Fort Dearborn on the south bank of the Chicago River

What happened two centuries ago on Aug. 15, 1812, on the Lake Michigan shore near what is now 18th Street has long been called the Fort Dearborn Massacre.

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.

Political correctness?

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 invaders

The truth, however, is that, at that moment two hundred years ago, the Americans were the invaders. And, as Keating notes, Chicago was “a symbol of an imposed colonial presence.”

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.

Creation narrative

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 —,0,1083021.story

Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

No Comments

  1. Jean SmilingCoyote August 15, 2012 at 8:47 am - Reply

    I must beg to differ that ‘none of the three drastically different visions of the future was, by nature, “righter” than the others.’ We can compare them in two different ways.
    1. How are they achieved? If this doesn’t matter, then you are saying the end justifies the means. The indigenous vision was here first. The white man’s “real estate” vision was achieved through diseases, wars of [European] expansion – and a long string of broken treaties, all signed by Indians under duress and without a full understanding of their meaning, therefore invalid. The fur traders’ vision, seemingly tolerant, involved some dirty dealing and exploitation, trying to make Indians dependent on trade goods.
    2. What economy results from these visions? We know about the indigenous economies. It should be said that the fur trade was not sustainable, in that it killed animals faster than they can reproduce, resulting in large regions devoid of those furbearers and big game for a centuries. The fundamental result of the “real estate” vision is the current post-frontier Social Darwinist economy, in which employers and owners of natural resources form a cordon preventing access to the necessities of life unless the dispossessed (most of us) please them enough to persuade them to hire them for wages/salaries so they can buy the necessities. I call this “the money barrier.” Though Social Darwinism was discredited decades ago, most Americans are still Social Darwnists.
    It is said that the Europeans who came to what is now the U.S.A. sought freedom in various forms. Had they behaved as respectful guests once they encountered the aboriginal inhabitants, a melded society and culture would have evolved peacefully. This would have been the “due process” our Constitution requires in a different context.

    • Patrick T. Reardon August 18, 2012 at 10:38 am - Reply

      You make good points.

      When I wrote “righter,” I was thinking that each group saw its perspective as “right” and the others as wrong. And each could be argued today.

      You make a good argument. The colonialists had their own argument — that the Indians weren’t using the land to its fullest potential and they needed to be replaced by someone who would.

      All of this gets into world views and ways of life.

      Because my essay was focused on the battle and the misuse of the word “massacre,” I didn’t have room to all the ways in which each group saw itself as right. My point was that none of the visions could be dismissed out of hand. There were better ways to negotiate the differences in those visions than fighting and killing.

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