On 200th Anniversary, was Fort Dearborn clash a battle or a massacre?

09/05/2012 10:00 PM


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Members of the Potawatomi tribe gather to dedicate The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park in 2009. Potawatomi members will gather in the South Loop again this weekend.
Courtesy PDNA

It was one of the most prominent events in early Chicago history: a group of soldiers and settlers stationed at Fort Dearborn at the start of the War of 1812, evacuated the fort and headed to Fort Wayne to escape being cut off by the British.

They didn’t make it beyond the South Loop before they were ambushed by hundreds of Potawatomi Indians. Dozens were killed, far more Fort Dearborners than Native Americans.

For years, this was known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, but lately it’s been redubbed by some as the Battle of Fort Dearborn. Whatever you call it, August marked its 200th anniversary, and the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance is commemorating it this weekend at their 6th annual Festival on Prairie Avenue.

Though it’s hard to pinpoint exact locations that far back, it’s commonly agreed that the battle happened near the modern-day intersection of Prairie Avenue and 18th Street. So two years ago, when the PDNA was looking to name a park just a block over at 18th and Calumet Avenue, the clash seemed an appropriate thing to name it after.

A local Potawatomi tribe joined in for the park’s dedication in 2009, and agreed with PDNA head Tina Feldstein to come back this year.

“Back when we dedicated the park, we agreed that we would come back on the 200th anniversary and do a special commemoration,” Feldstein said. “The official anniversary was on a Wednesday [Aug. 15], but it’s hard to get a crowd together in the middle of the week. With our annual festival, it made more sense to have a built in crowd and a built-in audience.”

Feldstein and the PDNA sided with the Potawatomi in naming the park The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park. It roused controversy back then that’s come roaring back on the 200th anniversary.

“I think it’s a question of how you look at what happened. To me, we were in war. It was a declared state of war. When you look at the event, we have vague history, and the rest is just interpretation,” Feldstein said. “When natives are killed it’s a battle, when whites are killed it’s a massacre.”

John Low, a member of the Pokagon branch of the Potawatomi tribe that was involved that day 200 years ago, said Indians have enjoyed the chance to be a part of the recent discussion, and the anniversary commemoration.

“Certainly it’s more of a festival and event put on by the PDNA, but it is fantastic that they from the beginning they invited the Chicago area American Indian community to participate,” he said. “It’s part of our history and there’s no reason to be ashamed of it. We thought at the time we were fighting for what was right.”

The commemoration ceremony is at Prairie Avenue and 18th Street at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 8. A group of 1812 infantry soldier re-enactors will be there as well as a group of Potawatomi veterans and elders, among others.

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By Aviva Patt from Wicker Park
Posted: 09/11/2012 10:38 PM

The revisionists who are calling this a battle seek to redress one wrong by creating another. When armed combatants engage one another it is a battle. When armed people ambush and kill unarmed non-combatants it is a massacre.

By Robert from Dearborn Park
Posted: 09/07/2012 8:40 AM

Attacking the opposition that is in an orderly retreat that comprises many women and children is never a battle. It is a massacre. Sure the American Indians were wronged in so many ways, but lets call a spade a spade. I will not bow to political correctness. It was the Fort Dearborn Massacre.