The Fourth Star: 200 Years After the Battle of Fort Dearborn



If you’ve spent any time in Chicago, chances are you’ve come across traces of what is now called the Battle of Fort Dearborn, which marked its 200th anniversary this past August. Not material traces, unless you’ve visited the Chicago History Museum, but the various memorials, so much a part of the everyday landscape as to be barely noticeable. In 1939, the city added a fourth star to its flag to commemorate the Fort, although the Tribune suggested it was meant to honor the battle, not the fort itself. At the southwest bridge house of the DuSable Bridge on Michigan Avenue sits one of four carved reliefs depicting scenes from the city’s founding. The sculpture, created by Henry Hering, is titled “Defense” and depicts an officer from the Fort fighting with some Potawatomie warriors while an allegorical angel surveys the scene from above. Glance down at the sidewalk near the corner of the Michigan and Wacker and you’ll see several strips of brass inset at ninety-degree angles to mark the original corners of the fort—but, of course, given the elevation of the avenue, you’re standing on what would be the top of one of the blockhouses rather than the foundation. Thousands of people pass by these memorials everyday without a thought about Fort Dearborn or its history. Millions recognize the city’s flag but can’t say what the four stars represent. The 200th anniversary of the battle passed without much acknowledgement from City Hall. Chicago has never been completely at ease with what many regard as a founding event.

Henry Hering, Defense, 1928.

Fort Dearborn was built on the southeast bank of the Chicago River, close to where it empties into Lake Michigan, in 1803. It was named after the Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn. Its first commanding officer was John Whistler, grandfather of the painter James McNeill Whistler. Fort Dearborn had been built at the request of General Anthony Wayne, who had secured the present-day states of Ohio and Kentucky, as well as parts of Indiana, for American settlement in a series of skirmishes and battles with native tribes in the last decade of the eighteenth century. In an era of state boundaries and interstate highways, it is difficult to imagine how this region was perceived by the communities who lived here at the turn of the nineteenth century. Around the Great Lakes were scattered a number of nomadic tribes—the Potawatomie, the Fox, the Sauk, the Shawnee, and the Ho-Chunks, to name just a few—as well as some French trading posts and a few American forts. There were also the British, with their own forts just north of Detroit, in Canada, as well as traders and subjects of the crown living throughout the region. Kinship relations mattered far more than nationality or the place where one was settled, which was usually temporary. Native Americans and European traders tended to be highly mobile, using the network of rivers and lakes for transport and commerce. The American government referred to the region as the Northwest Territory, but Ann Durkin Keating in a recent history on Fort Dearborn, restores the name applied to it by its European inhabitants, Indian Country.

With Fort Wayne, the closest garrison, sitting a long 150 miles east, Fort Dearborn was very much alone on the edge of Indian Country. In 1810, Nathan Heald, of a distinguished New Hampshire family, became the commanding officer. He found the garrison so isolated and dull that he insisted upon taking a nine-month furlough before assuming command. When he returned to Chicago, he brought with him his new wife Rebekah Wells, whom he’d met while  stationed at Fort Wayne. Heald was thirty-seven, and his wife was twenty. The other officers and the majority of the soldiers were also in their twenties. These young people experienced a life that was rough and, as a result of military regulations, fairly routinized. Diversions were few and included trips to Lee’s Farm, on the site of the present-day neighborhood of Bridgeport, for fresh produce and game-hunting in the fall. Outside the fort sat the factory, a government-run trading post, and the office of the Indian agent, a sort of bureaucrat on the prairie, which was in charge of dispensing annuities to the various tribes as payment for ceded lands. There was also a cluster of cabins, including one belonging to John Kinzie, a British-born trader turned American citizen. Kinzie was once regarded as the “Father of Chicago,” before being replaced by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who had actually settled in the area earlier and sold his operation to Kinzie (DuSable now has the bridge named after him, but Kinzie gets a street a few blocks north of the river). Small as the community around Fort Dearborn was, the surgeon Isaac Van Voorhis wrote to a friend back East of the site’s potential:

In my solitary walks I contemplate what a great and powerful republic will yet arise in this new world. Here, I say, will be the seat of millions yet unborn; here, the asylum of oppressed millions yet to come. How composedly would I die could I be resuscitated at that bright era of American greatness—an era which I hope will announce the tidings of death to fell superstition and dread tyranny.[1]

A portion of the surgeon’s wish would come true.

In June 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain, which at the time was preoccupied fighting Napoleon. Even so, the United States was woefully underprepared for the conflict. What had in Washington been envisioned as a swift conquest of Canada ended with the capture by the British of Fort Mackinac, without a shot being fired, and later the fall of Detroit. Isolated on the frontier, Fort Dearborn received orders to evacuate from General William Hull. Heald was to march his men and as many settlers and traders as wished to accompany them east to Fort Wayne. The orders to evacuate contained a curious provision, instructing Heald to empty out the government factory, giving the Potawatomie goods in exchange for safe passage but not ammunition or alcohol, which were to be disposed of in the river. Heald followed his orders and prepared to depart on August 15th.

Even before the inhabitants at Fort Dearborn learned that war with Britain had been declared, they were on edge. In April a band of Ho-Chunks had murdered two tenants at Lee’s Farm. Then in June, John Kinzie killed Jean LaLime, Fort Dearborn’s interpreter, after a heated exchange. A man of social position and influence in Indian Country, Kinzie was absolved of any responsibility in the murder and, as a confidant of Heald’s, would urge the commanding officer to follow his orders exactly. Two events of significance occurred in the days before the evacuation. Mucktypoke, called Black Partridge, a Potawatomie leader and friend to the Americans, warned Heald that the young warriors who had agreed to provide safe passage had been angered by the destruction of the ammunition and alcohol (they were also, understandably, annoyed by the continual encroachment of American settlers upon their land and the destruction of peaceful villages, such as had occurred at Tippecanoe the previous year). Then, on August 13th, the uncle of Rebekah, Captain William Wells, arrived at Fort Dearborn in the company of an officer from Fort Wayne and thirty Miami warriors. Wells and his contingent were the only outside assistance Fort Dearborn would receive.

William Wells

If the story of Fort Dearborn has a character equivalent to a Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone, it would be William Wells. At fourteen, while playing along the Ohio River, he had been kidnapped by the Miami. They made him one of theirs, giving him a name that translated as “carrot-top” on account of his red hair, and used him as a scout and decoy in battle. He fought against the American generals Harmer and Sinclair and even his own brother Samuel, a member of a Kentucky militia, in the 1790s before changing sides and working as an interpreter for General Wayne. After the conclusion of the conflict, he took up the position of Indian agent at Fort Wayne. As the son-in-law of the great Miami leader Little Turtle, he was respected by Native Americans and invaluable to Anglo-Americans (Wells Street in Chicago is named for him; in the mid-nineteenth century, when it had become a center of vice, shame-faced city fathers renamed it “Fifth Avenue,” but the change was only temporary). He came to Fort Wayne of his own volition, in order to protect his niece. A popular legend maintains that Wells, like Black Partridge, sensed the impending danger and, on the morning of the evacuation, blackened his face in preparation for war.

Around 9:00 AM on the morning of August 15, 1812, Captain Nathan Heald led from Fort Dearborn a group of 54 soldiers, 12 militiamen, 9 women, and 18 children. They were accompanied by Wells, Corporal Walter Jordan, the Miami warriors, and about 300 Potawatomie. The caravan headed south from the fort, following the coast of Lake Michigan, today’s Michigan Avenue. Two hundred years later, on the anniversary of the battle, I retraced their path, which now takes one past numerous civic monuments and institutions, including Millennium Park and the Art Institute. Along the way, one comes across Lorado Taft’s “Fountain of the Great Lakes” and Ivan Mestrovic’s “The Bowman and the Spearman”, public sculptures that, like Hering’s “Defense”, were funded by the estate of Benjamin Ferguson, a man who’d made his money in lumber. Michigan Avenue reflects the collective vision of men like Ferguson, Aaron Montgomery Ward, and Daniel Burnham—a grand thoroughfare, lined with parks and dotted with neoclassical ornaments, befitting the Paris of the Midwest—so it takes a bit of an imaginative leap to see the site as the Fort Dearborn refugees did, barren and sandy, scoured by winds off the lake. Immense dunes, like those still found on the Indiana shoreline, divided the beach from the prairie. Not long into the march, the Potawatomie warriors split from the Fort Dearborn party and began to ascend the dunes. Near today’s Roosevelt Road, the battle began.

It didn’t last long. William Wells, riding near the front, observed the warriors laying in wait and turned around, holding up his hat and waving it in a circular motion to indicate that the caravan was surrounded. The Potawatomie warriors descended from the dunes, and Heald ordered his men into firing lines. Toward the back of the train, the twelve-man militia, made up of farmers and traders, as well as the surgeon, Van Voorhis, and the ensign, George Ronan, attempted to protect the women and the children. The militia and officers quickly fell, while a single warrior killed twelve of the eighteen children. Two of the women, fearing capture, fought back and were also killed. Wells rode to the back of the caravan to protect his niece, Rebekah, and had his horse shot out from under him. Pinned beneath the horse’s body, he continued to fight until a bullet to the head ended his life. Some warriors, knowing Wells’ history and impressed by his fighting, carved out his heart and ate it in order to ingest his courage. Heald and his men managed to fight their way to the top of one of the dunes, where they surrendered, having lost almost half of their number. Fifteen Potawatomie warriors were among the dead. Heald agreed to terms in which the survivors would be taken prisoner and ransomed for $100 each. Both the commanding officer and his wife were badly injured. John Kinzie, who had witnessed the battle but was protected by his friends among the Potawatomie, would later help the Healds escape into British hands.

Edgar S. Cameron, 1911.

The victorious Potawatomie burned Fort Dearborn to the ground. Prisoners whose wounds were too severe to permit travel were tortured to death. After a few days the others were taken in captivity to the warriors’ villages. One woman, Susan Simmons, who had witnessed the death of her husband, a soldier, and her two-year-old son, traveled with her six-month-old daughter on foot as far as Green Bay, Wisconsin. At the conclusion of her journey, she was made to run the gauntlet—the inhabitants of the village had lined up in parallel rows, brandishing sticks and clubs with which to beat her—all with the infant still in her arms. After this ordeal, an older woman, whom Simmons called her “Indian mother,” nursed mother and daughter back to health. Even before the conclusion of hostilities between the United States and Great Britain in 1814, Simmons and many of the other Fort Dearborn captives were ransomed back into American hands. Simmons and her daughter eventually made their way to family in Ohio before venturing west again, to Iowa, where large bands of the Potawatomie, displaced through a series of treaties, tried to survive as subsistence farmers. Simmons’s daughter, also named Susan, moved farther west, to California, where she died on April 27, 1900, the last Anglo-American witness to the Battle of Fort Dearborn.

In the 88 years between the battle and the death of Susan Simmons, Chicago grew to become the second largest city in the country, a center for trade and commerce, the great metropolis of the Midwest as imagined by Surgeon Van Voorhis. At the time of Simmons’s death, the battle was still referred to as a “massacre.” Simon Pokagon, the Potawatomie leader whose father had not participated in the battle and had aided the Fort Dearborn prisoners, once said that “when whites are killed, it is a massacre, when Indians are killed[,] it is a fight.”[2] Pokagon had a point. Anniversaries of the battle were rarely marked in Chicago. Acknowledgement would require addressing the city’s role in displacing native peoples, and the event wasn’t exactly a victory for Anglo-American forces. If Fort Dearborn was recalled at all, it was in connection with large civic events, like the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the 1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition, for which a scale-replica of the fort was built and occupied by Boy Scouts. The replica of Fort Dearborn stood at where 26th Street meets the lake until 1939, when it was demolished. That same year, the City Council added a fourth star to Chicago flag, raising Fort Dearborn to the status of the Great Fire and the two World’s Fairs.

Replica of Fort Dearborn at 1933-34 Century of Progress.

At the 1893 World’s Fair Simon Pokagon had been invited to reenact his father selling the land upon which Chicago was built to the federal government. That same year a statue titled “The Fort Dearborn Massacre,” paid for by palace-car magnate George Pullman, was unveiled near his mansion on Prairie Avenue, southwest of the city center, at the time believed to be the site of the conflict. The statue depicted a somewhat fictionalized scene from the battle in which Black Partridge intervenes to save the wife of one of the officers from a fatal tomahawk blow. Sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith used as models for the Native Americans, attacker and protector, two Sioux warriors who’d been taken prisoner at the Battle of Wounded Knee, a last act of resistance by the Plains Indians, which was, in fact, a massacre. The statue was later displayed at the Chicago History Museum before being removed from public view. Wherever it appears next, it awaits new and nuanced interpretation.

Carl Rohl-Smith, Fort Dearborn Massacre, 1893.

Paul Durica is a graduate student in the Department of English Language and Literature. His writing has appeared in The Chicagoan, Poetry, Tin House, Indiana Review, and other places. His Pocket Guide to Hell tours and reenactments have been written about in the New York Times, Huffington Post, The Atlantic Cities, and Vice.

[1] Quoted in Milo Milton Quaife, Checagou: From Indian Wigwam to Modern City 1673-1835 (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1933) 111.

[2] Quoted in Ann Durkin Keating, Rising up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012) 237.

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