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American fortnight: Fort Dearborn

Today’s battle is the subject of some nominative  dispute. A couple of years ago Chicago decided to commemorate the event, which is celebrated with the first star on the city’s flag, with a park naming. They named the park Battle of Fort Dearborn Park, however, there are many who believe that it should be called the Massacre of Fort Dearborn Park. And this isn’t the first modern controversy over the event; a statue of Native American Black Partridge currently lurks in storage after protests from American Indian activist groups from the 1970s through to present day.

Modern Chicago (Link Bridge Pano by mindfrieze)

In the early nineteenth century, Chicago, as it is now, sat slap bang in Potawatomi Indian territory. After the Northwest Indian War had ended in 1795, after ten years of hostilities, the land had formed part of a parcel that the Treaty of Greenville passed from the Native Americans and frontiersmen, to the United States. However, by 1803 concerns were growing amongst the United States government that there was a ‘situation’ and Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn sent a scouting mission out, with a view to establishing a fort. The new Fort Dearborn (nothing like flattering your boss) was completed in 1804.


The fort…Fort Dearborn


The man…Henry Dearborn, United States 5th Secretary of State for War

Also arriving in the neophyte Chicago in 1804 was John Kinzie, a Canadian silversmith turned fur trader. He and wife number two, (the first Mrs Kinzie having moved to Virginia without him which is a testament to what he was like to live with if nothing else), moved into the former home of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (regarded as Chicago’s first settler) at the mouth of the river. Kinzie was appointed a Justice of the Peace by the governor of Indiana territory and became a linchpin in the local community that developed around the fort.

The Kinzie home

Kinzie was not a man without some level of problems following him, it has to be said. Aside from the first Mrs Kinzie…In 1810 he and the fort commander, Captain Whistler (whose grandson was he of Whistler’s Mother fame) , had something of a disagreement over Kinzie’s supplying of the local native population with alcohol. Whistler it seems lost that argument, since he was replaced quite soon with Nathan Heald. Though Whistler faired better than Jean La Lime, a translator between the settlers and the American Indians whom, in 1812, he killed.

After killing La Lime, Kinzie fled to Milwaukee and began collaborating with pro-British Native Americans. Meanwhile Heald and the fort investigation had decided that the killing could be regarded as self defence on Kinzie’s part, and exonerated him.  Chicago, and Fort Dearborn particularly, was however on the list of United States locations that the pro-British Indians planned to attack.

As the 1812 hostilities grew, General William Hull ordered the Fort Dearborn population to evacuate for fear of an attack from the Native American tribes. To prevent the Potawatomi gaining any arsenal Heald ordered the desrtuction of the whiskey and gunpowder, and along with his men, militia and wives and children set off on the march to Fort Wayne.

General William Hull

Barely two kilometres from setting off they were attacked by the 500 strong Potawatomi and those of the settlers that were not killed, including twelve children, were taken prisoner by the attacking party.

The fearsome Tomahawk, weapon of many Native American tribes

Chief Black Partridge, a highly regarded Poatwatomi leader, and advocate of peaceful living with the American settlers saved the life of Kinzie’s stepdaughter (Kinzie himself having swiftly escaped the attack) by pretending to drown her. Though his rescue was unkindly repaid as when he returned to his lands he found his own daughter was amongst many of his villagers who had themselves been massacred.

The 1812 hostilities, borne out of everything from trade arguments with France to British support for anti-American natives, formally ended in 1815 with the Treaty of Ghent. Post war though the situation was described as status quo ante bellum, which approximately translates as “pretty much the same as it was before we started burning down each others’ houses”.

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