Perhaps one of the most brutal events in all of Chicago history took place when the city was only beginning. The terrible incident has become known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre and memories of it still linger in the city today.
Chicago began as nothing but empty wilderness and open prairie. It first appeared on maps of the region in 1684 as “Chekagou”, which literally means “wild onion”. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, it became home to a trading post owned by Jean Baptist Point du Sable, a French Canadian trapper in 1779. He stayed along the Chicago River until 1800, before selling the establishment to Jean Lalime. As American’s spread further west, there was talk of a military garrison being established at Chicago as early as 1795. It finally came about in 1803 under the command of Captain John Whistler. He brought with him 40 men and they built Fort Dearborn.
The fort was a simple stockade of logs that were placed on end, sharpened at the top and then planted firmly into the ground. The outer stockade was a solid wall with a gated entrance. There was also a secret underground entrance that led beneath the north wall to the river. Inside of the fort was a parade ground, officer’s quarters, troop’s barracks, a guard house and an ammunition magazine.
In 1804, a man named John Kinzie settled in the region and bought out the property of Jean Lalime. Over the next few years, Kinzie became known as the self-appointed civilian leader of the region, trading and dealing with the local Native American population. He encouraged close ties with the Potawatomi Indians and even sold them liquor, which created tension with the other white settlers. Kinzie would figure prominently in the events that were still to come.
In 1810, Captain Whistler was replaced at Fort Dearborn by Captain Nathan Heald, an experienced soldier, who also brought with him Lieutenant Linus T. Helm, another officer with experience on the frontier. Helm soon married the step-daughter of John Kinzie. In addition to she and Heald’s wife, there were other women now at the fort as well, all wives of the men stationed there. Within two years, there were 12 women and 20 children at Fort Dearborn.
The first threat came to the fort with the War of 1812, a conflict that aroused unrest with the local Indian tribes, namely the Potawatomi and the Wynadot. The effects of the war brought many of the Indian tribes into alliance with the British for they saw the Americans as invaders into their lands. After the British captured the American garrison at Mackinac, Fort Dearborn was in great danger. Orders came from General William Hull that Heald should abandon the fort and leave the contents to the local Indians.
Unfortunately, Heald delayed in carrying out the orders and soon, the American troops had nowhere to go. The unrest among the Indians brought a large contingent of them to the fort and they gathered in an almost siege-like state. The soldiers began to express concern over the growing numbers of Indians outside and Heald realized that he was going to have to bargain with them if the occupants of Fort Dearborn were going to safely reach Fort Wayne.
On August 12, Heald left the fort and held council with the Indians outside. By this time, it was estimated that 500 of them were encamped at the fort. Heald proposed to the chiefs that he would distribute the stores and ammunition in the fort to them in exchange for safe conduct to Fort Wayne. The chiefs quickly agreed and conditions were set to abandon the stockade.
Heald returned to the fort and here, was confronted by his officers. Alarmed, they questioned the wisdom of handing out guns and ammunition that could easily be turned against them. Heald reluctantly agreed with them and the extra weapons and ammunition were broken apart and dumped into an abandoned well. In addition, the stores of whiskey were dumped into the river. Needless to say, this was observed by the Indians outside and they too began making plans that differed from those agreed upon with Captain Heald.
On August 14, a visitor arrived at the fort in the person of Captain William Wells. He and 30 Miami warriors had managed to slip past the throng outside and they appeared at the front gates of the fort. Wells was a frontier legend among early soldiers and settlers in the Illinois territory. Captured by Indians as a child, he was adopted into the family of Little Turtle, the famous war chief of the Miami. Later, Wells served as a scout under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne and was currently serving as an Indian agent at Fort Wayne. He was also the uncle of Captain Heald’s wife and after hearing of the evacuation of Fort Dearborn, and knowing the hostile fervor of the local tribes, headed straight to the fort to assist them in their escape. Unfortunately, he had arrived too late.
Late on the evening of the 14th, another council was held between Heald, Wells and the Indians. Heald was told that, despite the anger over the destruction of the ammunition and the whiskey, the garrison would still be conducted to Fort Wayne. In turn, Heald was told that he had to abandon the fort immediately. By this time, Heald had more than just his men and their families to think of. John Kinzie and the other nearby settlers had also come to the fort for protection. Throughout the night, wagons were loaded for travel and reserve ammunition was distributed, amounting to about 25 rounds per man.
Early the next morning, the procession of soldiers, civilians, women and children left the fort. The infantry soldiers led the way, followed by a caravan of wagons and mounted men. The rear of the column was guarded by a portion of the Miami who had accompanied Wells. They, along with Wells himself, did not believe the promises made by the other tribes and they had their faces painted for war.
The column of soldiers and settlers were escorted by nearly 500 Potawatomi Indians. As they marched southward and into a low range of sand hills that separated the beaches of Lake Michigan from the prairie, the Potawatomi moved silently to the right, placing an elevation of sand between they and the white men. The act was carried out with such subtlety that no once noticed it as the column trudged along the shoreline. A little further down the beach, the sand ridge ended and the two groups would come together again.
The column traveled to the an area where 16th Street and Indiana Avenue are now located. There was a sudden milling about of the scouts at the front of the line and suddenly a shout came back from Captain Wells.... the Indians were attacking, he cried! A line of Potawatomi appeared over the edge of the ridge and fired down at the column. Totally surprised, the officers nevertheless managed to rally the men into a battle line, but it was of little use. So many of them fell from immediate wounds that the line collapsed. The Indians overwhelmed them with sheer numbers, flanking the line and snatching the wagons and horses.
What followed was butchery.... officers were slain with tomahawks.. the fort’s surgeon was cut down by gunfire and then literally chopped into pieces ... Mrs. Heald was wounded by gunfire but was spared when she was captured by a sympathetic chief, who spared her life... the wife of one soldier sought so bravely and savagely that she was hacked into pieces before she fell... John Kinzie’s niece was spared but was narrowly wounded by a tomahawk. She was finally spirited away by a Potawotomi named Black Partridge, a childhood friend. In the end, cut down to less than half their original number, the garrison surrendered under the promise of safe conduct. In all, 148 members of the column were killed, 86 of them adults and 12 of them children.
Captain Wells, captured early in the fighting, became so enraged by the slaughter that he managed to escape from his captors. He took a horse and rode furiously into the Potawatomi camp, where their own women and children were hidden. Somehow, the barrage of bullets fired at him missed their mark, but his horse was brought down and he was captured again. Two Indian chiefs interceded to save his life, but Pesotum, a Potawatomi chief, stabbed Wells in the back and killed him. His heart was then cut out and distributed to the other warriors as a token of bravery. The next day, a half-breed Wynadot named Billy Caldwell, gathered the remains of Wells’ mutilated body and buried it in the sand. Wells Street, in Chicago, now bears this brave frontiersman’s name.
In the battle, Captain Heald was wounded twice, while his wife was wounded seven times. They were later released and a St. Joseph Indian named Chaudonaire took them to Mackinac, where they were turned over to the British commander there. He sent them to Detroit and they were exchanged with the American authorities.
John Kinzie and his family were also spared. His friendship with the Potawatomi led to his being taken away from the massacre. He returned to Chicago a year later, but found much had changed by then. He failed to get his business going again and took a position with the American Fur Company, who had once been his largest competitor. In time, the Illinois fur trade came to an end and Kinzie worked as a trader and Indian interpreter until his death in 1828. At that point, thanks to revisionist history books written by his descendants, Kinzie was almost enshrined as a founder of Chicago. Through the 1800’s, history overlooked his questionable business practices, like selling liquor to the Indians and even the murder of a business rival. It would not be until much later that Kinzie’s role in Chicago history would be questioned.
The other survivors from the massacre were taken as prisoners and some of them died soon after. Others were sold to the British as slaves, who quickly freed them, appalled by the carnage they had experienced. For Dearborn itself was burned to the ground by the victorious Indians and the bodies of the massacre victims were left where they had fallen, scattered to decay on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan. When replacement troops arrived at the site of Fort Dearborn a year later, they were greeted with not only the burned-out shell of the fort, but the grinning skeletons of their predecessors and the luckless settlers. The bodies were given proper burials and the fort was rebuilt in 1816, only to be abandoned again in 1836, when the city would be able to fend for itself.
As for the Indians... the Potawatomi soon began denying any responsibility for the massacre and began blaming the Winnebago Indians instead. The price for the massacre would be high for those natives who had existed peacefully with the white settlers before the war. Memories of the slaughter led to the removal of the Indians from the region and by 1833, their forced removal from Chicago was complete.
Not surprisingly, the horrific massacre spawned its share of ghostly tales. For many years, the site of the fort itself was said to be haunted by those who were killed nearby. The now vanished fort was located at the south end of the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
The actual site of the massacre was quiet for many years, long after Chicago grew into a sizable city. However, construction in the eartly 1980’s unearthed a number of human bones. At first thought to be the victims of a cholera epidemic in the 1840’s, the remains were later dated more closely to the early 1800’s. Thanks to their location, they were believed to be the bones of victims from the massacre. They were reburied elsewhere but within a few weeks, people began to report the semi-transparent figures of people dressed in pioneer clothing and military uniforms. They were seen wandering in a field just north of 16th and while many seemed to run about haphazardly, others appeared to move in slow motion. Many of them reportedly looked very frightened or were screaming in silence.
Perhaps these poor victims do not rest in peace after all.....
The Massacre site can be visited today, although it looks nothing like it did at the time of the event. Only a small metal plaque remains today to mark the spot of the slaughter. It is posted on the end of a building at the corner of 18th and Prairie in Chicago. In the distance, across the railroad tracks, is bust Lakeshore Drive, Soldier Field and the Field Museum.
COPYRIGHT 2000 BY TROY TAYLOR. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.