Fort Dearborn Bicentennial


Steve Sanders, Reporter / Pam Grimes, Producer / Mike D’Angelo and Nelson Howard, Photojournalists WGN News

August 14, 2012


August 15, 2012 marks the 200thanniversary of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, a deadly hand-to-hand combat between two of the groups trying to lay claim to Chicago during the war of 1812.  But as WGN’s Steve Sanders reports, some distinguished historians are asking us to use the bi-centennial to re-think that import part of how Chicago was born.

“A lot of people don’t even realize that there was a fort here before there was a Chicago. And it was so important for the settlement of this area.” Sherry Meyer is an urban geographer and the driving force behind the Fort Dearborn bicentennial initiative.  If you’ve stood on any corner of Michigan and Wacker, you’ve stepped inside the old Fort Dearborn.  It was a small military post on an island near where the Chicago river met Lake Michigan.

“So embedded in the pavement at the intersection of Michigan and Wacker where the fort stood are bronze strips. And they outline the footprints of the fort.” And there are other reminders of Fort Dearborn there;  a landmark plaque, a skyscraper entrance, and sculptures on all four Michigan Avenue bridge houses. “All historical events occur somewhere.  So when we look at where they happened they can connect with history and understand the places that are around them.”  It’s hard to believe that 200 years ago, this was frontier country, marked only by the fort and a few homes owned by fur traders named Kinzie and Ouilmette.

Ann Durkin Keating has studied Chicago history for 30 years. She was co-editor of the “Encyclopedia of Chicago.”  And she’s just released a book on the Battle of Fort Dearborn called, “Rising up from Indian Country, The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago.” The first page describes the events following a handwritten order to evacuate the fort despite numerouks warning of an imminent attack by the Potawatamies. We asked Ann to read her account of the battle.

“On August 15, 1812, Captain Heald led the evacuation of 56 U.S. soldiers, 12 militia members, 9 women and 18 children South along Lake Michigan from Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne.   They all came under attack by 500 Potawatomie warriors, a mile-and-a-half from the fort. “The battle took place in the shadow of what is now Soldier Field, at what is now roughly 18th Street and Prairie.  52 of 95 people died, including 15 Native Americans.  American survivors were taken prisoner and later ransomed, only to return to Chicago.  And the Potawatamis burned Fort Dearborn to the ground the next day.  Durkin says it was a classic example of winning the battle, but losing the war.

“After that battle, which the Potawatomie win, despite that win, the end of the war really brings a change. And that change is that we’re moving away from Indian country and into an American era.”  She says the word massacre was used before people knew how many survived. “When Americans kill it’s a battle. When Indians kill it’s a massacre.”

She says it was also a way of rallying American support for fighting Indians. ”And I just don’t think that it’s appropriate for those of us 200 years later, particularly for those of us in history to be using a word that loaded.” Keating is sharing what she’s learned about Chicago’s culture clashes and the Battle of Fort Dearborn with other educators from across the country through these classes at the Newberry Library.  “What really makes American history unique is the frontier.”

She says these teachers can now inject Native American perspective into their own American history lessons.  The Chicago History Museum has a permanent exhibit on Fort Dearborn, complete with oak plants from a guard tower at Fort Dearborn number two.  It also provides a glimpse of life inside the fort’s walls.  “There was a tragic outcome to that day,” says urban geographer Sherry Meyer. “But that was the coming together of people of a multitude of cultures. And together we have forged this community that has international importance. And we continue to learn how to how to interact with each other.”

Sherry Meyer will publicly commemorate Fort Dearborn tomorrow morning at 9:30 at Michigan and Wacker.  The public is invited to join her on a procession to the battleground site.  You can learn about Fort Dearborn and tomorrow’s events on our website, You can find a link for Ann Keating’s book as well.

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