Chicago’s War of 1812 battle was pivotal in war, history

Chicago Sun-Times

BY MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA Staff Reporter  August 12, 2012

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Battle of Fort Dearborn Park Dedication August 15, 2009.

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When the City Council passed its resolution in June establishing a “Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation” in honor of the bicentennial of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, the reference likely registered with few Chicagoans.

The little-known battle was a pivotal moment in Chicago history, but part of the largely forgotten War of 1812, say those to whom it’s more than just history.

“A lot of people don’t realize it’s the war that actually gave us real independence from England,” says Kathy Haas, 62, of Wrigleyville, a member and state historian of the Illinois Society of U.S. Daughters of 1812.

“The Fort Dearborn battle is important to us because it’s our only participation in the war here in Northern Illinois. There weren’t any other Americans in the neighborhood,” says Haas, whose ancestor, John Swift, fought in that war. “Today, Native Americans are not about to have it called a massacre, even though there were 500 Indians and not even 100 settlers and militia. I won’t talk about that.”

In 1803, when the U.S. was just 23 years old and Chicago was still wilderness — a trading frontier discovered by Jean Baptist Point du Sable — U.S. Army Capt. John Whistler arrived to build a fort named for then secretary of war Henry Dearborn.

At the mouth of the Chicago River, it was built on a parcel of land ceded to the U.S. under the Treaty of Greenville signed with Native Americans in 1795.

John Low, former executive director of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian here, and an assistant professor at Ohio State University, has a different view.

“The Battle of Fort Dearborn is best understood as a military engagement that was part of a larger armed conflict between the Americans, British, and American Indians,” says Low, who is Potawatomi. “The fact that both military and non-combatants were killed during the battle is regrettable, but it should be remembered the Potawatomi were fighting to maintain their way of life, and had been brought into the war as a result of the actions of the U.S. and British governments.”

On June 1, 1812, President James Madison declared war against Britain. Issues included trade conflicts, Britain’s forcing of American merchant sailors into its navy, and its support of Native American tribes fighting America’s northwest expansion.

The war began June 18, 1812. A month later, a British and Native American force captured Michigan’s Fort Mackinac. And a month after that, the U.S. Army ordered some 100 or more soldiers, women and children at Fort Dearborn to evacuate.

On Aug. 15, the Americans left the fort — at what now is Michigan & Wacker — headed for Indiana’s Fort Wayne. That’s when the Battle of Fort Dearborn — long known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre — occurred.

Caravanning south along the lake shore escorted by some 500 Potawatomi, they arrived at an area near 16th & Calumet, and were ambushed by their escort.

Some 60 U.S. soldiers and civilians, and some 15 Native Americans were killed, before the Americans surrendered. The victors burned Fort Dearborn to the ground.

“The typical Chicagoan isn’t aware of this major piece of our city’s history, though it’s represented by one of the four stars on the Chicago flag,” Tina Feldstein, president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, notes. Her group spearheaded Chicago’s commemoration of the battle site at 16th & Calumet. The resulting Battle of Fort Dearborn Park opened in 2009.

“Everyone agreed that unless we had Native American participation, we couldn’t move forward. That’s what took so long,” she said of the three-year effort. “We finally came to a consensus with the Potawotami on the name. It’s more important to us to focus on reconciliation than the past. Nothing is fair in love and war.”

The War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent, on Feb. 18, 1815. And by 1838, Native Americans would be forcibly removed from the region completely.

Two hundred years later, the plaque at the Battle of Fort Dearborn Park is intended to bridge relations between those who fought on both sides on Aug. 15, 1812.

“Our community has struggled to dispel the negativity cast upon us by the use of words like ‘scalping,’ ‘murdering women and children,’ that did not take into perspective that we were losing our homes and knew we were to be exterminated if we didn’t fight back,” said Butch Starrett, leader of the Ogitchedaw — warriors — of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indian Nation today based in Dowagiac, Mich.

He’ll lead a group here for a commemoration of the bicentennial on Sept. 8.

“What was settled there on the battlefield was one thing. Chicago’s efforts mean more than they know. We’ll be doing a ceremonial smudging at the Battle of Fort Dearborn Park — a blessing. It basically gets rid of all the bad medicine.”

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