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The Battle of Fort Dearborn

Updated on October 17, 2011
An original drawing of the first fort on the site of the Fort Dearborn Massacre.
An original drawing of the first fort on the site of the Fort Dearborn Massacre.

When most people think about Indian Massacres, they imagine the Wild West. But one of the most significant and little known massacres occurred in a piece of land in what is now the lakeshore of Lake Michigan in what is now downtown Chicago.

As part of a 1795 treaty, the American government took a piece of land near the Chicago River. There a fort was built under the direction of Captain John Whistler and named for then secretary of war, Henry Dearborn. American soldiers and their families, including Whistler’s wife resided at the fort.

A short distance from their was a small trading post owned and operated by John Kinzie, who, with this family, regularly and fairly with the Indians.

Due to its distance from other forts, the fort inhabitants were a rather rag tag bunch, many past their prime and affected by poor discipline and training.

In August 1812, the American force evacuated Fort Dearborn. To this day the reason for the evacuation has been disputed. A messenger brought to Whistler a letter of directions from his commanding officer. While Whistler told those under his command that the letter ordered the evacuation under every circumstances, while others later stated that the letter stated that the evacuation was dependent on Whistler’s decision.

For days prior to the evacuation, masses of Native Americans, grouped nearby. Emissaries from the fort met with the Indians and promised the Indians they would leave the entire fort for them, if the Indians would promise to allow the retreating column to pass without harassment. However, both sides lied. While the Indians quietly plotted to take over the fort, the soldiers began to quietly dispose of all of the gunpowder and liquor in the fort. Alcohol was poured a passing creek and the gunpowder dumped into an interior well.

However, as the soldiers prepared to evacuate the fort and travel to a fort in Indiana, 500 Indians attacked the column, including soldiers, women and children, horses, foot soldiers and wagons.

Even as the attack took place, others, including women and children, raided the fort, removing everything of value then burning it to the ground.

However, Kinzie, who had loaded his family and servants onto a boat, was held temporarily, and then released because of his fair trading history.

Today, a bronze marker in the pavement at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive marks the approximate site. In 18162, another fort was built on the site. That fort was decommissioned in 1837, and then the last remains were destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Of the 148 soldiers, women and children who evacuated the fort, 86 were killed. Most of the rest who were captured were given over to the handful of families of Indians killed in the attack as compensation.

While the story of the Battle of Fort Dearborn has been written, disputed and rewritten, it has also found a serious place on Chicago history. The in 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, a replica of the fort was built on the fair grounds. The flag of Chicago contained four stars, each representing a significant event in Chicago’s history. One star signifies the destruction of Fort Dearborn. In1971, the land was designated a Chicago landmark.


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    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 6 years ago from Illinois

      Interesting. It's amazing how much history is right in our own towns and we don't always realize it. I'm working on several hubs right now about Alton's connection to Lincoln and the civil war.

      Nicely done.

    • Winter Maclen profile image

      Chris 6 years ago from Illinois

      Thanks for taking the time to read it. In Chicago it used to be called the Massacre of Fort Dearborn, but in the 1990's it was changed to the Battle of Fort Dearborn, because people thought it was politically incorrect that only the Indians were blamed.

    • Nick Burchett profile image

      Nick Burchett 6 years ago from IL, MO & KS

      Informative and interesting. Great hub!