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In 1812 a small settlement at Fort Dearborn was located on the south side of the Chicago River, near its entry point into Lake Michigan. When war erupted in June between the United States and Great Britain, Fort Dearborn was quickly threatened both by outside attack from the British and from internal dissension. The August 15 abandonment of the fort and the subsequent deaths of dozens of American soldiers and sympathizers at a scene called both the Battle of Chicago and the Fort Dearborn Massacre constitute the only military operation ever to take place at Chicago.

A frontier outpost, whose inhabitants included not only American soldiers and their families, but British allied traders, Indians, and long-established French traders, Fort Dearborn was built in 1803, named after the secretary of war Henry Dearborn. Each group of residents had extensive, intersecting networks beyond Chicago. For instance, the Potawatomi traveled, traded, and intermarried with other Potawatomi at Milwaukee and St. Joseph, along the Fox River, and south along the Illinois River. They traded with the British at Detroit and Michilimackinac, and with the French and Métis at Peoria, St. Louis, and River Raisin. They negotiated with American soldiers who came from Fort Wayne and Detroit.

When the War of 1812 broke out in June, the fragile society at Chicago was torn apart. Tecumseh called area Indians to ally with the British. Some did. Captain Nathan Heald received an order of evacuation on August 9, and four days later Captain William Wells of Fort Wayne arrived with a Miami contingent to escort the evacuees. On August 14, Heald gave a growing number of Indians all of the fort’s factory goods except arms, ammunition, and liquor. The following morning, the contingent headed south along the lakeshore. After about one and a half miles, they were attacked by a force of between 400 and 600 Indians. In under an hour 15 Indians and 52 members of the military contingent were dead. The remaining 41 returned to Fort Dearborn as prisoners, where several more lost their lives. The following morning the victorious Indians burned the fort and disbanded their prisoners.

Some of the prisoners taken by Indians were ransomed through agents at Peoria and St. Louis; others were held by the British at Michilimackinac and Detroit. Others spent months with Indian groups throughout the Midwest. Some of the French traders remained in the area. The Kinzie clan removed for a time back to Detroit. In 1816, the Americans returned, rebuilt the fort, and began to divest the area’s Indians of their land.

Simon Pokagon, son of a Potawatomi participant in the events of August 1812, criticized their designation as a massacre: “When whites are killed it is a massacre; when Indians are killed, it is a fight.”