Fort Dearborn Massacre

August 15, 2012 to mark bicentennial of the Battle of Fort Dearborn

August 15, 2012 will mark the bicentennial of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, the only battle ever fought on Chicago soil.  The event took place on land now occupied by the Prairie Avenue Historic District, with the traditionally-recognized site located on 18th Street between Prairie and Calumet avenues. 

The reasons leading up to the battle are complex and involved a young United States, Great Britain, and the various tribal nations east of the Mississippi that had called the area home for hundreds of years.  On Tuesday August 14 at 7:00pm, Glessner House Museum will host a lecture “Don’t Know Much About the War of 1812?” where the factors behind the battle and the war will be discussed.  The lecture will present the conflict from a Native American perspective and will be given by Frances Hagemann and Barbara Johnson.  Hagemann (Ojibwe/Métis) is a retired University of Illinois at Chicago professor and a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library.  Johnson is a former teacher, freelance writer, and independent historian focusing on American Indian history. 

The Battle of Fort Dearborn, known for most of the past 200 years as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, has been the source of a great deal of controversy for many years.  In the 19th century and for much of the 20th century, the Native Americans who participated in the battle were simply seen as the enemy.  Today, however, there is a much greater understanding of the Potawatomi who were involved in the battle, in light of their desire to preserve their ancestral lands, and the various injustices that were imposed upon them by Americans as the country expanded ever farther west.  Simon Pokagon, the son of a Potawatomi participant in the battle, summed up the controversy when he said “When whites are killed it is a massacre; when Indians are killed, it is a fight.”

In 2009, a more balanced view of the battle was presented to the public, when a small tract of land at the corner of 18th Street and Calumet Avenue was dedicated as the Battle of Fort Dearborn Park.  The plaque reads as follows:

August 15, 1812

From roughly 1620 to 1820, the territory of the Potawatomi extended from what is now
Green Bay, Wisconsin to Detroit, Michigan and included the Chicago area. In 1803 the United States government built Fort Dearborn at what is today Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, as part of a strategic effort to protect lucrative trading in the area from the British. During the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain, some Indian tribes allied with the British to stop the westward expansion of the United States and to regain lost Indian lands. On August 15, 1812, more than 50 U.S. soldiers and 41 civilians, including 9 women and 18 children, were ordered to evacuate Fort Dearborn. This group, almost the entire population of U.S. citizens in the Chicago area, marched south from Fort Dearborn along the shoreline of Lake Michigan until they reached this approximate site, where they were attacked by about 500 Potawatomi. In the battle and aftermath, more than 60 of the evacuees and 15 Native Americans were killed. The dead included Army Captain William Wells, who had come from Fort Wayne with Miami Indians to assist in the evacuation, and Naunongee, Chief of the village of Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Ottawa Indians known as the Three Fires Confederacy.  In the 1830s, the Potawatomi of Illinois were forcibly removed to lands west of the Mississippi.  Potawatomi Indian Nations continue to thrive in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kansas, Oklahoma and Canada and more than 36,000 American Indians from a variety of tribes reside in Chicago today.
August, 2009

Sponsors:  Alderman Robert W. Fioretti, U.S. Daughters of 1812, Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, Glessner House Museum, American Indian Center and  Illinois State Historical Society

This cottonwood tree, which stood on the north side of 18th Street, between Prairie and Calumet avenues, marked the traditional site of the battle.  The location was identified by Fernando Jones, a Chicago pioneer and long-time resident at 1834 S. Prairie Avenue, who was shown the site by a Native American who had participated in the battle.  Jones later hung a sign on the tree that read, “Cursed be he that removeth the ancient landmarks.”

This photo of the tree, taken about 1888 by George Glessner, shows it towards the end of its life.  It was felled during a windstorm on May 18, 1894.  Souvenir hunters swarmed the site to retrieve a piece of the relic, but the main section of the trunk was salvaged by George M. Pullman (whose stable is visible at the left) and given to the Chicago Historical Society. 

Top photo:  Unveiling of the plaque at the Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, August 15, 2009.