The Story of Old Fort Dearborn

The Story of Old Fort Dearborn
Title: The Story of Old Fort Dearborn
Release Date: 2016-06-16
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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The Story of Old Fort Dearborn - J. Seymour Currey

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Henry Dearborn was born in New Hampshire in 1751. Hewas an officer in the American army, took part in the battle ofBunker Hill, was present at the capture of Burgoyne's army,and remained in the service until the end of the war. In1801 he was appointed Secretary of War under PresidentJefferson, and held that office for eight years.

In 1812 Dearborn was appointed Major-General and didexcellent service on the Niagara frontier during the Second Warwith Great Britain. John Wentworth said of him that "historyrecords no other man who was at the battle of Bunker Hill,the surrender of Burgoyne and Cornwallis, and then took anactive part in the War of 1812."









Published August, 1912


This Volume is Dedicated to



HERE were two Fort Dearborns, thefirst one having been built in 1803. Thiswas occupied by a garrison of United Statestroops until 1812, when it was destroyed bythe Indians immediately after the bloodymassacre of that year. The second FortDearborn was built on the site of the formerone in 1816, and continued in use as a militarypost, though at several intervals duringperiods of peaceful relations with the surroundingtribes the garrisons were withdrawnfor a time. In 1836 the fort wasfinally evacuated by the military forces. Theevents narrated in the succeeding pages ofthis volume concern the first or Old FortDearborn.

The name "Chicago," as descriptive of theriver and its neighborhood, was in use formore than a century before the first FortDearborn was built; it appears on Franquelin'smap printed in 1684 as "Chekagou,"and is mentioned in various forms of spellingin the written and printed records of that andsucceeding periods. It has been said thatChicago is the oldest Indian town in the Westof which the original name is retained; thusits name enjoys a much greater antiquity thanthat of Fort Dearborn, familiar as the lattername is in our local annals.

In the course of its history Chicago hasexisted under three flags; first, under thedomination of the French kings, from the periodof its discovery to the year 1763, when,after the French and Indian War, it passedinto the possession of the English. As Britishterritory it remained until the close of theRevolutionary War, when the Western Territorieswere ceded by the English to the Americansat the treaty of peace concluded in 1783;and thus the region in which Chicago is situatedfinally came under the Stars and Stripes.



I Wilderness Days 3
II Fortifying the Frontier 17
III The Tragedy 95


General Henry Dearborn Frontispiece
Chicago from 1803 to 1812 3
The Wild Onion Plant 12
Bird's-Eye View of Old Fort Dearborn 27
Residence of John Kinzie 32
Mr. and Mrs. John H. Kinzie 47
Rebekah Wells Heald 58
Captain William Wells 58
Hardscrabble 74
Facsimile of Letter of General Hull to Captain Heald 103
Memorial Monument to the Massacre 136
Franquelin's Map of 1684 165
Map of Chicago in 1812 165

Wilderness Days




This broad view, while not accurate, gives a good general idea of the appearance ofthe site of Chicago, with old Fort Dearborn and the surrounding region, in the years from1803 to 1812. Some of the details are out of proportion, for instance the long sand-barextending to the south opposite the mouth of the river is much exaggerated, and the viewof the Kinzie house is not correct.

Reproduced from a lithograph in the possession of The Chicago Historical Society.





T the time that Fort Dearborn was builtthe site of Chicago had been known tothe civilized world for a hundred and thirtyyears. The Chicago River and the surroundingregion had been discovered by two explorers,Joliet and Marquette, who with aparty of five men in two canoes were returningfrom a voyage on the Mississippi, which theywere the first white men to navigate.

Joliet was the leader of the party, and hewas accompanied, as was the custom inFrench expeditions into unknown countries,by a missionary, who in this case was JamesMarquette, a Jesuit priest. Both were youngmen, Joliet twenty-eight years of age andMarquette thirty-six. The expedition had 4 been authorized by the French Government,the purpose being to penetrate the westernwilderness in an endeavor to reach the "GreatRiver," of which so much had been heardfrom wandering tribes of Indians, and to findthe direction of its flow. Many conjectureswere made by the men of that time as to thecourse of this river and where it reached thesea, some believing that it emptied into the"Sea of Virginia," others that it flowed intothe Gulf of Mexico, and still others that itdischarged its waters into the "VermilionSea," that is, the Gulf of California; and ifthe latter conjecture should prove to be correcta passage might thus be opened to Chinaand India.

In the event of such a discovery beingmade, great honor would naturally accrue toits projectors. The instructions to undertakesuch an expedition came from Colbert,the minister of Louis XIV, who wrote in 1672to Talon, the Intendant at Quebec, that aneffort should be made "to reach the sea";that is, to discover and explore the "GreatRiver" and solve the mystery of its outlet.


Father Dablon, in the Jesuit Relations, thuswrote of the enterprise about to be undertaken:"The Count Frontenac, our Governor,and Monsieur Talon, then our Intendant,recognizing the importance of this discovery, ...appointed for this undertaking SieurJoliet, whom they considered very fit for sogreat an enterprise; and they were wellpleased that Father Marquette should be ofthe party."

The expedition was accordingly organized,and started from the Mission of St. Ignace onthe 17th of May, 1673. In due course theparty reached the mouth of the Fox River(of Wisconsin), at the head of Green Bay.From this point the party passed up the Foxand soon after crossed the portage into theWisconsin River. They were now far beyondthe farthest point reached by any previousexplorers. On the 17th of June the explorerspaddled their canoes out on to the broadbosom of the Mississippi. Marquette wrotein his journal that when he beheld the greatriver it was "with a joy that I cannot express."

It was while carrying out the purposes of 6 this expedition that the explorers passedthrough the Chicago River from the west.They had reached the Mississippi as they hadplanned to do, had floated down its current asfar as the mouth of the Arkansas, and on theway back had ascended the Illinois and Desplainesrivers, made a portage into theChicago River, and, passing out on LakeMichigan, pursued their journey to the pointon Green Bay at the mouth of the Fox Riverfrom which they had started at the beginningof June, after an absence on the journey ofalmost four months.

It should not be forgotten that De Soto, aSpanish explorer, had discovered the Mississippiat a point not far from the present cityof Memphis, in the year 1541, a hundred andthirty-two years before the voyage of Jolietand Marquette; but the knowledge of thatdiscovery had faded from men's minds. Theyactually passed over the spot where De Sotohad crossed the river in the previous century,though apparently they were not aware ofthat fact, for no mention is made in Marquette'sjournal of De Soto or his discovery.


The chief significance of the Chicago portageto the explorers when they passed it wasthe view of the lake which they had as theydescended the stream towards its mouth. LakeMichigan, indeed, had been discovered longbefore, but it was known only along its northernshores extending as far as Green Bay,which had been entered by the missionaries, astation being established at its farthest extremity.The southern extension of LakeMichigan was unknown until Joliet and Marquettepaddled into it with their canoes asthey left the Chicago River.

No date was mentioned by Marquette inhis journal of the arrival of the party in theriver, but it must have been about the beginningof September, 1673. Joliet also kept ajournal, but unfortunately he lost all hispapers in a canoe accident before he reachedQuebec on his return. That the site of thefuture Chicago, situated as it was on so importanta portage connecting the lake withthe river systems of the interior, possessedadvantages of a striking kind was plainly perceivedby Joliet, who afterward wrote that 8 an artificial waterway could easily be constructedby cutting only a half league ofprairie, "to pass from the Lake of the Illinoisinto St. Louis River."

Thus, upon reaching the mission station ofSt. Francis Xavier, situated near the mouthof the Fox River, from which they hadstarted, the explorers had completed a journeyof about twenty-five hundred miles in a periodof four months, had opened to the eyes of theworld the wonderful river of the West, hadincidentally discovered the site of the futuregreat city of Chicago, and had made the completecircuit back to Green Bay without theloss of a man or the occurrence of a singleuntoward accident.

La Salle's first appearance on Lake Michiganwas in September, 1679, six years afterJoliet's expedition. La Salle came downthrough the Straits of Mackinac with a partyof seventeen, skirted the western shore of thelake toward the south, but believing he couldreach the Illinois River by a more favorableroute than that over which Joliet had passed,he coasted around the southern end of the lake 9 until he reached the mouth of the St. JosephRiver. Ascending that river he found theportage into the Kankakee and readily madehis way to the Illinois, where he establisheda fort near Peoria. He returned to Canadathe following year, and recruiting anotherparty he once more passed over the St. Joseph-Kankakeeroute to the same destination asbefore.

Again returning to Canada he started nearthe end of the year 1681 with a much largerparty, and this time he chose the Chicago-Desplainesroute to the interior. He continuedon down the Illinois to its mouth, thencedown the Mississippi, passed the farthestpoint reached by Joliet, and at length arrivedat its mouth and issued forth upon the watersof the Gulf of Mexico. This event took placeon the 7th of April, 1682.

La Salle was thus the first white man topass down the Mississippi River from themouth of the Illinois to the Gulf. De Soto'sfollowers after his death had indeed returnedfrom their ill-starred expedition by way ofthe lower Mississippi, but it remained for 10 La Salle to arrive at a certain knowledge ofthe course taken by the river throughout thelong distance over which he passed and todetermine its flow into the Gulf of Mexico,and moreover to establish the first substantialclaim in behalf of a European power to thesoil of Louisiana.

La Salle had entered upon an extensivesystem of colonization, and through manydangers and difficulties he had secured footholdsfor the French in the western

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