The soldiers and civilians holed up in Fort Dearborn already were jittery before the orders to evacuate arrived. A recent Indian attack to the west had sent settlers fleeing to the safety of the wooden stockade on the south bank of the Chicago River.
Outside those walls, an increasing number of Indians was assembling. The younger warriors were eager to prove themselves in battle, though more senior chiefs had offered the Americans safe conduct in return for the fort's supplies. But the Potawatomi escorts they had been promised were nowhere to be seen when 56 soldiers and about three dozen civilians abandoned the fort. Some had to have feared they were marching into a deadly trap.
John Kinzie, who operated a trading post near the fort on the Chicago River and what is now Michigan Avenue, sensed something was up and sent family members ahead by boat.
The column marched just a couple of miles south along the Lake Michigan shoreline before hundreds of Potawatomis emerged from behind a sand dune.
The encounter that followed was brutal and brief. Though a minor skirmish in a war that stretched from the heart of Europe to America's western frontier, Chicago's history was profoundly shaped 200 years ago Wednesday by those 15 minutes of intense fighting.
For the Indians, it was a Pyrrhic victory that only delayed their eventual exile farther west. For the whites, it convinced them that nomads and settlers can't live side by side.
Yet participants could scarcely guess the consequences of a clash that began when Captain Nathan Heald ordered his forces to charge the Potawatomis. That decision separated the soldiers from the wagon train bearing women and children and a militia composed of settlers who lived near the fort. Indians armed with muskets poured into the gap between the two halves of the American party, surrounding both. In hand-to-hand combat, soldiers fell under tomahawk blows and Indians were skewered by Army bayonets.
Shortly, with only a handful of troops capable of further fighting, their commander surrendered.
The captured soldiers were shocked when they were led past the wagons. Lt. Linai Helm wrote a firsthand account, noting: "When we arrived at the bank and looked down on the sand beach I was struck by the horror of men, women, and children lying naked with principally all their heads off."
Helm feared his wife was among the dead, but Margaret Helm had been rescued by Black Partridge, a chief who had opposed the attack. He dragged her to the lake and pretended to drown her.
Helm's stepfather, John Kinzie, who had Indian friends, also survived and was reunited with his family.
Militarily, Aug. 15, 1812, marked a considerable victory for the Potawatomis. Of the 56 soldiers who left the fort, 26 were killed; seven of those who surrendered were murdered, the remainder were enslaved, as were civilian survivors. Some died in captivity, the lucky ones were subsequently ransomed. The Potawatomi losses are unknown but were certainly far fewer than the Americans. The next day, the Indians burned Fort Dearborn.
Though the bloody clash took place somewhere between what's now Roosevelt Road and 18th Street, it was traditionally known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre. Recently it was renamed the Battle of Fort Dearborn, acknowledging that both sides committed atrocities in the centuries-long struggle between Native Americans and European colonizers for control of what became the United States. Already in 1899, Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi writer, observed, "When whites are killed, it is a massacre; when Indians are killed, it is a fight."
By either name, it was a classic case of winning a battle but losing the war. The Americans' loss convinced the settlers who continued to pour into the region that their Indian neighbors had to go. Fort Dearborn was rebuilt in 1816, and the Potawatomis were forced to move west of the Mississippi River, setting the stage for the rapid growth of a modern metropolis. In witness to the importance of that early white settlement, one of the four stars on the city's flag represents Fort Dearborn — built, burned and built again.
Yet that outcome could scarcely be foreseen at the time. The clash of Potawatomis and U.S. soldiers was one, small episode in a global conflict that stretched from a European continent dominated by Napoleon Bonaparte to America's western frontier. Sand dunes and woods covered what would become the Loop. The future Magnificent Mile had but one emporium, Kinzie's trading post. The site of Millennium Park was under water, the shoreline being then farther west. Heald, who commanded Fort Dearborn in 1812, described the place as a tranquil Eden, "so remote from the civilized part of the world."
Half a world away, Great Britain and France were locked in a long struggle, like two boxers, each lacking a knockout punch. Napoleon's armies had conquered mainland Europe; the British navy ruled the seas. Frustrated militarily, both sides resorted to economic warfare, each imposing a blockade on the other. As a neutral party, the United States claimed a right to continue trading with France, which the British forbade. They also stopped American ships, seizing any British-born sailors aboard.
Frustrated by those insults to its sovereignty, the U.S. declared war and invaded Canada, which had remained loyal to Britain when the Americans declared their independence, 36 years earlier. The British mounted a counterattack, burning Washington. But lacking the resources to open a second front in the American interior with their forces alone, they recruited Indian tribes by appealing to their sense of having suffered grievously at the Americans' hands. It resonated with many, hard-pressed by the inexorable movement of settlers into their hunting grounds and the corrosive effect of contact with the whites' culture.
In the spring of 1812, the famous chief Black Hawk articulated a question many Indians asked themselves: "Why did the Great Spirit ever send the whites to this island, to drive us from our homes, and introduce among us poisonous liquors, disease and death?"
That message echoed the preaching of a messianic Indian leader, the Prophet, who was traveling widely among the tribes. "The Great Spirit told me to tell the Indians that he had made them and made the world — that he had placed them in it to do good," he said. As for the Americans: "They grew from the scum of the great water."
When the War of 1812 came, theU.S. Army was determined to shorten its defensive perimeter, and orders to that effect were sent to Fort Dearborn by Gen. William Hull, commander at Detroit. Afterward, Hull claimed the order was to evacuate, if it was safe to do so; while Heald claimed he was simply told to proceed to Detroit. Either way, the orders arrived at the fort simultaneously with 500 Indian warriors, who had learned about the evacuation.
Some senior chiefs opposed attacking the garrison, but one brave, Nuscotnumeg, argued: "Now's the time — we have them within our grasp; we must kill them all." Then news arrived that the British had captured Fort Mackinac, which carried the day for the young warriors' argument to attack — and sealed the fate of the Fort Dearborn community when it set out for Fort Wayne, the first leg of its trip, on Aug. 15.
The site of that tragedy is now covered by a man-made forest of postmodern high-rises along Lake Shore Drive just west of Soldier Field. In the middle is a bit of green, the Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, a bucolic oasis reminiscent of Captain Heald's description of Fort Dearborn before the war. It's a fitting place to sit and contemplate the bewildering mixture of human experiences — suffering and heroism, one people's good fortune, another's exile — that underlies Chicago's history and skyline.
And perhaps, also, an apt place to ponder the epilogue to the story of the Fort Dearborn party. In 1835, the Potawatomis assembled in Chicago to receive the final payment due them from the U.S. government for agreeing to move westward. Before leaving, 500 warriors in full regalia and brandishing tomahawks lined up in a procession that snaked through what had already become an urban landscape of hotels and warehouses — and, of course, the rebuilt Fort Dearborn.
One eyewitness, Judge John D. Caton, described it in a lecture to Chicagoans years later:
"It was the last war dance ever performed by the natives on the ground where now stands this great city, though how many thousands had preceded it no one can tell. They appreciated that it was the last on their native soil — that it was a sort of funeral ceremony of old associations and memories."
Editor's note: Thanks to Cord Scott of Oak Park and Rev. John McNalis, assistant chaplain for the Chicago Fire Department, for suggesting this Flashback.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun