Massacre at Fort Dearborn
Chicago 1812

A Narrative

In the evening of the 7th of April, 1812, the children of Mr. Kinzie were dancing before the fire to the music of their father's violin. The tea-table was spread, and they were awaiting the return of their mother, who had gone to visit a sick neighbor. Suddenly the door was thrown open, and Mrs. Kinzie rushed in, pale with terror, and scarcely able to articulate. It was with difficulty that she composed herself sufficiently to give the necessary information that the Indians were up at Lee's place, killing and scalping all before them, and that while she was at Burns's a man and boy were seen running on the opposite side of the river with all speed, and called across to give notice to Burns's people to save themselves, for the Indians were already at Lee's place, from which they had escaped. Having given this terrible news, they had made all possible speed for the fort, which was on the same side of the river.

All was now consternation and dismay. The family were hurried into two old pirogues that were moored near the house, and hastened across the river, to take refuge in the fort. The man and boy, on arriving at the fort, were scarce able to give a coherent account of the scene of action; but in order to render their story more intelligible, we will describe Lee's place, since known by the name of Hardscrabble. It was a farm intersected by the Chicago River, about four miles from its mouth. The farm-house stood on the western bank of the south branch of this river. On the same side of the main stream, but quite near its junction with Lake Michigan, stood the dwelling-house and trading establishment of Mr. Kinzie.

The fort was situated on the southern bank, directly opposite. This fort was differently constructed from the one erected on the same site in 1816. It had two block-houses on the southern side, and on the northern a sally-port, or a subterranean passage from the parade-ground to the river. This was designed as a means of escape in case of danger, or that the garrison might be supplied with water during a siege. The officers were Capt. Heald, Lieut. H., the son-in-law of Mr. Kinzie, and Ensign Konan — the two last very young men — the Surgeon, Dr. Van Voorhies, and seventy-five men, very few of whom were effective.

In the Spring preceding the destruction of the fort, two Indians of the Calumet band came to the fort on a visit to the commanding officer. As they passed through the quarters, they saw Mrs. Heald and another lady, wives of the officers, playing at battledore. Turning to the interpreter, one of them, Nanmongee, said: "The white chiefs' wives are amusing themselves very much; it will not be long before they are hoeing in our cornfields." This was considered, at the time, an idle threat — a mere ebullition of jealous feeling at the contrast between the situation of their own women and those of the white people.

Some months afterward how bitterly was this remembered!

In the afternoon of the day on which this narrative commences, a party of ten or twelve Indians, dressed and painted, arrived at the house, and, according to the custom among savages, entered and seated themselves without ceremony. Something in their appearance and manner excited the suspicion of one of the family, a Frenchman, who remarked: "I do not like their appearance; they are none of our folks; I know by their dress and paint, they are not Pottawotamies." Another of the family, a discharged soldier, then said to the boy who was present: "If that is the case, we had better get away from here if we can. Say nothing, but do as you see me do." The soldier then walked leisurely toward the canoes, which were tied near the bank.

An Indian asked where he was going. He pointed to the cattle and some stacks of hay which were standing on the opposite side of the stream, and made signs that he must go and fodder the cattle, and afterward they would return and get their supper. He got into one canoe and the boy into the other, and they were soon across. They pulled some hay for the cattle, and made a show of collecting the cattle by a gradual circuit, till their movements were concealed by the hay-stacks, and then ran for the woods, which were close at hand. They had run only about a quarter of a mile, when they heard the discharge of two guns, which they supposed had been leveled at those they had left behind. They hastened on with all speed till they arrived opposite the house of Mr. Burns, where, as before stated, they called across the stream to warn the family of their danger. When these two arrived at the fort some of the soldiers were absent, having had leave that afternoon to go out on a fishing excursion. The commanding officer immediately ordered a cannon to be fired, that they might be warned of their danger. The soldiers were at this time two miles above Lee's place. Hearing the signal, they immediately put out their torches, for it was now dark, and dropped down the river toward the garrison as silently as possible. As they passed Lee's place it was proposed that they should go in and tell the family that the signal from the fort meant danger. Every thing was still as death; they groped their way along, and as one of them jumped into the small inclosure that surrounded the house he placed his hand on the dead body of a man. By passing his hand over the head he ascertained that it had been scalped.

They then hastened back to their canoes, and reached the fort unmolested. The next morning it was proposed at the fort that a body of men, soldiers and citizens, should go to Lee's place to learn the fate of its occupants. The two men were found dead and much mutilated, with their faithful dogs beside them. Their bodies were brought to the fort and buried. The inmates at the fort received no further alarm for several weeks.

It was on the afternoon of the 7th of August that a Pottawotamie chief arrived at the fort, bringing dispatches from General Hull, announcing the declaration of war between the United States and Great Britain, that General Hull was at the head of our army at Detroit, and that the island of Mackinaw had fallen into the hands of the British. Captain Heald was ordered to evacuate the fort, if practicable, and in that event to distribute all the United States property in and around the fort among the Indians in the immediate neighborhood.

After the Indian had done his errand, he requested a private interview with Mr. Kinzie, who had taken up his residence at the fort. The Indian wished him to ascertain if it was Captain Heald's purpose to leave the fort, and strongly advised against any such measure, proposing that they remain till a reenforcement would be sent to their assistance; and at the same time, should they conclude to go, advising the best route and offering what help he could. Mr. Kinzie immediately acquainted Capt. Heald with the Indian's friendly communication, also throwing in the weight of his own advice to remain at the fort, inasmuch as they were supplied with provisions and ammunition for six months.

Capt. Heald replied that he should obey orders and evacuate the fort; but since he must divide the United States property, he should remain there till he had called the Indians together and made an equitable division among them. The Indian chief then suggested the expediency of marching out and leaving all things standing as they were; and that possibly while the Indians were engaged in the dividing of the spoils, the troops might effect their retreat unmolested. This advice was strongly seconded by Mr. Kinzie, but did not meet the approbation of the commanding officer.

However, as it was highly improbable that the command would be permitted to pass through the country in safety to Fort Wayne; and their march must be slow to accommodate the helplessness of the women and children — some of the soldiers being superannuated and others invalid; and since the order was left discretionary, it was the unanimous advice to remain where they were, and fortify themselves as best they could. It was further argued that aid might arrive from the other side of the peninsula before they could be attacked by the British from Mackinaw; and even should it not come, it was better to fall into their hands than to become victims to the savages. Capt. Heald replied that a special order had been issued by the War Department that no post should be surrendered without battle having been given; that his force was totally inadequate to an engagement, and that he should unquestionably be censured for remaining, when there appeared a prospect of a safe march through; upon the whole, he deemed it expedient to assemble the Indians, distribute the property among them, and ask them for an escort to Fort Wayne, with a promise of a considerable reward upon their safe arrival — adding that he had full confidence in the friendly professions of the Indians.

From this time, the other officers held themselves aloof, and spoke but little upon the subject, although they considered the project of Capt. Heald as little short of madness. This dissatisfaction among the soldiers hourly increased, till it reached a high pitch of insubordination. The Indians now became daily more unruly, entering the fort in defiance of the sentinels; making their way without ceremony into the officers' quarters; showing in many ways open defiance.

Thus passed the time till the 12th of August, on the afternoon of which day, the Indians having assembled from the neighboring villages, a council was held. Capt. Heald only attended; his officers declining his request for them to accompany him, as they had been secretly informed that it was the intention of the young chiefs to fall upon the officers and kill them while in council. Capt. Heald could not be persuaded that this was true. The officers only waited till he in company with Mr. Kinzie had left the garrison, and then they took command of the block-house which overlooked the esplanade on which the council was held. They opened the portholes, and pointed the cannon so as to command the whole assembly. By this means the lives of the whites in council were probably preserved.

In council Capt. Heald told the Indians that the goods at the factory, and also the provisions and ammunition, were to be distributed among them the next day. He then requested an escort of the Pottawotamies to Fort Wayne, offering them liberal rewards when they arrived there, and making many professions of kindness and good-will toward them. The savages promised all he required; but Mr. Kinzie, who understood their character well, still advised the Captain to remain, and used every effort to open his eyes to the bad state of feeling that really existed among the Indians.

He reminded him that since the troubles with the Indians on the Wabash, there had been a settled purpose of hostilities toward the whites, in consequence of which it had been the policy of Americans to withhold all fire-arms and ammunition, or whatever would enable them to carry on their warfare upon the defenseless inhabitants on the frontier. Capt. Heald now seemed to consider that he was furnishing the enemy with arms against himself, and determined to destroy all the ammunition except what should be necessary for the use of his own troops. The Indians suspected what was going on, and crept stealthily as near the scene of action as possible; but a vigilant watch was kept up, and no one was suffered to approach except those who were engaged in the affair. On the 14th of August some relief to the general despondency was afforded by the arrival of Captain Wells with fifteen friendly Miamis. He had at Fort Wayne heard of the order for evacuating the fort at Chicago, and knowing the hostile determination of the Pottawotamies, had made a rapid march across the country to prevent the exposure of his relative, Captain Heald, and his troops to certain destruction. But he came too late. When he reached the post he found that the ammunition had been destroyed and the provisions given to the Indians. Captain Wells, when a boy, was stolen by the Indians from the family of Hon. Nathaniel Pope, in Kentucky. Although recovered by them some time after, he preferred to return and live among the Indians. He married a Miami woman, and became chief of that nation. He was the father of the late Mrs. Judge Wolcott, Maumee, Ohio.


Every preparation was made for the march of the troops on the following morning, but, notwithstanding the precautions that had been taken to preserve secrecy, the noise made in knocking in the heads of the barrels had betrayed their operations. So great was the quantity of liquor thrown into the river that the taste of the water next morning was, as one expressed it, like strong grog. Among the chiefs, although they shared in the general hostile feelings of the tribe toward Americans, there remained a strong personal regard for the troops at this fort and a few white citizens of the place. These chiefs used their utmost influence to allay the revengeful feelings of the young men, and to avert their bloody designs, but without effect.

On the evening after the council Black Partridge, a conspicuous chief, entered the quarters of the commanding officer. "Father," said he, "I come to deliver up to you the medal I wear. It was given me by your people. I have long worn it as a token of our mutual friendship, but our young men are resolved to imbrue their hands in the blood of the whites. I can not restrain them, and I will not wear a token of peace while I am compelled to act as an enemy." Had further evidence been wanting,
this would have been sufficient to have warranted the most dismal forebodings. There were not wanting, however, a few gallant hearts who strove to encourage the desponding company. There had been reserved but twenty-five rounds of ammunition and one box of cartridges, which must, under any circumstances of danger, have proved insufficient; but the prospect of a fatiguing march forbade the troops embarrassing themselves with a larger quantity.

The morning of the 14th all things were in readiness. Nine o'clock was the hour fixed upon for starting. Mr. Kinzie had volunteered to accompany the troops in their march, and had intrusted his family to the care of some friendly Indians, who had promised to convey them in a boat around the head of Lake Michigan to a point in St. Joseph's River, there to be joined by the troops, should the prosecution of their march be permitted. Early in the morning, Mr. Kinzie had received a message from To-pee-mee-bee, a chief of the St. Joseph's band, informing him that mischief was intended by the Pottawotamies, who had engaged to escort the detachment, urging him to relinquish his design of accompanying the troops by land, and also promising him that the boat containing himself and family should be permitted to pass in safety to St. Joseph. Mr. Kinzie declined, as he believed his presence might act as a restraint upon the fury of the savages, so warmly were they attached to him and his family. The party in the boat consisted of Mrs. Kinzie and her four younger children, the nurse, a clerk of Mr. Kinzie's, two servants, and the boatmen, besides two Indians who acted as their protectors. The boat started, but scarce had they reached the mouth of the river, a half mile below the fort, when another messenger arrived from To-pee-mee-bee to detain them where they were. In breathless expectation sat the wife and mother. She was a woman of uncommon energy and strength of character, yet her heart died within her as she folded her arms around her helpless infants, and gazed upon the march of her husband and child to certain death.

As the troops left the fort, the band struck up the dead march. On they came in military style, but with solemn mien. Capt. Wells took the lead at the head of his little band of Miamis. He had blackened his face before leaving the garrison, in token of his impending fate. They took the road along the Lake shore, and when they reached the point where commences the range of sand hills intervening between the prairie and the beach, the escort of the Pottawotamies, a number of about five hundred, kept the level of the prairie instead of continuing along the beach with the troops and Miamis. The troops had marched perhaps a mile and a half, when Capt. Wells, who had kept somewhat in advance with his band, came riding furiously back, shouting: "They are about to attack us; form instantly and charge upon them!" Scarcely were the words uttered, when a volley was showered from among the sand hills.

The troops were hastily brought into line, and charged up the bank. One man, a veteran of seventy Winters, fell as they ascended.

The remainder of the scene is best described by an eye-witness, and a participator in the tragedy the wife of Lieut. Helm. She says:

"After we had left the bank, the firing became general; the Miamis fled at the outset. Their chief rode up to the Potawotamies, and said, `You have deceived the troops and us; you have done a bad action;' and, brandishing his tomahawk, continued, `I will be the first to return and punish your treachery.' He then galloped after his companions, who were now scouring across the prairie. The troops behaved most gallantly. They were but a handful; but they resolved to sell their lives most dearly. Our horses pranced and bounded, and could hardly be restrained as the balls whistled among them. I drew off a little and gazed upon my husband and father, who were yet unharmed. I felt that my hour had come, and endeavored to forget those I loved, and prepared myself for my approaching fate.

"While I was thus engaged, the surgeon, Dr. Van Voorhees, came up. His horse had been shot under him, and he had received a ball in his leg. Every muscle of his face was quivering with the agony of terror. He said to me, `Do you think they will take our lives? I am badly wounded, but not mortally; perhaps we might purchase our lives by promising them a large reward. Do you think there is any chance?' `Dr. Van Voorhees,' said I, `do not let us waste the moments that yet remain to us in such vain hopes. Our fate is inevitable; in a few moments we must appear before the bar of God. Let us make what preparations are in our power.' `O, I can not die,' exclaimed he, `I am not fit to die. If I had only a short time to prepare! Death is awful!' I pointed to Ensign Konan, who, though mortally wounded and nearly down, was still fighting with desperation on one knee. `Look at that man,' said I; `at least he dies like a soldier.' `Yes,' replied the unfortunate man, with a convulsive gasp; `but he has no terrors of the future. He does not believe there is one.' At this moment a young Indian raised his tomahawk at me; by springing aside I avoided the blow, which was intended for my skull, but which alighted on my shoulder. I seized him around the neck; and, while exerting my utmost efforts to get possession of his scalping-knife, which hung in a scabbard over his breast, I was dragged from his grasp by another and an older Indian. The latter bore me struggling and resisting toward the lake.

"Notwithstanding the rapidity with which I was hurried along, I recognized as I passed the lifeless remains of the surgeon. Some murderous tomahawk had stretched him upon the very spot where I had last seen him. I was immediately plunged into the water and held there. As I resisted, however, I soon perceived that the object of my captor was not to drown me, for he held me firmly in such a position as to keep my head above the water. This reassured me; and, looking at him closely, I soon recognized, in spite of the paint by which he was disguised, the Black Partridge. When the firing had nearly subsided, my preserver took me from the water, and led me up the sand-bank. It was a burning August morning, and walking through the sand, in my drenched condition, was inexpressibly painful and fatiguing. I stooped and took off my shoes to clear them from the sand, when a squaw seized and carried them off. I was placed upon a horse without any saddle; but finding the motion unendurable, I sprang off.

"Partly supported by my kind conductor, Black Partridge, and partly by another Indian, who held dangling in his hand a scalp which I recognized as that of Captain Wells, I dragged my panting steps to one of the wigwams. The wife of Waw-bee-mee-mah was standing near, and seeing my fainting condition, she seized a kettle, dipped up some water from a stream that flowed near, threw in some maple sugar, and stirring it with her hand, gave me to drink. This act of kindness, in the midst of so many horrors, touched me most sensibly; but my attention was soon diverted to other objects. This work of butchery had commenced just as we were leaving the fort. I can not describe the horrible scene which ensued as the wounded and dying were dragged into camp. An old squaw, infuriated by the loss of friends, or excited by the bloody scenes around her, seemed possessed with a demoniac fury. She seized a stable fork, and assaulted one miserable victim who lay groaning and writhing in the agony of his wounds.

"With a delicacy of feeling scarcely to be expected, Waw-bee-mee-mah stretched a mat across two poles between me and this dreadful scene, although I could still hear the groans of the sufferers. On the following night five more wounded prisoners were tomahawked. Those of the troops who had escaped surrendered, after a loss of about two-thirds of the party. They had stipulated, by means of an interpreter, for the lives of those remaining and those who remained of the women and children, but the wounded were not included. They were to be delivered at some of the British ports, unless ransomed by traders. The Americans, after their first attack, charged upon those who were concealed in a sort of ravine intervening between the sand-banks and the prairie. The Indians gathered themselves into a body, and after some hard fighting, in which the number of whites had been reduced to twenty-eight, this small band succeeded in breaking through the enemy and gaining a rising ground not far from the oak woods."


The contest now seemed hopeless, and Lieutenant Helm sent Perest Leclerc, a half-breed boy in the service of Mr. Kinzie, who had accompanied the detachment and fought manfully, as interpreter, to propose terms of capitulation. It was stipulated that the lives of all the survivors should be spared, and a ransom permitted as soon as practicable. But in the mean time a horrible scene had been enacted. A young savage had climbed into the baggage-wagon containing the children of the whites, twelve in number, and tomahawked the entire group. When Captain Wells saw this he exclaimed, "Is that their game? Then I will kill, too." So saying, he turned his horse's head and started for the Indian camp. Several Indians pursued him, and as he galloped along he laid himself flat on his horse to escape their shots. They took effect, however, at last, killing his horse and severely wounding him. At that moment he was met by a friendly Indian, who tried to save him from the savages, who had now overtaken him. As he was being supported by his friend, he received his death-blow from a savage who stabbed him in the back. Those of the family of Mr. Kinzie who had remained in the boat near the mouth of the river were carefully guarded by the Indians. They had seen the smoke and the blaze, and immediately after the report of the first tremendous discharge.

Some time afterward they saw an Indian coming toward them, leading a horse on which sat Mrs. Heald. "Run," cried Mrs. Kinzie; "that Indian will kill her. Run; take the mule, which is tied to a tree, and offer it to her captor as a ransom for her life." The Indian was by this time in the act of removing her bonnet, that he might scalp her. The servant ran up with the mule, and by that, and the offer of ten bottles of whisky, effected her release. "But," said the Indian, "she is wounded; she will die; will you then give me the whisky." It was promised him. The savage then took Mrs. Heald's bonnet, placing it on his own head, and, after an ineffectual attempt on the part of some squaws to rob her of her stockings, she was brought on board the boat, suffering great agony from the many bullet-wounds she had received. The boat was at length permitted to return to Mr. Kinzie's home, where Mrs. Heald was properly cared for. Mr. Kinzie soon after returned. The family were closely guarded by their Indian friends, whose intention it was to carry them to Detroit for security. The rest of the prisoners remained at the wigwams of their captors.

The next morning, after plundering the fort, the Indians set fire to it. Black Partridge, with several others of his tribe, established themselves in the porch of the building as sentinels, to protect the family. Soon after the fire a party of Wabash Indians made their appearance. They were the most hostile of all the tribes of the Pottawotamies. Being more remote, they had shared less in the kindness of Mr. Kinzie and his family. On arriving at Chicago they had blackened their faces, and they now proceeded toward the dwelling of Mr. Kinzie. From his station on the piazza Black Partridge had watched their approach. His fears were for the
safety of Mrs. Helm, Mr. Kinzie's step-daughter. By his advice she was made to assume the dress of a French woman of the country; namely, a short gown and petticoat, with a blue cotton handkerchief wrapped around her head. In this disguise she was conducted by Black Partridge to the house of Ouilmette, a Frenchman, with a half-breed wife, who formed a part of the establishment of Mr. Kinzie, and whose house was close at hand. It happened that the Indians came first to this house in their search for prisoners.

As they approached, the inmates, fearful that the fair complexion of Mrs. Helm might betray her, raised a large feather-bed, and placed her under the edge of it upon the bedstead, with her face to the wall. Mrs. Bisson, the sister of Ouilmette's wife, then seated herself with her sewing on the foreside of the bed. It was a hot day in August, and the feverish excitement of fear, together with her position and wounds, became so intolerable that Mrs. Helm begged to be released and given up to the Indians. "I can but die," said she; "let them put an end to my misery at once." Mrs. Bisson replied, "Your death would be the destruction of us all. Black Partridge has resolved that if one drop of the blood of your family is spilled, he will take the lives of all concerned in it, even his nearest friends; and if the work of slaughter once commences, there will be no end to it, so long as there remains one white person or half-breed in the country." This nerved Mrs. Helm with fresh resolution. The Indians entered, and she could occasionally see them from her hiding-place gliding about and inspecting every part of the house, till, apparently satisfied that there was no one concealed, they left.

All this time Mrs. Bisson had kept her seat on the side of the bed, calmly sorting and arranging the patchwork of a quilt, and preserving the appearance of the utmost tranquillity, although she knew not but at any moment the tomahawk might aim a fatal blow at herself. Her self-command unquestionably saved the lives of all present. From Ouilmette's the party of Indians proceeded to Mr. Kinzie's. They entered the parlor, in which the family were assembled with their faithful protector, and seated themselves in silence. Black Partridge perceived from their moody and revengeful looks what was passing in their minds; but he dared not remonstrate with them, but observed in a low tone to one of the friendly Indians, "We have endeavored to save your friends, but it is in vain; nothing will save them now."

At this moment a friendly whoop was heard from a party of new-comers on the opposite side of the river. Black Partridge sprang to meet them as their canoes touched the bank near the house. "Who are you?" demanded he. "A man." "Who are you?" "A man like yourself." "But tell me who you are?" — meaning, tell me your disposition, and which side you are for. "I am the San-ga-nash," replied the stranger. "Then make all possible speed into the house; your friend is in danger, and you alone can save him." Billy Caldwell — for it was he — a man well known to the tribes for his never-failing help to them in their need — then entered the parlor with a calm step, and without a trace of agitation in his manner. He deliberately took off his accouterments, placed them with his rifle behind the door, and then saluted the hostile savages: "How now, my friends? a good day to you. I was told there were enemies here; but I am glad to find only friends. Why have you blackened your faces? Is it that you are mourning your friends lost in battle?" purposely misunderstanding this token of evil design, "or is it that you are fasting? If so, ask our friend here, and he will give you to eat; he is the Indians' friend, and never yet refused what they had need of."

Thus taken by surprise, the savages were ashamed to acknowledge their bloody purpose. They therefore said, modestly, that they came to beg white cotton of their friends, in which to wrap their dead. This was given them with some other presents, and they took their departure peaceably. On the third day after the battle, the family of Mr. Kinzie, with the clerks of the establishment, were put into a boat under the care of a half-breed interpreter, and conveyed to St. Joseph's, where they remained till the following November under the protection of To-pee-mee-bee's band. They were then conducted to Detroit, under the escort of two of their trusty Indian friends, and delivered up as prisoners of war to Col. M'Kee, the British Indian Agent.

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