, and as he was absent at the East his representative begged the crowd not to carry the whole trunk away. As soon as they had scattered the trunk was sawed into two parts, and deposited in Mr. Pullman’s two gardens, one on each side of Eighteenth street, where they still lie. If any one thinks they are not watched, let him try to whittle a piece off them with a jack-knife.
The greatest friend this tree ever had is Fernando Jones, who came to Chicago in 1835, and played baseball under its branches when he was a great deal younger than he is now. But for his veneration for this ancient relic and his constant watch-care over it the street officers of Chicago would have removed it as a nuisance. It was with a beautiful poetic justice therefore that that he was in at its death. It had hardly touched the ground before he was by its side, disclaiming its history, and offering to take the corpse home and embalm it. But that matter gas been adjourned until Mr. Pullman’s return.
Traditional Cluster Round the Spot.
Mr. Jones is also the repository of the traditions concerning this tree. He says a similar tree used to stand 200 feet south of this one, and an Indian named Capt. Isaac, who participated in the massacre, often told him it was between these two trees the wagon was stopped by the Indians and Black Partridge rescued Mrs. Helm, as epresented in the bronze monument erected near the spot by Mr. Pullman. Isaac mimicked the shooting and scalping in such a realistic manner that it left no doubt in Mr. Jones’ mind that he was a thoroughly reliable Indian on this point.
Mr. Jones delights in relating how he once did the same for the tree as Black Partridge did for Mrs. Helm. Many years ago the Street Commissioner, seized with a passion for improvement, made ready to lay this tree low, though covered with leafy boughs. Mr. Jones resented this as he would the sacrifice of a human being, aqnd never ceased his protestation until the relic was delivered and appropriately protected. Mr. Pullman furnished the iron railing which was placed around its base, and which still adheres to the prostrate trunk, and Mr. Jones, with a passion for scriptural quotations, hung on it a board, which was found dangling to one of the limbs when it fell, and on which was this inscription:
Chicago Tribune, June 23, 1893
In the presence of ex-president Harrison, Chief Justice Fuller of the United States Supreme Court, and an assemblage of men and women foremost in Chicago’s business and society circles yesterday afternoon Miss Florence Pullman drew aside the silken folds that covered from view the Fort Dearborn massacre group, presented by her father, George M. Pullman, to the city to commemorate a tragedy that took place at what is now the foot of Eighteenth street eighty-one years ago. More than a year ago Mr. Pullman decided to erect this memorial, influenced by the fact that his home stands on the battlefield. Near it, in the middle of Eighteenth street, surrounded by an iron fence, is the old, dead, cottonwood tree so indissolubly associated with that brave fight and subsequent massacre. Mr. Pullman commissioned Carl Rohl-Smith to make the statue of bronze.
Simplicity marked the dedicatory exercises in charge of the Historical Society, to which the monument is given in trust. Two hundred and fifty people were present. Upon the balcony at the back of the house sat the speakers and some of the guests. Among them were:
The host and hostess, Mr. and Mrs. George M. Pullman, ex-President Harrison, Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller, Robert T. Lincoln, Prince Isenberg, E. S. Willard, Marshall Field, Mrs. H. O. Stone, George R. Blanchard, Darius Heald, Capt. J. C. Wyman, Judge J. D. Caton, the Rev. Dr. Clinton Locke, Mrs. McKee, Mis Kate Field, Mrs. Sanger, Mrs. Arthur Caton, Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Clark, Mrs. Sage, Mrs. W. W. Kimball, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Carolan, T. W. Palmer, Mr. and Mrs. E. G. Mason, Miss Florence Pullman, and Gen. and Mrs. Miles.
Every chair upon the terraces, which slope down from the palm-house, was occupied, and many women in bright summer gowns stood up through the speaking.
The Memorial Statue
The Fort Dearborn Massacre Memorial Statue
The monument was removed from the site in 1931, and installed in the foyer of the Chicago Historical Society.
In the 1970s American Indian groups protested the display of the monument as a false representation of Indians. With the revival of the Prairie Avenue Historic District during the 1990s, the statue was reinstalled near 18th Street and Prairie Avenue, close to its original site. The statue subsequently was removed by the Office of Public Art of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and placed in storage for conservation reasons.
The significance of the monument now may lie as much in its own history as in the historical events it purports to represent. A corner of the Soldier Field (1924) colonnade can be seen behind the stone wall to the left of the monument.