Fort Dearborn Massacre
The War of 1812: A Lesson on the Politics of Forgetting
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Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.
The year 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the United States declaring war on the British Empire. The War of 1812 gave the United States the “Star-spangled Banner” and a victory at the Battle of New Orleans. The War of 1812 is sometimes called the Second War of Independence. It is also called the Forgotten War.
The War of 1812 was the first war fought by the United States, and it almost ended badly. The war saw the burning of the nation’s capital by the British and the capture of Detroit. Yet, instead of defeat, the war gave the new country a sense of manifest destiny.
The War of 1812 brought to a head the complaints that had been brewing since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The charge against King George III, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that he failed to protect Americans from the “merciless Indian Savages,” was also made against the federal government in Washington, DC. by settlers in the Northwest Territory.
Even though the War of 1812 ended in what some would call a stalemate without any substantial loss of territory for the United States, it was not without controversy. Historian Donald R. Hickey claims, “The War of 1812 was America’s most unpopular war. It generated more intense opposition than any other war in the nation’s history, including the war in Vietnam.” (Link)
Is spite of the controversy generated by the war and its aftermath, in 1818, only six years after the Fort Dearborn Massacre, Illinois was admitted to the union as a free state. In the words of President Lincoln, the “Almost chosen people,” of the United States were on the march westward.
Currently the US Government has no committee to coordinate commemorations of the War of 1812. It could have been otherwise, but the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission Act failed to pass Congress in 2006. In spite of that failure, some states and organizations are going forward with limited commemorative ceremonies. The city of Chicago, however, has no official ceremonies planned to celebrate the war or the Fort Dearborn Massacre.
Walking the streets of downtown Chicago, you would not know the nation is celebrating “200 years of peace,” as the bicentennial webpage claims. Many in Chicago have forgotten this second war for American Independence. If Chicagoans think about the War of 1812 at all, they have a vague idea something about that war is embarrassing. Many other Chicagoans were never taught about the battles of 1812 in school, and are indifferent. (Link)
When it comes to commemorating of the war of 1812 in Chicago, the city has fallen victim to a cultural Alzheimer’s. A multicultural and diverse city like Chicago controlled by liberal Democrats cannot afford politically to raise the issues of citizenship and a clash of civilizations associated with the War of 1812.
Fort Dearborn Massacre
Perhaps a reason why Chicago’s politicians don’t want to talk about the War of 1812 is because one of the memorable events of that war happened near the shore of Lake Michigan, on what is now Chicago’s near south side. On August 15, 1812, the Fort Dearborn Massacre left scores dead, including women and children.
Just what the Fort Dearborn Massacre means for contemporary Chicagoans it not always clear, The event is sometimes confused not only by residents of the city but by historians as well. Janice L. Reiff writes in the Enclylopedia of Chicago, “That contest, familiarly known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre, became the city’s foundational event, symbolized by one of the four stars on the city’s flag.” (Link)
In fact the stars on Chicago’s flag make no reference to the massacre. The first star simply represents Fort Dearborn. It was added to the flag in 1939. Its six points symbolize “transportation, labor, commerce, finance, populousness, and salubrity.” (Link)
Putting aside what the stars on Chicago’s flag represent, it is clear a return to the Fort Dearborn Massacre is a return to what Samuel P. Huntington calls “a clash of civilizations,” a clash where only victory or defeat was possible. It’s not politically wise in 2012 for Chicago’s politicians to open that wound, again.
Two hundred years ago at Fort Dearborn, cultural assimilation and compromise were impossible. Could it be that today the same alternatives are present for Chicagoans as neighborhoods change and new immigrants come to the city? The politicians of a multicultural city are reluctant to admit this social fact, perhaps because on a world scale, the massacre at Fort Dearborn appears to them like a tempest in a teacup.
Nevertheless, over a thousand miles south of Chicago, at Mexico City, the Spanish Catholic Conquistadors were met with similar cultural questions. In 1787, Jos√© Damian Ortiz de Castro was in charge of finishing work on what is now the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary of Mexico City. The cathedral is built over the ruins of the Aztec empire. At that time, also, soon to be president George Washington was presiding over the writing of the US Constitution.
What compromise could the Spaniards have made with the human sacrifice and cannibalism of the Aztecs? Their answer to that question was conquest, not compromise. It is doubtful that human sacrifice could have ever been assimilated into Spanish culture.
In 1812, Ensign George Ronan and Captain William Wells also were two men caught up in the drama of a clash of civilizations by the shores of Lake Michigan. That clash of civilizations was similar to the clash between Spaniards and Aztecs in Mexico. Ronan and Wells had to make a decision about what civilization they would support. The same choice was offered to Black Partridge and Little Turtle.
For almost 150 years, Chicagoans remembered with civic pride the Fort Dearborn Massacre. It was a symbol of Chicago’s phoenix like rise from the ashes. That event, and the great Chicago Fire of 1871 pointed to the unstoppable spirit of Americans on the frontier. All of that changed when liberal Democrats took political control of the city.
If we look at some novels written for young people over the years, then we may see how the memory of the Fort Dearborn Massacre fades from one century to another. Under the influence of political correctness and revisionist historians, the story of the massacre has gone from a story of patriotic martyrdom to a story of cultural imperialism.
Evelyn Raymond’s, The Sun Maid: A Story of Fort Dearborn, was published in 1900, almost a hundred years after the Fort Dearborn Massacre. It was the same year that Carl-Rohl Smith died. He was the artist who created the monument that commemorates the massacre.
Much of the Chicago history and the history of the Fort Dearborn Massacre used by Raymond is taken from Juliette Kinzie’s earlier book, Wau-bun, published in 1873. Carl Rohl-Smith also used an episode from Kinzie’s book to create his famous sculpture.
Evelyn Raymond dedicates her novel to, “All young hearts in that fair city by the inland sea Chicago.” She continues, “There are things which never age…and such (is) the marvelous Chicago…which still is the glory of a youth whose future magnificence no man can estimate.”
Writing in 1900, Raymond still had a sense that her characters were aware of their identity as citizens of the new United States. When The Sun Maid and her friend Gaspar are locked out of Fort Dearborn because of the martial law imposed by Captain Heald, Gaspar shouts, “Entrance for two Citizens of the United States!” After that demand, the stockade gates were opened.
Raymond’s story for girls about the Sun Maid is set against the Illinois frontier and has as a backdrop the growth and development of Chicago. Raymond’s characters are American to the core. They exemplify American values. Sadly, even though the Sun Maid tries to bridge the Indian and American cultures on the frontier, her attempt ends in failure.
Dave Rogers, a 15 year old boy traveling with his Father from Fort Wayne to Fort Dearborn, is the main character in another novel, Bernadine Bailey’s Puckered Moccasins: A Tale of Old Fort Dearborn. Published in 1938, about forty years after The Sun Maid, Bailey’s novel offers us insight into what life was like on the frontier for a boy on the verge of becoming a man.
Bailey’s book was also published a few years after “Big Bill” Thompson left the mayor’s office. “Big Bill” Thompson was the last Republican mayor of Chicago. After Thompson’s death, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy…”
Two years after Thompson left office, a replica of Old Fort Dearborn was built at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933. The fair and the model of the fort helped create a young audience for Puckered Moccasins. Beyond that, the novel also described the clash of civilization evident on the American frontier. English, French, Indian and American cultures all come into play as Bailey’s novel unfolds.
The description that Bailey gives of the life of a 15 year old on the frontier; his marksmanship, his ability to know both the natural and cultural world in which he lived, his courage and respect for his father, all make a reader wonder what other 15 year olds attending one of Chicago’s public schools today would think of a young life lived by the shore of Lake Michigan two centuries ago. They might be surprised to know that the Chippewa wore puckered moccasins and they could by identified by those moccasins, even at night.
Bailey understood something very important to boys. Describing the relationship between Dave Rogers and his father, she writes, “his father…made up for this loss by giving the boy a companionship that filled his life.” Compare that description with the family situation 200 years later in some neighborhoods that now surround the site of the Fort Dearborn Massacre. Writing in the Chicago Chronicle, Catherine Behan claims, “More than 70 percent of African-American children are born out of wedlock, with the majority raised by single mothers. Where are the fathers?” (Link)
The contemporary reader may complain that Bailey uses the word “savage” too much for their taste. Nevertheless, her description of the life of a boy on the Illinois frontier is a good contrast to the life of many young people today. The self-reliance of young Dave Rogers offers a telling contrast to young people today, who may rely more on their iPads than their muskets.
Although Bailey does misquote an important document about the Fort Dearborn Massacre, the letter sent by General Hull at Detroit to Captain Nathan Heald at Fort Dearborn that ordered the evacuation of the fort, Bailey has most other aspects of Chicago’s history correct. Her understanding of the cultural significance of the Fort Dearborn Massacre leads her to write, “In the history of the western wilderness there had been no slaughter more cruel, no attack more unprovoked.”
By 1955 Chicago had a Democrat mayor and was going through the beginnings of the civil rights movement. Neighborhoods were changing. Second and third generation immigrants from Europe were moving to the suburbs. The site of the massacre at 18th Street and Calumet Avenue was no longer a tourist attraction. It was then that Leon E. Burgoyne published Ensign Ronan: A Story of Fort Dearborn.
Burgoyne’s focus was on the personalities involved in the conflict of 1812. His novel is the least historical of the books considered here. Still, Burgoyne does remind us that at the time young Ensign Ronan was sent to his first post at Fort Dearborn, the United States was also a young nation. Questions of citizenship, patriotism and identity were on the minds of many, especially those living on the western frontier.
Burgoyne does not shy away from the gore of battle. He describes the death of Captain William Wells this way: “Ronan shuddered and grew faint when he saw the grisly object in their hands. Thinking to gain the bravery of Wells, they had cut out his heart and were fighting for scraps of it to eat!” A few moments after that Ronan would also lay dead in the sand.
One reviewer of Burgoyne’s book claims, “The facts of the attack on Fort Dearborn are true and accurate. Only through the addition of dialogue, interpretation, and some minor literary embellishments to enhance certain characters has Burgoyne departed from fact.” Nevertheless, the fiction that Ensign Ronan lives in Burgoyne’s story when in fact Ronan died at the battle seems more than just a minor literary embellishment. (Link)
The storyteller in Burgoyne does not want us to accept the Ronan’s death. So, he has the young Ensign survive the battle and is nursed back to health. At the end of Burgoyne’s story, Ronan makes plans for his future in a “Chikagou” that someday will be a great city. “Mary, if you are willing, we will return to Chikagou and make our home there after the war is over,” he says.
After 1955, the issues of cultural conflict, citizenship and patriotism raised by Ensign Ronan’s story were beginning to fade from Chicago’s cultural memory. The fact that Ensign George Ronan of the First Infantry was the first graduate of West Point to be killed in action remains to this day unnoticed by most Chicagoans, even though a small park in the city is named after him. (Link)
Almost 200 years after the war and massacre, in 2006, Jerry Crimmins published, Fort Dearborn: A Novel. This novel brought the War of 1812 and the Fort Dearborn Massacre to a new generation of readers.
The book jacket tells us, “Through the eyes of two young boys and their fathers—one a sergeant with the United States First Infantry, the other a Potawatomi warrior—Jerry Crimmins tells the story of the 1812 struggle of fire and blood known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre.”
Crimmins’ book did garner some attention, but it seems that the politics of remembering has pushed Crimmins’ book too far into the background for it to generate any contemporary discussion of the War of 1812 and the war’s impact on the Chicago area. In spite of that, Crimmins remains active in calling attention to the war and Chicago’s history.
Crimmins is also one of the historians who opposed the naming of the site where the massacre memorial once stood as The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park. He remarked, “Historical revisionism typically takes heroes from the past and makes villains of them…As long as I write about it, I’m going to call it the Ft. Dearborn Massacre.” To that assertion, we add that revisionist history is often history written by the resentful. (Link)
A piece of realistic sculpture
Besides the memory of Fort Dearborn in literature, there is also an artifact that reminds us of the war and the massacre. Unfortunately, that artifact, once visible and a popular tourist attraction, now remains hidden and collecting dust.
Carl Rohl-Smith’s statue “Black Partridge Saving Mrs. Helm,” which at the time was called “...one of the greatest pieces of realistic sculpture…in this or any other part of the world,” has now become too controversial to be put again on public display. (Link)
Carl Rohl-Smith’s monument is a cultural and site-specific work of art, two things many contemporary artists and critics want to avoid. The monument was located at the place where the events it commemorates were thought to have happen. The monument is also a graphic depiction of those events. The bronze monument was cast in New York City by Henry-Bonnard Foundries and shipped to Chicago. The New York Times for June 2, 1893, reported, “The monument will be the most notable piece of sculpture in Chicago outside Lincoln Park.” (Link)
Whatever George Pullman’s motives were to place a statue on his property near to where the Fort Dearborn Massacre occurred, it seems evident he didn’t envision the controversy that would follow. At a cost of thirty thousand dollars, Pullman commissioned the Danish-American sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith to create a monument that would be on display at the same time the 1893 World’s Fair was taking place in Chicago. This was a great personal expense for a man who had considerable money. At that time in Chicago a 1 lb. loaf of bread cost $0.05 cents.
Rohl-Smith chose as his inspiration an incident related in Juliette Kinzie’s book, Wau-bun. The incident involved the saving of Mrs. Margaret Helm, wife of one of the officers at Fort Dearborn and niece to Captain Wells, by Black Partridge, a friendly Potawatomi.
In a 1893 letter that one commentator said lacked nuance and read to the group gathered for the dedication of the Rohl-Smith statute, Pullman wrote, “(This) enduring monument…to perpetuate and honor the memory of the brave men and women and innocent children—the pioneer settlers who suffered here…should also stimulate a desire among us and those who are to come after us to know more of the struggles and sacrifices of those who laid the foundation of the greatest of this city and state.” (Link)
After the dedication, the statue remained on display near the Pullman mansion. Tourists to Chicago often made a point of visiting the site and looking at the statue. Postcards showing the statute were sent home to relatives, proving the pilgrimage was made. (Link)
In 1922 an editorial note appeared in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. “The one hundred and tenth anniversary of the Fort Dearborn Massacre…was celebrated with ceremonies under the auspices of the American Legion in Chicago…A salute was fired over the graves of the soldiers. This will probably mark the last celebration of the event, as the monument is soon to be removed on account of excavations for tack space by the Illinois Central Railroad.” Looking back from the vantage point of 2012, we see the track space has not changed, but Chicago politics did. (Link)
The neighborhood around Carl Rohl-Smith’s statue changed in the 1920s. What was an enclave for Chicago’s wealthiest elite began to deteriorate. The rich moved away. The poor moved in. Pullman’s mansion was demolished in 1922. Rohl-Smith’s statue was then moved and put on display at what was then called the Chicago Historical Society. For years after that, Chicago Public School children took fieldtrips to see the statue.
In the 1970s, political pressure forced the removal of the statue from the lobby of the Chicago Historical Society. For a while the statue was brought back to a park near the site of the battle, but was finally removed to storage. The statue is now collecting dust in a city warehouse under the Roosevelt Road overpass at Wells Street. Attempts to reinstall the statue to its original location have been met with political opposition. (Link)
As late as 2005 efforts to bring back Rohl-Smith statue to its original location still meet with opposition. Some of that opposition was obviously political while other prudish opposition was based on the statue’s reference to Classical nudity.
Miriam Cintr√≥n tells us in here Near West Gazette story that, “Brian Hosmer, director of the D’Arcy McNickel Center for American Indian History at the Newberry Library and associate professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, weighed in by saying bringing the statue to the park ‘would be an unfortunate thing to do. The statue reconfirms the stereotype of the savage Indian,’ he said, citing the statue’s barely-clothed Native Americans. ‘It should be in storage, in my view.’” (Link)
a failure to remember
It is commonplace among some contemporary historians, especially those with a Marxist bent, to take a materialist view of human history and conflicts. These historians will speak of events like the Fort Dearborn Massacre as something that happened in a “contested space,” as if biological organisms were fighting for room in the environment. This is a mistaken view of human history.
Much of human history is about the clash of civilizations, not battles over real estate. We cannot remember the War of 1812 or the Fort Dearborn Massacre or Carl Rohl-Smith’s statue any other way.
Present historians who doubt the value of American Civilization will want to relative these events. They will impose on them a political theory from another time and place. By doubting the value of American civilization they doubt American history. In short, for the sake of politics they forget.
What better time to rededicate the Fort Dearborn Massacre Monument than at a 200th year commemoration of the event. But Chicago’s politicians see things differently. They prefer to keep Carl Rohl-Smith’s statue hidden away. They prefer to forget and let the Tall Ships dock at Navy Pier, instead. (Link)
For more than a century after the Fort Dearborn Massacre, the memory of those events and the fort itself were part of Chicago’s cultural inheritance. Later, political events in Chicago would change that. The issues of citizenship, culture and civilization that came to the fore in the War of 1812 and at Fort Dearborn would be submerged in a sea of multiculturalism that became postindustrial Chicago, the most segregated and corrupt big city in the nation. (Link)
Contrary to the liberal government in the United States, the conservative government of Canada has no problem with commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Here For Canada reports, “...Stephen Harper’s Conservative Government launched the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 by…sponsoring hundreds of events and reenactments across the country…honouring (sic) current Canadian regiments and War of 1812 militia units (and)...restoring important historic sites connected with the War. (Link)
When a nation no longer agrees on its history, then we must agree it is less of a nation. The War of 1812 and the Fort Dearborn Massacre will be remembered in Chicago as best it can be remembered in a time of forgetting.
August in the city shows summer is on the wane. On August 15th, a few Americans will gather in the park at 18th Street and Calumet Avenue. Maybe a few names will be called: Ensign George Ronan, Black Partridge, and captain William Wells.
The sand hills once here have been leveled and the view of Lake Michigan where the Battle of Fort Dearborn took place has been built over. Two hundred years of the American experiment have come and gone. Something vague moves in the shadows of the cottonwoods.
Bailey, Bernadine. Puckered Moccasins: A Tale of Old Fort Dearborn. Chicago: Albert Whitman, 1938. Print.
Burgoyne, Leon E. Ensign Ronan: A Story of Fort Dearborn. Philadelphia: The John Winston Co, 1955. Print.
Crimmins, Jerry. Fort Dearborn: A Novel. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2006. Print.
Raymond, Evelyn. The Sun Maid: A Story of Fort Dearborn. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1900. Print and Digital Editions.
Robert Klein Engler lives in Des Plaines, Illinois, a city northwest of Chicago, first settled in 1835. Further observations on Fort Dearborn and the massacre are found in his book, Monarchs of August, available from amazon.com.