It may not have been a cold morning in April 1803, when Captain John Whistler climbed a sand dune around which the sluggish Chicago River tried to reach Lake Michigan but chances are it was. A chilling wind would have been a characteristic greeting from the landscape that Whistler had come to change. His orders had been to take six soldiers from the 1st U.S. Infantry, survey a road from Detroit to the mouth of the river, and draw up plans for a fort at this location. The British had also planned to build a fort at the entrance to the Chicago River but Whistler managed to beat them to the site. One has to wonder how the city might be different today if the British had managed to show up first.
Captain Whistler’s family was spared the arduous trek over erratic Indian trails to the Chicago River. While the troops marched on foot, the captain and his brood boarded the U.S. schooner Tracy, which also carried artillery and camp equipment. It sailed to the mouth of the St. Joseph River, where it met the troops. The Whistler family took one of the Tracy’s rowboats to the Chicago River, while the troops marched around the lake.
There were 69 officers and men in the contingent that had the task of building Fort Dearborn, which was named in honor of Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, a man who would go on to be considered one of the most inept leaders in American history. During the War of 1812, Dearborn was placed in command of all the American troops between Lake Erie and the Atlantic. He tried to capture Montreal, but his troops were so disorganized that they never even made it across the Canadian border. Dearborn was finally relieved of his command by President James Madison in 1813 after he narrowly avoided being court-martialed. In spite of this, a number of Chicago parks and developments were named in his honor, leading author Norman Mark to refer to him as “an example of one of history’s most successful failures.”
The hill on which Fort Dearborn was built was eight feet above the Chicago River. The water curved around it and, stopped from flowing into a lake by a sandbar, ran south until it found an outlet. To this spot, the soldiers hauled the wood that had been cut along the north bank. The fort was a simple stockade built of logs, which were placed in the ground and then sharpened along the upper end to discourage attackers. The outer stockade was a solid wall with an entrance in the southern section blocked with heavy gates. An underground exit was located on the north side. As time went on, the soldiers built barracks, officers’ quarters, a guardhouse and a small powder magazine made from brick. West of the fort, they constructed a two-story log building, with split-oak siding, to serve as an Indian agency, and between this structure and the fort they placed root cellars. South of the fort, the land was enclosed for a garden. Blockhouses were added at two corners of the fort and three pieces of light artillery were mounted at the walls. The fort offered substantial protection for the soldiers garrisoned there but they would later learn that it was not enough.
When the War of 1812 unleashed the fury of the Native Americans on the western frontier, the city of Chicago almost ceased to exist before it got a chance to get started. On August 15, 1812, the garrison at Fort Dearborn evacuated its post and, with women in children in tow, attempted to march to safety. But it was overwhelmed and wiped out, in a wave of bloodshed and fire, after traveling less than a mile. The story of the massacre will be repeated for as long as Chicago continues to stand and marks not only the deadliest event in the history of the city but also serves as one of American history’s great disasters.
At the start of the War of 1812, tensions in the wilderness began to rise. British troops came to the American frontier, spreading liquor and discontent among the Indian tribes, especially the Potawatomi, the Wyandot and the Winnebago, near Fort Dearborn. In April, an Indian raid occurred on the Lee farm, near the bend in the river (where present-day Racine Avenue meets the river) and two men were killed. After that, the fort became a refuge for many of the settlers and a growing cause of unrest for the local Indians. When war was declared that summer, and the British captured the American garrison at Mackinac, it was decided that Fort Dearborn could not be held and that it should be evacuated.
General William Hull, the American commander in the Northwest, issued orders to Captain Nathan Heald through Indian agent officers. He was told that the fort was to be abandoned; arms and ammunition destroyed and all goods were to be distributed to friendly Indians. Hull also sent a message to Fort Wayne, which sent Captain William Wells and a contingent of allied Miami Indians toward Fort Dearborn to assist with the evacuation.
There is no dispute about whether or not General Hull gave the order, nor that Captain Heald received it, but some have wondered if perhaps Hull’s instruction, or his handwriting, was not clear because Heald waited eight days before acting on it. During that time, Heald argued with his officers, with John Kinzie, a settlement trader who opposed the evacuation, and with local Indians, one of whom fired off a rifle in the commanding officer's quarters.
The delay managed to give the hostile Indians time to gather outside the fort. They assembled there in an almost siege-like state and Heald realized that he was going to have to bargain with them if the occupants of Fort Dearborn were going to safely reach Fort Wayne. On August 13, all of the blankets, trading items and calico cloth were given out and Heald held several councils with Indian leaders, which his junior officers refused to attend.
Eventually, an agreement was reached that had the Indians allowing safe conduct for the soldiers and settlers to Fort Wayne in Indiana. Part of the agreement was that Heald would leave the arms and ammunition in the fort for the Indians, but his officers disagreed. Alarmed, they questioned the wisdom of handing out guns and ammunition that could easily be turned against them. Heald reluctantly went along with them and the extra weapons and ammunition were broken apart and dumped into an abandoned well. Only 25 rounds of ammunition were saved for each man. As an added bit of insurance, all of the liquor barrels were smashed and the contents were poured into the river during the night. Some would later claim that Heald’s broken promise was what prompted the massacre that followed.
On August 14, Captain William Wells and his Miami allies arrived at the fort. Wells has largely been forgotten today (aside from the Chicago street that bears his name) but at the time, he was a frontier legend among soldiers, Native Americans and settlers in the Northwest Territory. Born in 1770, he was living in Kentucky in 1784 when he was kidnapped by a raiding party of Miami Indians. Wells was adopted into the tribe, took a Miami name – Apekonit, or “Carrot Top” for his red hair – and earned a reputation as a fierce warrior. He married into the tribe and his wife, Wakapanke (“Sweet Breeze”) was the daughter of the great Miami leader, Little Turtle. The couple eventually had four children and remained together even after Wells left the Miami and settled at Fort Wayne as the government’s Indian agent.
When Wells received word from General Hull about the evacuation of Fort Dearborn, he went straight to Chicago. His niece, Rebekah, was married to the fort’s commander, Captain Heald. But even the arrival of the frontiersman and his loyal Miami warriors would not save the lives of those trapped inside Fort Dearborn.
Throughout the night of August 14, wagons were loaded for travel and the reserve ammunition was distributed. Late in the evening, Captain Heald received a visitor, a Potawatomi named Mucktypoke (“Black Partridge”), who had long been an ally to the Americans. He knew that he could no longer hold back the anger of his fellow tribesmen and he sadly gave back to Heald the medal of friendship that had been given to him by the U.S. government. He explained to Heald, “I will not wear a token of peace while I am compelled to act as an enemy.”
Heald had fair warning that the occupants of Fort Dearborn were in great danger.
Early the next day, a hot and sunny Saturday morning, the procession of soldiers, civilians, women, and children left the fort. Leading the way was William Wells, riding a thoroughbred horse. Wells, in honor of his Miami heritage, had painted his face black. He was now a warrior prepared for battle – and for death.
A group of fifteen Miami warriors trailed behind him and they were followed the infantry soldiers, a caravan of wagons and mounted men. More of the Miami Indians guarded the rear of the column. The procession included 55 soldiers, twelve militiamen, nine women and eighteen children. Some of the women were on horseback and most of the children rode in two wagons. Two fife players and two drummers played a tune that history has since forgotten, perhaps marching music to inspire the exodus.
The column of soldiers and settlers was escorted by nearly five hundred Potawatomi and Winnebago Indians. In 1812, the main branch of the Chicago River did not follow a straight course into Lake Michigan. Instead, just east of the fort, it curved to the south, struggled around the sand dunes, and then emptied into the lake. The shoreline of the lake was then much closer to the present-day line of Michigan Avenue. The column from Fort Dearborn marched southward and into a low range of sand hills (near what is now Roosevelt Road) that separated the beaches of Lake Michigan from the prairie. As they did so, the Potawatomi moved to the right, placing an elevation of sand between them and the column. They were now mainly hidden from view.
The procession traveled to an area where 16th Street and Indiana Avenue are now located. There was a sudden milling about of the scouts at the front of the line and suddenly a shout came back from Captain Wells that the Indians were attacking. Captain Heald ordered his troops to charge and the soldiers scurried up the dunes with bayonets fixed, breaking the Potawatomi line. The Indians fell back, allowed the soldiers in, and then enveloped them. Soldiers fell immediately and the line collapsed. Eventually, the remaining men retreated to the shoreline, making a defensive stand on a high piece of ground, but the Potawatomi overwhelmed them with sheer numbers.
Aware of the slaughter taking place at the wagons, William Wells rushed to the aid of the women and children. Overcome by the massive number of Potawatomi, he never made it. Wells was said to have fought more than one hundred Indians, single-handed and on horseback. He shot and hacked at them until his horse fell beneath him. Indians pounced on him and killed him in the sand. One Potawatomi took Wells’ scalp, while another cut out his heart, divided it into small pieces and gave them to other warriors. Honoring the slain hero, and hoping to gain a small amount of his great courage, they ate the heart of William Wells.
Then a Potawatomi attacked Margaret Helm, the wife of the fort’s lieutenant. As the two fought, a second Potawatomi joined the fight, seized Mrs. Helm, and dragged her into the lake, where he proceeded to drown her – or that was how it appeared. The second warrior was Black Partridge, a close friend of Lieutenant Helm. The pretend drowning was actually a ruse to save her life.
Although it must have seemed much longer, the battle was over in less than fifteen minutes. Captain Heald, who had been wounded twice in the fighting and would walk with a cane for the rest of his life, agreed to parlay with Potawatomi chief Black Bird. After receiving assurances that the survivors would be spared, Heald agreed to surrender. Sixty-seven people had lost their lives in the massacre: William Wells, 25 army regulars, all twelve militiamen, twelve children, two women and fifteen Potawatomi.
The surrender that was arranged by Captain Heald did not apply to the wounded and it is said that the Indians tortured them throughout the night and then left their bodies on the sand next to those who had already fallen.
Many of the other survivors suffered terribly. The Potawatomi divided up the prisoners and most were eventually ransomed and returned to their families. Others did not fare so well. One man was tomahawked when he could not keep pace with the rest of the group being marched away from the massacre site. A baby who cried too much during the march was tied to a tree and left to starve. Mrs. Isabella Cooper was scalped before being rescued by an Indian woman. She had a small bald spot on her head for the rest of her life. Another man froze to death that winter, while Mrs. John Simmons and her daughter were forced to run a gauntlet, which both survived. In fact, the girl turned out to be the last survivor of the massacre, dying in 1900.
Captain Heald, along with his wife, was also taken prisoner. He and Rebekah were taken to Fort Mackinac and were turned over to the British commander there. He sent them to Detroit, where they were exchanged with the American authorities.
After the carnage, the victorious Indians burned Fort Dearborn to the ground and the bodies of the massacre victims were left where they had fallen, scattered to decay on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan. When replacement troops arrived at the site a year later, they were greeted with not only the burned-out shell of the fort, but also the grinning skeletons of their predecessors. In 1816, the bodies were finally given a proper burial, likely around present-day Prairie Avenue and 17th Street, and the fort was rebuilt. Twenty years later, it was finally abandoned when the city of Chicago was able to fend for itself.
The horrific Fort Dearborn Massacre is believed to have spawned its share of ghostly tales. The actual site of the massacre was quiet for many years, long after Chicago grew into a sizable city. However, construction in the early 1980s unearthed a number of human bones around 16th Street and Indiana Avenue. First thought to be victims of a cholera epidemic in the 1840s, the remains were later dated more closely to the early 1800s. Due to their location, they were believed to be the bones of the massacre victims.
The remains were reburied elsewhere but within a few weeks, people began to report the semi-transparent figures of people wearing pioneer clothing and outdated military uniforms wandering around an empty lot that was just north of 16th Street. The apparitions reportedly ran about in terror, silently screaming. The most frequent witnesses to these nocturnal wanderings were bus drivers who returned their vehicles to a garage that was located nearby, prompting rumors to spread throughout the city.
In recent times, the area has been largely filled with new homes and condominiums and the once-empty lot where the remains were discovered is no longer vacant. But this does not seem to keep the victims of the massacre in their graves. Current paranormal reports from the immediate area often tell of specters dressed in period clothing, suggesting that the unlucky settlers of early Chicago do not rest in peace.