Wednesday, July 11, 2018

An In-Depth Analysis of the Fort Dearborn Massacre on August 15, 1812.

In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM introduces present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. Presentism is a form of cultural bias that creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. Historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present fact-based and well-researched articles.

Facts don't require one's approval or acceptance.

I present [PG-13] articles without regard to race, color, political party, or religious beliefs, including Atheism, national origin, citizenship status, gender, LGBTQ+ status, disability, military status, or educational level. What I present are facts — NOT Alternative Facts — about the subject. You won't find articles or readers' comments that spread rumors, lies, hateful statements, and people instigating arguments or fights.

When I write about the INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, I follow this historical terminology:
  • The use of old commonly used terms, disrespectful today, i.e., REDMAN or REDMEN, SAVAGES, and HALF-BREED are explained in this article.
Writing about AFRICAN-AMERICAN history, I follow these race terms:
  • "NEGRO" was the term used until the mid-1960s.
  • "BLACK" started being used in the mid-1960s.
  • "AFRICAN-AMERICAN" [Afro-American] began usage in the late 1980s.


On the issue of General William Hull's campaign hung the fate of Fort Dearborn. With the Indians, the war was a passion, their greatest pleasure and their life's business. Indians could not remain idle spectators of such a war, as had now been joined between the white races, but must be participants on one side or the other.

General William Hull
The exhortations of the Americans that the red man holds aloof from the war, which did not concern him, and let the whites fight out their own quarrel, would be heeded only on one condition. The Americans must manifest such a decided superiority over the British to convince him that theirs was the successful cause.

Both disposition and self-interest urged the Indian to take his stand on the winning side. As long as appearances led him to believe that this was the American, he would be aloof from the war since the United States did not want Indians' assistance.

On the contrary, both inclination and self-interest would lead the Indians to side with the British.

There were exceptions, of course, to these generalizations. Tecumseh's (ti-KUM-see; Shawnee Chief and Warrior) hostility to the Americans was independent of such adventitious circumstances. But with Gen. Hull triumphant (having won a battle; victorious) at Maiden, the tribes to the west of Lake Michigan would have possessed neither the courage nor the inclination to rise against the Americans. With the British flag waving over Detroit, the whole Northwest as far as the Maumee River and southern Indiana and Illinois settlements would pass under British control, as Gen. Hull pointed out to the government before the war began.

Alarming reports of Indian hostility and depredations came to Chicago (French: Chécagou; Indian: Chicagoua) during the winter of 1812. Early in March, Captain Nathan Heald received news from a Frenchman at Milwaukee of hostilities committed by the Winnebagoes on the Mississippi River.

The word "Mississippi" comes from the Ojibwe Indian Tribe (Algonquian language family) word "Messipi" or "misi-ziibi," which means "Great River" or "Gathering of Waters." French explorers, hearing the Ojibwe word for the river, recorded it in their own language with a similar pronunciation. The Potawatomi (Algonquian language family) pronounced "Mississippi" as the French said it, "Sinnissippi," which was given the meaning "Rocky Waters."

On April 6, a band of marauders believed to belong to the same tribe descended upon Chicago. Shortly before sunset, eleven Indians appeared at the farm of Russell Heacock and  Charles Lee (or Leigh) some three or four miles from the fort down the South Branch. Lee is said to have settled in Chicago about 1805, having received the contract to supply the garrison with provisions. He lived with his family a short distance southwest of the fort and ran farming operations at Lee's Place on the South Branch, later known as Hardscrabble (today's Bridgeport community). Russell was evidently Lee's partner, but aside from this fact, nothing is known about him. The farm was under the immediate superintendence of an American named Liberty White, who had lived in Chicago for some time. At the time of the descent of the marauding war party, there were three other persons, in addition to White, at the farmhouse, a soldier of the garrison named John Kelso (or Kelson), a boy whose name no one had taken the trouble to record, and a Canadian Frenchman, John B. Cardin, who had but recently come to Chicago.

Soon after the arrival of the visitors, Kelso and the boy, not liking the aspect of affairs, "cleared out" for the fort. White and Cardin, less apprehensive of a hostile disposition on the part of the Indians, remained and were shortly murdered. The former was "shockingly butchered." He was tomahawked and scalped, his face was mutilated, and his throat cut from ear to ear, and he received two balls through his body and ten knife stabs in his breast and hip. It was with reason that Capt. Heald declared him "the most horrible object I ever beheld in my life." Cardin was shot through the neck and scalped, but his body was not otherwise mutilated. It was Capt. Heald's belief that the Indians "spared him a little" out of consideration for his nationality. 

Captain Nathan Heald
Following the murder of White and Cardin, the garrison and the civilian residents of Chicago endured what may fairly be described as a state of siege for some time. The murderers were supposed to belong to the Winnebago tribe, but the commander's efforts to learn from the neighboring Indians whether the supposition was correct were in vain. Accordingly, he forbade the Indians to come to the place until he should learn to what nation the murderers belonged. John Kinzie moved his family into the fort, and all other area residents outside the garrison fortified themselves in the house formerly occupied by Charles Jouett, the Chicago Indian agent. Fifteen of those able to bear arms were organized by 
Capt. Heald into a militia company and furnished with arms and ammunition from the garrison store. Parties of savages lurked around, and the whites were forced to keep close to the fort to avoid the danger of losing their scalps. A few days after the murders, three of the militia, two half-breeds and a Frenchman, deserted, thus reducing the company membership to twelve, the number present at the time of the massacre. The deserters were believed to have gone in the direction of "Millewakii," taking ten or twelve horses with them.

On May 1, Francis Keneaum, a British subject who lived at Maiden, reached Chicago, attended by two Chippewa Indians en route to Green Bay. The party was arrested on suspicion that Keneaum was a British emissary, and he subsequently made an affidavit showing that he had been engaged by the brother-in-law of Matthew Elliot, the British Indian agent, to go on a secret mission to Robert Dickson, the most active and influential British emissary among the tribes west of Lake Michigan. The Indians had taken the precaution to conceal the letters entrusted to them in their moccasins and to bury them. After their release from detention, they proceeded on their way and delivered them to Dickson, who was passing the winter at the Fox-Wisconsin Portage. The message that Capt. Heald thus failed to intercept was from no less a person than General Brock, who was seeking to establish communication with Dickson. Due to the communication, Dickson led his northwestern bands to St. Joseph's to cooperate in the attack on Mackinac and in that descent upon Detroit, which had such a fatal effect on Gen. Hull's campaign.

We have already seen how that campaign progressed to its disastrous close and that on its issue hung the fate of Fort Dearborn and the Northwest. With so much importance near Detroit demanding his attention, Gen. Hull needed more time or thought to devote to the remote posts at Mackinac and Chicago. News of the declaration of war was received at Fort Dearborn toward the middle of July. The tradition was current in Chicago long afterward that the news was brought by Pierre Le Claire, a half-breed who figured in the negotiations for the surrender of the garrison on the day of the massacre, who walked from the mouth of the St. Joseph River to Fort Dearborn, a distance of ninety miles, in a single day. 

On July 14, Gen. Hull wrote to Eustis, the Secretary of War, that he would cause the brig, "Adams," which had been launched ten days before, to be completed and armed as soon as possible for the purpose of supplying the posts of Mackinac and Fort Dearborn with the necessary stores and provisions, if they could be obtained at Detroit. Exactly two weeks later, however, two Chippewa Indians reached Gen. Hull's camp at Sandwich, bringing news of the surrender of Mackinac. The report seemed so improbable that, at first, Gen. Hull refused to believe it, but close questioning brought forth so many circumstantial details to remove his doubt. On the same day, July 29, he wrote to the Secretary of War, "I shall immediately send an express to Fort Dearborn with orders to evacuate that post and retreat to this place or Fort Wayne, provided it can be effected with a greater prospect of safety than to remain. Capt. Heald is a judicious officer, and I shall confide much to his discretion." 

With the evacuation impending, we come upon some of the most essential questions in the history of Fort Dearborn. Gen. Hull's order for the evacuation, the demeanor of the savages around the fort immediately before the evacuation, and the relations subsisting between Capt. Heald and the officers and men under his control, the degree of sanity and sense displayed by the commander in dealing with the problematic situation that confronted him; all these things require careful consideration. In the accounts of the massacre that have been written hitherto, these matters have commonly been presented in such a way as to place the responsibility for the tragedy solely on Capt. Heald's shoulders represent his administration of affairs as stupid and incompetent to the verge of imbecility. But there are ample reasons for suspecting that these accounts, which all proceed, directly or indirectly from a common source, do Capt. Heald grave injustice. Suppose an examination of the available sources of information confirms this suspicion. In that case, it is quite a time to correct the widespread impression of the affair and does belate justice to the leader of civilization's forlorn hope on that day of savage triumph.
General Hull's Order for the Evacuation of Fort Dearborn, Dated July 29, 1812
Gen. Hull's letter to Eustis on July 29 expressed an intention to confide much in Capt. Heald's discretion in the matter of the evacuation. But his letter to Capt. Although written on the same day, Heald must fulfill this intention. The evacuation order was positive; this step was a want of provisions. Capt. Heald was also peremptorily enjoined to destroy the arms and ammunition. The only thing confided to his discretion was the disposition of the goods of the government factory, which he was authorized to give to the friendly Indians, the poor and the needy of the settlement.

Unfortunately for Capt. Heald's reputation with posterity, the evacuation order was lost to sight for almost a century. Lieutenant Helm's labored account of the massacre, written in 1814, states that the charge to Capt. Heald was "to Evacuate the Post of Fort Dearborn by the route of Detroit or Fort Wayne if Practicable." Helm's narrative, like the evacuation order, was unknown to the public for almost a century; his version of Gen. Hull's ruling, however, was preserved in the form of tradition in the family of Kinzie, the trader, to which Mrs. Helm belonged, and thus after the lapse of a third of a century it appeared in print in Mrs. Juliette Kinzie's account of the massacre which was afterward incorporated in her book, "Wau-Bun, the Early Day in the Northwest."(PDF)

Captain William Wells
The evacuation order closed with the expression by Gen. Hull of the hope, destined never to be realized, of being able to announce in his next communication the surrender of the British at Maiden. Instead, on August 8, he abandoned Sandwich and recrossed the river to Detroit. The next day, the Indian runner, Winnemac, delivered to Capt. Heald at Fort Dearborn his order for the evacuation. Gen. Hull also sent word of the intended evacuation to Fort Wayne, ordering the officers to cooperate in the movement by rendering Capt. Heald any information and assistance in their power. Consequently, Captain William Wells, the famous Indian scout, set out for Fort Dearborn at the head of thirty Miami warriors to assist in covering Capt. Heald's retreat.

The days following August 9 were filled with care and busy preparation for Capt. Heald and all the white people in and around Fort Dearborn. Their situation in the heart of the wilderness was appalling, well calculated to tax Capt.'s judgment and abilities. Heald, on whose wisdom and energy the fate of all depended, to the utmost. Apparently, Kinzie sought to dissuade Capt. Heald from obeying Gen. Hull's order to evacuate. There must be powerful reasons to justify his taking this step, yet if sufficiently convincing one about the safety of the garrison existed, it is clear that Capt. Heald should have assumed the responsibility on the ground that the order had been issued in ignorance of the facts of the situation confronting the Fort Dearborn garrison.

There were several reasons to be urged against an evacuation. The fort was well situated for defense. With the garrison, it could probably be held indefinitely against an attack by Indians alone, providing the supply of ammunition and provisions held out. The surrounding Indians outnumbered the garrison ten to one, it is true. Still, success against such odds, when the whites were sheltered behind a suitable stockade, was not unusual in the annals of border warfare. The red man possessed little taste for besieging a fortified place. If the first assault were beaten off, his lack of artillery and resolution to persevere in such a contest rendered his success improbable unless the odds were overwhelmingly in his favor or the provisions of the besieged gave out.

Moreover, whatever the odds at Fort Dearborn, the probability of making a successful defense behind the stockade's walls was immeasurably more significant than in the open country. Both Governor Edwards of Illinois and Harrison of Indiana were vigorous executives. If the fort were held, relief might reasonably be expected from the militia, which was then collected in southern Illinois and Indiana or even from Kentucky.

The situation was complicated, too, by the private interests at stake. Evacuation would mean financial ruin to Kinzie, the trader, and Lee, the farmer. Considerations Capt. Heald, of course, ignored. But the danger to the families of the soldiers and civilians clustered around the fort was more significant and appalling than to the garrison itself. There could be no thought of abandoning these helpless souls, yet attempting to convey them away with the garrison would render the retreat exceedingly slow and cumbersome. Kinzie at Chicago and Forsyth at Peoria were well known and esteemed by the resident natives, and many of these were well disposed toward the Americans; the hostile bands might be expected to disperse after a period of unsuccessful siege, and the property of the settlers and the lives of the garrison would be saved.

On the other hand, most of these things were as familiar to Gen. Hull as to Capt. Heald himself. Practically the only feature of Capt. Heald's situation, in which Gen. Hull's knowledge might be presumed deficient, concerned the number and demeanor of the Indians around Fort Dearborn. But in the provision of his order authorizing Capt. Heald to distribute the factory's goods "to the friendly Indians who may be desirous of escorting you on to Fort Wayne" clearly indicated the commanding general's will in case this contingency should be realized. Obedience to orders is the primary duty of a soldier. He may not refrain from executing the order of his superior, however ill-advised it may appear to him unless it is evident that it was issued under a misapprehension of the facts of the situation and that the commander himself, if aware of these facts, would revoke it. The truth of this proposition is so evident that it would scarcely be worthwhile to state it were it not for the fact that there has been a practically unanimous chorus of condemnation of Capt. Heald on the part of those who have hitherto written of the Fort Dearborn massacre because he acted in accordance with it and obeyed his superior's order. Capt. Heald's view of his duty is clear, both from the course he followed and from the narratives of himself and his detractors. The latter shows that he paid no attention to the protests against the evacuation made by Kinzie and others as the trader was able to influence, while in his own official report of the massacre, Capt. Heald must discuss the question of holding the fort or his reason for evacuating it further than reciting the order from Gen. Hull. 

The time until August 13 was doubtless spent in preparation for the wilderness journey, though precise details are, for the most part, wanting. Some slight indication of the commander's labors is afforded by an affidavit he made in 1817 on behalf of Kinzie and Forsyth's claims against the government for compensation for their losses in the massacre. In this, Capt. Heald stated that being ordered to evacuate Fort Dearborn and march the troops to Fort Wayne, he employed sundry horses and mules, with saddles, bridles, and other equipment, the property of Kinzie and Forsyth, to transport provisions and other necessities for the troops. On August 13, Captain Wells arrived from Fort Wayne with his thirty Miami warriors to act as an additional escort for the troops in their retreat. Probably on this day, a council was held with the Indians at which Capt. Heald announced his intention to distribute the goods among them, evacuate the fort, and stipulate for their protection upon his retreat. On the fourteenth, the goods in the factory were delivered to the Indians with a considerable quantity of provisions that could not be taken along on the retreat. The liquor stock was also destroyed, as were the surplus arms and ammunition. The one was calculated to fire the red man to deeds of madness, while for the whites to give him the other would have been to furnish him with the means for their own destruction.

To the resentment kindled among the Indians by the destruction of these stores, the immediate cause of the attack and massacre on the following day has often been ascribed. That the disappointment of the red man was keen is self-evident. Yet, for the destruction of the powder and whiskey, there would have been no attack on the garrison that seems most improbable. Capt. Heald stated under oath several years later that before the evacuation, the Indians had made "much application" to him for ammunition and expressed the opinion that for the destruction that took place, not a soul among the whites would have escaped the tomahawk. 

All was now ready for the departure, which would take place on the morning of the fifteenth. At this juncture, there came to the commander a belated warning. Black Partridge or Black Pheasant, a Peoria Lake Potawatomi chieftain, came to him with an important message that "linden birds" had been singing in his ears, and they ought to be careful on the march they were about to make. At the same time, he surrendered his medal, explaining that the young warriors were bent on mischief and probably could not be restrained.

It was now too late to withdraw from the plan of evacuating the fort, even if the commander desired to. The following day dawned warm and cloudless. The last preparations for the toilsome journey had been inside the stockade. No chronicler was present to preserve a record of the final scenes, but the imagination can find little difficulty picturing them. With all its rudeness and privation, the Chicago they were leaving was home to the little party members for some, the only one they had ever known. Here, the Lees had lived for half a dozen years; their children had been born and had passed their happy childhood. Here, the Kinzies had lived for even longer and had long since attained a relative degree of prosperity. Here, the soldiers hunted, skated, fished, and went through their monotonous routine duties until they became second nature. Here, the talented young Van Voorhis had dreamed dreams and seen visions of the teeming millions that would compose the busy civilization of this region in the distant future. In the spring of 1811, the commander had brought his beautiful Kentucky bride, the niece of Captain Wells; here, true to her ancestry, she had fallen in love with the wilderness life, and here, three months before, her life had been darkened by its first great tragedy, the loss of her first-born son, "born dead for want of a skillful Midwife." We may not know the thoughts or forebodings that filled the mind of each member of the little wilderness caravan, but doubtless, home was as dear and anxious for the future as keen to the humbler members of the party as to any of those whose names are better known. 

Without it, the representatives of another race were encamped in the marshes, prairies, and woods that stretched away from the fort to the south, west, and north. Several hundred red warriors, accompanied by their squaws and children, had gathered about the doomed garrison.

For them, doubtless, the preceding days had been filled with eager debate and anticipation. The former was concerned with the momentous question of whether to heed the advice of the Americans to remain neutral in the war between the white nations or whether to follow their natural inclination to raise the hatchet against the hated Long Knives and on behalf of their former Great Father (President of the United States). The latter had hinged about the visions of wealth hitherto undreamed of to flow from the distribution of the white man's stores among them or about the prospect, equally pleasing to the majority, of taking sweet if belated revenge for the long train of disasters and indignities they had suffered at the hands of the hated race by the slaughter of its representatives gathered here within their grasp. As day by day, the runners came from the Detroit frontier with news of the ebbing of lull's fortunes and with appeals from Tecumseh to strike a blow for their race, the peace party among them dwindled, doubtless, as did the hope of Gen. Hull's army. Now, at the critical moment, on the eve of the evacuation when, if ever, the blow must be struck, had come a final message from Tecumseh with news of Gen. Hull's retreat to Detroit and of the decisive victory of August 4 over a portion of his troops at Brownstown. The die was cast, and the garrison's fate was sealed. The warbands could no longer be restrained by the friendly chiefs, who have left the role of watching what they could not prevent and saving such of their friends as they might from destruction. 

And now the stage is set for Chicago's grimmest tragedy. Before us are the figures of her early days. Let us pause to take note of some of the actors before the curtain is lifted for the drama. John Kinzie, the trader, vigorous and forceful and shrewd, with more at stake financially than anyone else in the company, but of vastly greater importance, with a surer means of protection for the lives of himself and family in the friendship of the Indians.

Chardonnay, the half-breed, staunch friend of the Americans, whom all authorities unite in crediting with noble exertions to save the prisoners. The friendly Potawatomi chief, Alexander Robinson, was to pilot the Capt. Heald to safety at Mackinac and Chief Black Partridge, who had warned Capt. Heald of the impending attack and who soon would save the life of Mrs. Helm.

Margaret Helm, the wife of the fort’s second-in-command and stepdaughter of John Kinzie. Black Partridge is reported to have stayed the hand of a warrior about to strike Mrs. Helm, saying he himself would dispatch her. Instead, he took her to the lake and pretended to drown her for appearance’s sake, ultimately escorting her to a waiting boat where the Kinzie household took her to safety at St. Joseph, Michigan.
His intervention did not end there. Prisoners had been taken to various Indian villages, and Black Partridge was able to locate and negotiate the release of some. One of these was Lieutenant Helm, the wounded husband of Margaret Helm. Having obtained ransom from the U.S. Indian Agent, Thomas Forsyth, Black Partridge added to it personal gifts: a pony, rifle, and a gold ring. He then escorted Lieutenant Helm to St. Louis and released him to Governor William Clark (of Lewis and Clark Expedition fame).

Among the hostile leaders were Black Bird, probably the son of the chief who had assisted the Americans in plundering St. Joseph in 1781, and Nuscotnemeg, or the Mad Sturgeon, already guilty of many murders committed against the whites. There were, of course, many other chiefs of greater or lesser degree and reputation. Then there were the officers and their wives. Capt. Heald, the commander, old in experience and responsibility if not in years; his beautiful and spirited young wife, whose charm could stay the descent of the deadly tomahawk and whose bravery extorts the admiration of even her savage captors; Lieutenant Helm and his young wife, who preferred to meet the impending danger by the side of her husband. Of the younger men, Van Voorhis and Ronan, the former has left of himself a winning picture, sketched in a letter, a fragment of which has been preserved; the latter is painted in the only description we have of him in the pages of Wau Bun, as brave and spirited, but rash and overbearing and lacking a due sense of respect for his superiors in age and responsibility. These faults of youth, if, in fact, they existed, were soon to be atoned by the bravery with which he met his fate, fighting desperately to the end.

Sadder, however, than any of these was the situation of some of the humbler members of the party. That a soldier and officer should face death with composure was to be expected; that a soldier's wife should brave danger by his side was not an unknown thing in the annals of the frontier. But the officers' wives were mounted, and whatever might happen on the weary march, they were sure to receive the best care and attention the resources of the company could afford. There were, too, in their case, no children for whom to provide or worry. But what of the state of mind of those members of the Chicago "militia," who, in addition to abandoning their homes, were burdened with wives and children and inadequate means of providing for them? What of Mrs. Burns and Mrs. Simmons with their babies of a few months and the hardships of the march before them? What of the other mothers' foreboding for their loved ones? What of the wife of Fielding Corbin, with the pangs of approaching maternity upon her and the prospect of the dreary journey before her? Perhaps it was a mercy period that was so soon to be put to her trials. Finally, what of the innocent babies whose bright eyes were looking out, doubtless, in uncomprehending wonder, upon the unwonted scene of bustle and excitement around them?

With them but not of them was William Wells, the famous frontier scout, the true history of whose life surpasses fiction. Member of a prominent Kentucky family, the brother of Colonel Samuel Wells of Louisville, he was kidnapped at an early age by the Indians and adopted into the family of Little Turtle, the prominent Miami chieftain. He became a noted warrior and fought by the side of his red brothers in the campaigns of 1790 and 1791 when they defeated the armies of Harmar and St. Clair. Afterward, because of a belated consciousness of his true racial identity or of the solicitations of his white relatives and the pleading of his beautiful niece, Rebekah Wells, he threw in his lot with the whites. His fame as a scout and fighter soon became as great among them as it had formerly been with the Indians. He was a perfect master of woodcraft and of the Indian mode of warfare, and as head of a special force of scouts, he rendered the most efficient service in Wayne's campaign. 

Perhaps the most notable tribute to his character is the fact that despite this change of allegiance, he continued to retain the esteem of his former associates and that in this period of fierce rivalry between the two races, he enjoyed at one and the same time the respect and confidence of such men as Little Turtle on the one side and Anthony Wayne and William Henry Harrison on the other. After the Treaty of Greenville, Little Turtle made a speech on behalf of the Indians, expressing his satisfaction with it; in the course of which, adverting to the subject of the traders, he especially requested that Wells be stationed by the government at Fort Wayne as resident interpreter, saying that he possessed the confidence of the Indians as fully as he did that of the whites. Fort Wayne remained his place of residence for the remainder of his life, and most of the time, he served in the government Indian Department. In 1807 Capt. Heald came to Fort Wayne as commander of the post and met and wooed Rebekah, the daughter of Samuel and the favorite niece of William Wells. Now at the summons of love and duty, heedless of the danger to himself, the latter had hastened with his friendly Miamis from Fort Wayne to rescue her and assist in the retreat of the garrison. Therefore, he was present by choice rather than necessity, alone from the entire company. His arrival at Fort Dearborn on the thirteenth must have afforded the only ray of cheer and hope that came to the settlement in this time of trial and danger. 

All preparations being complete, about nine o'clock, the stockade gate was thrown open, and there issued forth the saddest procession [today's] Michigan Avenue has ever known. In the lead were a part of the Miamis and Wells, their leader, alert and watching keenly for the first signs of a hostile demonstration. In due array followed the garrison, the women and children who could walk, and the Chicago militia, the rear brought up by the remainder of the Miamis. Most of the children, being too young to walk, rode in one of the wagons, probably accompanied by one or more women. Mrs. Heald and Mrs. Helm were mounted and near or with their husbands, though each couple separated early in the combat. The other women and children were on foot around the baggage wagons, guarded by Ensign Ronan, Surgeon Van Voorhis, the soldiers who had families, and the twelve Chicago militia. 
Deadly Encounter at Fort Dearborn.
The route taken was due south, parallel with the river until its mouth was reached and then along the beach, not far, probably, from the present Michigan Avenue, for most of the land to the east has been filled in since the beginning of modern Chicago. On the right of the column moved an escort of Potawatomi. Below the mouth of the river began a row of sandhills, or ridges, which ran between the prairie and the beach, parallel to the latter and about one hundred yards distant from it. When these were reached, the soldiers continued along the beach while the Potawatomi disappeared behind the ridges to the right. The reason for this soon became apparent. When about a mile and a half had been traversed by the soldiers, Captain Wells, who with his militia was some distance in advance, discovered that the Indians had prepared an ambush for the whites and were about to attack them from their vantage point behind the bank. Aware of a favorable position for defense a short distance ahead, he rode rapidly back toward the main body to urge Capt. Heald to press forward and occupy it, swinging his hat in a circle around his head as he went as a signal that the party was surrounded. The leaders of the warriors now became visible all along the line, popping up "like turtles out of the water." With a single volley, the troops immediately charged up the bank and followed home with a bayonet charge, scattering the Indians before them. But this move proved as futile as it was brave. The Indians gave way in front only to join their fellows in another place, on the flank or in the rear, and the fight continued.

Meanwhile, deadlier combat was raging around the wagons in the rear, which we may think of as a separate battle. Here it was that the real massacre occurred in the charge up the sandhills and in the ensuing movements, the primary division of the regulars under Capt. Heald became separated from the rear division, and yet it was precisely here, where the provisions and the helpless women and children were placed, that protection was most urgently needed. The Indians, outnumbering the whites almost ten to one, swarmed around, some apparently coming from the front to share in the more straightforward contest. Here were the junior officers, Ronan and Van Voorhis, and here, obviously, Kinzie had elected to stay. Around the wagons, too, were the twelve militia, comprising the male inhabitants of the settlement capable of bearing arms, who had been organized and armed by Capt. Heald at the time of the April murders. The combat here was furious, being waged hand-to-hand in an indiscriminate melee. Fighting desperately with bayonet and musket-butt, the militia were cut down to a man. But one, Sergeant Burns, escaped instant death, and he, grievously wounded, was slaughtered an hour after the surrender by an infuriated squaw. Ronan and Van Voorhis shared their fate, as did the regular soldiers, Kinzie being the only white man on the wagons who survived. Even the soldiers' wives, armed with swords, hacked bravely away as long as they could. In the course of the melee, two of the women and most of the children were slain.

The butchery of these unfortunate innocents constitutes the saddest feature of that gory day. The measures taken to ensure their welfare were responsible for their destruction. For a while, the conflict raged hotly. A young friend broke through the defenders of the wagons, climbed into the one containing the children, and quickly tomahawked all but one of them. Of the women slain, one was Mrs. Corbin, the wife of a private soldier, who is said to have resolved never to be taken prisoner, dreading more than death the indignities she believed would be in store for her. Accordingly, she fought until she was cut to pieces. The other was Cicely, Mrs. Heald's Negro serving woman. She and her infant son, who also perished, afford two of the few instances in which we have an authentic record of Negroes being held in slavery in Chicago.

While this slaughter was happening at the wagons, Captain Wells, who had been fighting in front with the main body of troops, seems to have started back to the scene to engage in a last effort to save the women and children. His horse was wounded, and he was shot through the breast. He bade his niece farewell when his horse fell, throwing him prostrate on the ground with one leg caught under its side. Some Indians approached, and he continued to fire at them, killing one or more from his prone position. An Indian now aimed at him, seeing which Wells signed him to shoot, and his stormy career ended.

The foe paid their sincerest tribute of respect to his bravery by cutting out his heart and eating it, thinking thus to imbibe the qualities of its owner in life. Wells was the real hero of the Chicago massacre, giving his life voluntarily to save his friends. The debt Chicago owes to his memory an earlier generation sought to discharge by giving his name to one of the city's principal streets. But to its shame, a later one robbed him in large part of this honor by giving to that portion of the street that runs south of the river the inappropriate and meaningless designation of Fifth Avenue.

The close of another brave career was dramatic enough to deserve a separate mention during the battle Sergeant Hayes, who had already manifested the most incredible bravery, engaged in individual combat with an Indian. Both guns had been discharged when the Indian ran up to him with an uplifted tomahawk. Before the warrior could strike, Hayes ran his bayonet into his breast up to the socket so that he could not pull it out. In this situation, supported by the bayonet, the Indian tomahawked him, and the foemen fell dead together, the bayonet still in the red man's breast.

Meanwhile, what of Capt. Heald and the troops under his immediate direction? The Miamis had abandoned the Americans at the first sign of hostilities. After a few minutes of sharp fighting, Capt. Heald drew off with such of his men as still survived to a slight elevation on the open prairie, out of shot of the bank or any other cover. Here, he enjoyed a temporary respite, for the Indians refrained from following him, having no desire, apparently, to grapple with the regulars at close range in the open. Thus far, the fight had lasted only about fifteen minutes, yet half of the patrons had fallen, Wells and two of the officers were dead, the other two wounded, and the Americans were hopelessly beaten. The alternatives before them were to die fighting to the last or to surrender and trust the savages for mercy. After some delay, the Indians sent a half-breed interpreter, who lived near the fort and was friendly with the garrison, and who, in the commencement of the action, had gone over to the Indians in the hope of saving his life to make overtures for a surrender. Capt. Heald advanced alone toward the Indians and was met by the interpreter and the chief, Black Bird, who requested him to surrender, promising to spare the lives of the prisoners. The soldiers initially opposed the proposition, but the surrender was made after some parleying. CaptAs a further inducement to the Indians to spare the prisoners, Heald promised a ransom of one hundred dollars for everyone still living. The captives were now led back to the beach and thence along the route toward the fort over which they had passed but an hour or so before. On the way, they passed the massacre scene around the wagons. Helm is horrified at seeing the men, women, and children "lying naked with principally all their heads cut off." In passing the bodies, he thought he perceived that of his wife, with her head severed from her shoulders. The sight almost overcame him, and we may readily believe that he "now began to repent" that he had ever surrendered. He was happily surprised, however, on approaching the fort to find her alive and well, sitting crying among some squaws. She owed her preservation to the friendly Black Partridge, who had claimed her as his prisoner.

In action, the white force numbered fifty-five regulars and twelve militia in addition to Wells and Kinzie, the latter of whom did not participate in the fighting. Against these were pitted about five hundred Indians. The white men were better armed, but the Indians had the advantage of position and freedom from the encumbrance of baggage and women and children to protect. Under the circumstances, the odds were overwhelmingly in their favor, and their comparatively easy victory was but a matter of course. Their loss was estimated by Capt. Heald at about fifteen. The Americans killed in action comprised twenty-six regular soldiers, the twelve militia and Captain Wells, with two of the women and twelve children. A number of the survivors, too, were wounded.

Following the surrender came the customary scenes of savage cruelty. The friendly Indians could answer only for the prisoners in their possession. Some of the wounded were tortured to death, and it is not improbable that some prisoners were burned at the stake. The more detailed story of their fate, along with that of the other battle survivors, is reserved for the following chapter. The victors surfeited themselves with plunder and torture for the remainder of the day and the next night. 
A Potawatomi named Benac later confirmed that "the Indians cut Wells' heart out and each Indian coming along took a bite of it." John Kinzie later stated that Wells' heart was taken out cut up into small bits, distributes and eaten, that they might prove as brave as he was.
The following day, the plundering of the fort and the distribution of the prisoners were completed, the buildings were fired, and the bands set out for their several villages. The corpses on the lakeshore, bloody and mutilated, were left to the buzzards and the wolves, and over Chicago, silence and desolation reigned supreme. In March of 1813, Robert Dickson passed through Chicago on a mission to rouse the northwestern tribes against the Americans. He reported two brass cannons, one dismounted and the other on wheels but in the river. The powder magazine was in a good state of preservation, and the houses outside the fort were well constructed. He urged the Indians not to destroy them, as the British would have occasion to use them if they needed to establish a garrison here.

Twenty-nine soldiers, seven women, and six children remained alive at the close of the battle among the sand dunes to face the horrors of captivity among the Indians. These figures do not include Kinzie, the trader, and the members of his family, who were regarded as neutrals and were not welcomed by the Indians in the number of their prisoners.

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

Fort Dearborn Massacre Memorials.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Thank you for posting this. I have always heard Kinzie's version but never the story from Captain Heald's viewpoint. Very interesting information on Capt. Wells too-what a great life story!

  2. A horrible chapter in the beginning of our city. Surely worse than any other I have read of this awful event. Made me quite uncomfortable.


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