Saturday, June 9, 2018

The History of the First and Second Fort Dearborn in Chicago.

Fort Dearborn was built in 1803 beside the Chicago River, in what is now Chicago, Illinois. It was constructed by troops under Captain John Whistler and named in honor of Henry Dearborn, then United States Secretary of War. The original fort was destroyed following the Battle of Fort Dearborn during the War of 1812, and a new fort was constructed on the same site in 1816.

A Jesuit mission, the Mission of the Guardian Angel, was founded somewhere in the vicinity in 1696, but was abandoned around 1700. The Fox Wars effectively closed the area to Europeans in the first part of the 18th century. The first non-native to resettle in the area may have been a trader named Guillory, who might have had a trading-post near Wolf Point on the Chicago River around 1778. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and Choctaw (an indian from the Great Lakes) built a cabin and trading post near the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1780s. Du Sable is widely regarded as Chicago's first black and non-native settler.

Antoine Ouilmette is the next recorded resident of Chicago; he claimed to have settled at the mouth of the Chicago River in July 1790.

On March 9, 1803, Henry Dearborn, the Secretary of War, wrote to Colonel Jean Hamtramck, the commandant of Detroit, instructing him to have an officer and six men survey the route from Detroit to Chicago, and to make a preliminary investigation of the situation at Chicago. Captain John Whistler was selected as commandant of the new post, and set out with six men to complete the survey. The survey completed, on July 14, 1803, a company of troops set out to make the overland journey from Detroit to Chicago.
The American Flag reportedly flown at Fort Dearborn. 1803-1812.
Whistler and his family made their way to Chicago on a schooner called the Tracy. The troops reached their destination on August 17, 1803. The Tracy was anchored about half a mile offshore, unable to enter the Chicago River due to a sandbar at its mouth. Julia Whistler, the wife of Captain Whistler's son, Lieutenant William Whistler, later related that 2000 Indians gathered to see the schooner Tracy.
The troops had completed the construction of the fort by the summer of 1804; it was a log-built fort enclosed in a double stockade, with two blockhouses. The fort was named Fort Dearborn, after U.S. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, who had commissioned its construction.
Illustration of Fort Dearborn - 1804

The Chicago River before being straightened in 1855.

Model of the first Fort Dearborn (1803-1812) from a drawing made in 1808 by Captain John Whistler. Sculpted by A. L. Van Den Berghen, 1898.

Fur trader John Kinzie arrived in Chicago in 1804 where he purchased the former house and lands of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Kinzie rapidly became the civilian leader of the small settlement that grew around the fort. In 1810 Kinzie and Whistler became embroiled in a dispute over Kinzie supplying alcohol to the Indians. In April, Whistler and other senior officers at the fort were removed; Whistler was replaced as commandant of the fort by Captain Nathan Heald.
John Kinzie's land and cabin purchased from Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in 1804. 
During the War of 1812, General William Hull ordered the evacuation of Fort Dearborn in August 1812. Heald oversaw the evacuation, but on August 15 the evacuees were ambushed along the trail by about 500 Pottawattamie Indians in the Battle of Fort Dearborn. 
The Fort Dearborn Massacre on August 15, 1812. Painting by Samuel Page
The painting represents Mrs. Helms being rescued from her would-be slayer Naunongee by Black Partridge. To her left os Surgeon Van Voorhes falling mortally wounded. Other characters depicted are Capt. William Wells, Mrs. Heald on horseback, Ensign Ronan, Mrs. Ronan, Mrs. Holt, Mr. John Kinzie, and Chief Waubunsie. In the background are Indians, the wagons containing children, and off on the lake is the boat bearing Kinzie’s family to safety.
The Pottawattamie captured Heald and his wife, Rebekah, and ransomed them to the British. Of the 148 soldiers, women, and children who evacuated the fort, 86 were killed in the ambush. The Pottawattamie burned the fort to the ground the next day.
NOTE: The account by Susan Simmons Winans (1812-1900), the last known survivor of the Chicago Fort Dearborn massacre as told to her by her mother. (Printed in the Sunday, December 27, 1896 Chicago Tribune.)
Following the war, a second Fort Dearborn was built in 1816. This fort consisted of a double wall of wooden palisades, officer and enlisted barracks, a garden, and other buildings.
Fort Dearborn as Rebuilt in 1816.
The American forces garrisoned the fort until 1823, when peace with the Indians led the garrison to be deemed redundant. This temporary abandonment lasted until 1828, when it was re-garrisoned following the outbreak of war with the Winnebago Indians. In her 1856 memoir Wau Bun, Juliette Kinzie described the fort as it appeared on her arrival in Chicago in 1831:
The fort was inclosed by high pickets, with bastions at the alternate angles. Large gates opened to the north and south, and there were small portions here and there for the accommodation of the inmates. Beyond the parade-ground which extended south of the pickets, were the company gardens, well filled with currant-bushes and young fruit-trees. The fort stood at what might naturally be supposed to be the mouth of the river, yet it was not so, for in these days the latter took a turn, sweeping round the promontory on which the fort was built, towards the south, and joined the lake about half a mile below.
The fort was closed briefly before the Black Hawk War of 1832 and by 1837, the fort was being used by the Superintendent of Harbor Works. In 1837, the fort and its reserve, including part of the land that became Grant Park, was deeded to Chicago by the Federal Government.
Fort Dearborn in 1850.
In 1855 part of the fort was demolished so that the south bank of the Chicago River could be dredged, straightening the bend in the river and widening it at this point by about 150 feet.
Fort Dearborn photograph taken in 1856.
The Chicago Fire of 1857 destroyed nearly all the remaining buildings in the fort. 

By the time of the Civil War (1861-1865) Fort Dearborn's remaining blockhouse and few surviving outbuildings were being used by the Harbor Master of Chicago. 
Wood cut from a photo taken in 1855 by Alex. Hesler, from the U. S. Marine Hospital, looking north-west, correctly represents two of the principal buildings of the Fort—the Commandant’s Quarters, A (brick, about 25×50 ft.), and the Officers’ Quarters, B (wood, about 30×60 ft,), occupying the north-west corner of the enclosure. C is the parade-ground (80×200 ft.); D is the Sutler’s; E is the north gate. The figure in the foreground is J. D. Graham, U. S. Engineer, in charge of Govt. Works, and residing in the Fort, and to his right, Mr. and Mrs. John H. Kinzie. The vessel in the river in the right is the brig Maria Hillard. The Rush-St. Ferry was used to cross the river here, and landed on the South-side at a point, indicated in this view, under the west chimney of the Commandant’s quarters; the direction of the ferry from this point to the North-side was nearly north-west; width of the channel, 225 feet.
Fort Dearborn Blockhouse and Light House in 1857.
All was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The site of Fort Dearborn is a Chicago Landmark by the Michigan–Wacker Historic District.
These are the brass markers indicating the Fort's footprint.
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.