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Massacre at Fort Dearborn, Chicago

Fort Dearborn (from

Fort Dearborn sits on Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive by the shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. It was near the site of the Fort Dearborn Massacre on August 15, 1812 just over a month after the War of 1812 started. The fort was built by Captain John Whistler, named after the Secretary of War at that time, Henry Dearborn and was finished in 1803. It was similar in design to earlier forts in Illinois, such that it was not a new design of fort. It had a magazine built of stone and a wooden palisade.

Even after Fort Dearborn was finished its exact location of which territory it was in was not fully understood. In 1809 the Indiana Territory was split up and Fort Dearborn changed from Indiana to Illinois Territory. This is seen by the, assumedly semi-sarcastic comment by the secretary of treasury when in 1811 he commented, ‘that he did “not know in what territory Chicago” was located.’ [1] This indicates that the area in which the fort was located was contested. This is true too due to the younger Indians that were angry at their leaders who signed the Greenville Treaty.

The Greenville Treaty of 1795 gave the U.S. more land that was originally natives’ land. The land was traded for such that it was good for both the frontiersmen at the fort and in the surrounding area and good for the natives who received as compensation a trading post where they could by European goods with the money that was paid to them for said land.

Captain John Whistler was in charge of 69 soldiers including officers, when the fort was complete. [9: 56] The people at Fort Dearborn were either those soldiers or the families of the officers, at the time of the massacre. Captain Whistler, however, was not present at the massacre nine years later. Captain John Whistler’s eventual removal from Fort Dearborn was due to Matthew Irwin who was put at Fort Dearborn to be the government hired trader with the natives, or at least those natives who were willing to trade with them. [9: 65]

Matthew Irwin wrote to Washington D.C. about Captain Whistler’s and some of his officers’ misconduct. The trading that happened at Fort Dearborn led to Captain Whistler and his officers illegally gaining and using monetary compensation for the successful trades that happened at the fort. Captain Whistler’s superiors decided that instead of prosecuting them and discharging veteran frontiersmen and soldiers that Captain Whistler would be replaced. Captain Heald was the chosen replacement for Captain Whistler. [9: 88]

Fort Dearborn’s Captain Heald

Captain Heald became the commander of Fort Dearborn in 1810. Captain Nathan Heald found “fifty-one soldiers and two officers under his command.”[9: 88] The two officers under Captain Heald’s command also happened to be two of the officers who had been charged with misconduct along with the previous fort commanding officer. Heald was under-enthusiastic about Fort Dearborn when he was reported writing to his superiors: “I am sorry to inform you I am not pleased with my situation.” He continued saying that the frontier was for, “…a man who has a family and can content himself to live so remote from the civilized part of the world.” [2] To change his view on being at Fort Dearborn he went on leave for a time. Eventually Captain Heald was in New England and rekindled an old relationship and married. [9:89] This shows that Captain Heald was not overjoyed with being on the frontier with the Indians and with less than a hundred European people surrounded by wilderness, nor was he enthralled about the military men at the fort either. “The garrison numbered about seventy-five men, very few of whom were effective.” [3] So from a firsthand account it is seen that there was definitely less than a hundred inhabitants in Fort Dearborn to begin with and there were either not many veterans at the fort during the evacuation or there were no soldiers who had seen any real action in battle. In either case they were not an effective fighting force.

Just before the massacre, Heald was ordered by General Hull to give the surrounding Indians everything in the Fort from blankets to alcohol and gunpowder. The majority of the Indians were on the fence with each other about whether or not to attack Fort Dearborn. Captain Heald disobeyed this order and dumped all the alcohol (which the Indians primarily bought from the fort) and the weapons into Fort Dearborn’s drinking well and the nearby river, giving only blankets and other items that the Indians weren’t interested in. This was not entirely unforeseen either. There had been other attacks by Indians on the frontiersmen and one of the informants in Indiana informed Captain Heald, “Chicago is the first place the Indians contemplate to attack.”[4]

This information allows one to understand at least part of the reason why the Indians attacked Fort Dearborn. They had wanted the plunder of Fort Dearborn and they were deprived of it by Heald. However, the Indians were primarily angry at the loss of their land, no matter what compensation they got in return. However, knowing that it was likely they were going to be attacked by Indians, Captain Heald would not have wanted to just give weapons and ammunition to the Indians as ordered, in case they turned on Fort Dearborn’s occupants, whether on the road or at the fort itself.

The massacre was not actually at the fort. It happened when the fort’s populace was trying to evacuate to Fort Wayne. The commandant of Fort Dearborn, Captain Nathan Heald, had received a letter from Brigadier General William Hull on August 9, 1812 to pack up and retreat to Fort Wayne, and to give the supplies of the fort to the nearby Indians. It was on the road to Fort Wayne that the soldiers and their families were attacked by Indians.

There were other attacks by Indians at Tippecanoe and other places due to unrest in the tribes. These were some of the biggest reason why Captain Heald did not follow direct orders to give away the weapons or ammunition to people who might turn against them. This decision was also a decision in which it gave the Indians enough of a reason to ambush Fort Dearborn’s occupants upon the road. The biggest reason would have been due to what James Corben stated in an interview,

“The day before we left the fort there was a council of the officers held to consult on what course should be pursued, whether we should leave the fort or not. The conduct pf the indians around us, had excited fears that all was not well; an indian that day shot at and wounded an ox that was to assist in drawing the baggage, very near the captain, and we had great fears on account of the Prophets indians who we knew were between us and Fort Wayne.” [5]

This also describes how Fort Dearborn’s occupants were accompanied by the Indians who ambushed them. The Indians were furious at the loss of the items of Fort Dearborn that they had wanted most, alcohol, weapons, and ammunition. Yet being asked to escort the occupants through other tribes’ territory to Fort Wayne provided a way for the Potawatomi and all Indians angry at the loss of their land to succeed in taking revenge for the loss of munitions, alcohol and most of all their peoples’ land to the white men.

The primary reason the Indians didn’t kill the occupants of Fort Dearborn right away is not entirely obvious until one realizes that if a battle had started right outside or inside the fort, then the occupants would have had cover to hide and fight from. Most importantly of all they would have had cannons to fire at the Indians since the fort had three cannon, two of which pointed towards the river, that is north, (away from the south gate). If the fighting had begun inside the fort then the cannons may not have been as useful since forts aren’t designed to fire their ordnance inward.

The weapons were all thrown in the well along with munitions but the cannons were too big and heavy to move effectively or throw into a well. Thus they would have been left in the fort. Without munitions, though likely means that there would have been no powder in the magazine of Fort Dearborn. Yet the occupants of the fort carried what powder they could back to Fort Wayne in their escape. Had the fighting started before all the excess ammunition was thrown into the well, the people of Fort Dearborn would have had a very good chance for surviving the massacre thanks to the three cannons.

The Massacre

The order Capt. Heald ordered prior to leaving Fort Dearborn, was likely a two pronged tactic, the first being that their excess weapons and ammunition could not be used by the enemy and secondly that the well would be contaminated with gunpowder and heavy elements such that the water supply would be bad. The alcohol at the fort was also dumped so that the enemy could not benefit from it.

When Fort Dearborn was evacuated there were Captain Heald, Captain Wells, fifty five regular soldiers, and twelve militia. The civilian populace of Fort Dearborn accompanying them included eighteen children and nine women. Accompanying the populace of the fort were fifteen Miami Indians who took the front of the evacuee train, and a band of Potawatomi all totaling five hundred Indians from the Potawatomi and Miami tribes escorting the evacuees.

The Potawatomi Indians were in a column of their own off to the side of the main evacuee train. After travelling into an area where the Potawatomi column disappeared from the evacuee train view, the Potawatomi quickly went to a preset location that they had planned beforehand where they ambushed the train. The reasons for the Indians turning against the Americans include the inability of the Indian chiefs to keep their people at peace, and the Americans not giving the Indians the stores of the fort.

The surprised evacuees fought back fervently but after only about fifteen minutes almost half of the regular soldiers were alive and all the militia had died fighting. Out of the civilians in the evacuee train, two of the nine women and twelve of the eighteen children died in the massacre. Out of the people that survived Mrs. Heald, Captain Nathan Healds wife survived along with several of the other wives.

Consequently, had the occupants of Fort Dearborn given the Indians everything from their stores, as he was ordered to, then the massacre at Fort Dearborn may never had happened. If Captain Heald gave the Indians around them all their excess ammunition and alcohol along with everything else then the Indians would have had no new reason to attack. This would have led to more tribesmen listening to the chiefs. Or had Captain Whistler, when he was commanding officer, kept his people well trained and uncorrupt then the massacre at Fort Dearborn may never had happened because the soldiers, militia, and anyone else capable of fighting would have been able to defend the evacuee train much more effectively. This means that the massacre at Fort Dearborn would have been a battle. Had both of these events changed then the massacre of Fort Dearborn would not have happened because the fort occupants would have been too highly trained and the Indians asked to escort them would not have had a reason to turn on them.

After the massacre at Fort Dearborn the Potawatomi burned down the fort, leaving only the stone magazine. A second Fort Dearborn was built on top of the ruins of the first Fort Dearborn in 1816. This second Fort Dearborn was then used as a fort as the first had been used.

A model of what the first Fort Dearborn would have looked like before it was burned down. (from

Primary Sources

  1. Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin to Secratary of War, quoted in [9: 89]
  2. Commander of Fort Dearborn Nathan Heald to General William Hull, quoted in [9: 89]
  3. Mrs. John Kinzie and Mrs. Helm to Mrs. Juliette A. Kinzie, quoted in [10: 29]
  4. Robert Forsyth to Captain Rhea, quoted in [9: 98]
  5. James Corben to State of Virginia, quoted in [11: 222].

Secondary Sources

  1. Mrs. John H. Kinsie (1844).  Narrative and references at Chicago August 15, 1812 and preceding events. Ellis & Fergus.
  2. Currey, J. Seymour (1912). The Story of Old Fort Dearborn. A.C. McCLURG & CO.
  3. Bateman, Newton & Selby, Paul (1905). Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois. Munsell Publishing Company, Chicago.
  4. Roberts, Robert B. (1988). Encyclopedia of Historic Forts: The Military, Pioneer, and Trading Posts of the United States. MacMillan Publishing Company, New York.
  5. Keating, Ann Durkin.  “Rising up from Indian Country.” Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2012.
  6. Linai T. Helm .  “The Fort Dearborn Massacre.” Rand McNally &  Company, Chicago, New York, 1912.
  7. M. M. Quaife and Thomas Forsyth.  “The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 3, No. 2.” Oxford University Press, Chicago, 1916. [p. 222].

Further Reading