But it wasn’t a massacre.
It was a battle in two simultaneous wars. Some 500 Potawatomis and their allies encircled the 110 men, women and children who had marched out of Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River that morning, heading for Fort Wayne. The soldiers from the garrison formed a line and advanced on the Indians.
Sixty-eight of the Fort Dearborn contingent lost their lives in the fighting and its aftermath. Fifteen of the Indian attackers were killed.
It was a planned attack, part of a series of assaults that a pan-Indian confederacy had determined to make against forts on the outskirts of U.S. territory in late summer 1812 in an effort to push back the tide of settlers invading their land.
It also turned out to be one of the opening battles in the American-declared War of 1812 against Great Britain. The British enlisted many of the Indians around Lake Michigan as allies, and, after the war, bestowed a gold medal on Blackbird who led the attack on the Fort Dearborn soldiers and families.
All of this is laid out with great insight and detail in a newly published look at early Chicago, “Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago” by historian Ann Durkin Keating.
Keating, one of the three co-editors of the magisterial Encyclopedia of Chicago, doesn’t see the attack 200 years ago as a massacre. And neither do many historians and Native American leaders.
Yet, the effort to get rid of the term Fort Dearborn Massacre has prompted complaints from some quarters of “political correctness” and “historical revisionism,” as if it’s being done on a whim.
Words have power, however. And it’s important for us as Chicagoans to understand this core event in our history as accurately and fully as possible.
The word “massacre” was used immediately after the battle as a rallying cry for the American war effort. It led to a series of attacks by U.S. forces on Indian villages (just as the Aug. 15 battle was itself in partial revenge for an American assault on the village at Tippecanoe ten months earlier).
Calling the battle a “massacre” cast the engagement in stark black-and-white terms and demonized the Indians. Good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. Indeed, at the dedication of the Fort Dearborn Massacre sculpture in 1893, the director of the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum) described the attackers as “invaders” and “barbarians.”
The hamlet of Chicago was made up of a few homes of traders and farmers around Fort Dearborn in what was known as Indian Country. This was a vast area around Lake Michigan where the American-European world and the Indian culture co-existed, often uneasily, for the purpose of trade.
In 1812, there were three visions of the future of Indian Country:
• Indians wanted to retain their wide-open spaces where they could freely range and hunt as they had for centuries.
• American Presidents and officials wanted to take the Indian land and “turn it into real estate,” to use Keating’s phrase — land that could be bought, sold and developed.
• Trader John Kinzie and other Americans and Europeans who lived and prospered on the edge of white civilization, often marrying Indian women, wanted to keep Indian Country as it was.
Looking back from the 21st century, we may be tempted to say, well, the victory of the white civilization was inevitable. That misses the point — even if true.
The story of Fort Dearborn is a creation narrative of our city. The real story isn’t about good guys and bad guys. It isn’t about a massacre.
It’s about three groups of people with three drastically different visions of the future. It’s about how each of those visions had validity. None of the three was, by nature, “righter” than the others.
The real story of Fort Dearborn is a collision of those visions.
This is important to Chicagoans today because we live in an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city — and an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nation.
If we recognize the competing visions that were present at our city’s inception, we will have an easier time recognizing, understanding and dealing with the competing visions of our own time.
If we insist on the false and simplistic good-versus-bad view of an event 200 years ago, we’re going to have a hard time ever finding common ground.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay was originally published in the Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2012 — http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/ct-perspec-0815-dearborn-20120815,0,1083021.story