Returning to Battle of Ft. Dearborn in the Name of a Park

July 31, 2009

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INTRO: Three years ago, residents in the South Loop started talking about what to call a new park at the corner of 18th Street and Calumet Avenue. The park will finally be dedicated next month — with a name that harkens back to the earliest days of Chicago history. For WBEZ, Robert Loerzel has the story.

LOERZEL: The date was August 15th, 1812. The city of Chicago did not yet exist. Five hundred Native Americans — mostly members of the Potawatomi tribe — ambushed some ninety U.S. soldiers and white settlers who were marching along the lake. The War of 1812 between America and Britain had just begun. The U.S. Army ordered these troops and pioneers to abandon their wooden fort. In most history books, the bloody events of that day became known as the Fort Dearborn Massacre.

But on this August 15th, when a new park is dedicated at the site of that conflict, you won't see the word "massacre" anywhere. It's called "The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park." One of the people who lobbied to keep the word "massacre" out of the name is John Low [rhymes with "ow"]. He's a Potawatomi, and he's also executive director of the Mitchell Museum for the American Indian in Evanston.

LOW [20:44]: Well, what makes it a massacre? [20:53] ... if we win, it's a battle. If the other people win, it's a massacre. And so what we needed to do was find some language that wasn't making a judgment about right or wrong, but just acknowledging the fact that it was a historical event, and this is the location where it took place.

LOERZEL: A resident floated the idea of naming it after Black Partridge, a Potawatomi who reportedly spared the life of a white woman named Margaret Helm during the battle. Jerry Crimmins, author of the novel "Fort Dearborn," tells the story.

CRIMMINS [36:41]: He carried her into the lake up to her neck, and he went with her. And they stood in the lake up to their necks until the battle was over.

LOERZEL: In 1893, rail-car tycoon George Pullman owned this land. He commissioned sculptor Carl Rohl-Smith to create a monument that showed Black Partridge blocking another Indian from killing the white woman with a tomahawk. That statue used to stand near the place where the park is today, but it was moved over the years. The city of Chicago now has it in storage. Some neighbors wanted to bring the statue back to this spot, but Low didn't like that idea.

LOW [19:43]: What story does that tell? It's just the same story of the savage Indian and ... the noble Indian. And which one's going to prevail? And those are tropes that have been trotted out a lot in the past, and they're pretty well rejected by most people nowadays, and so we wanted to do something different.

LOERZEL: Low and other Native Americans talked with the Chicago Park District, Alderman Robert Fioretti and the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance. They reached a consensus. The Black Partridge statue will be nowhere to seen at this corner, and this patch of green lawn and trees will be called the Battle of Fort Dearborn Park. Today, the park is surrounded by historic houses, brand-new high-rises and the Illinois Central rails. Crimmins says the scene was quite different back in 1812.

CRIMMINS [30:17]: This would have been the beach. ... [30:32] There's a brick wall five yards behind us, and that's separating us from the railroad tracks. Lake Michigan was probably there. They were marching south along the beach ... [31:28] A hundred yards from here, to the west, was a long line of sand hills — not as big as the Indiana sand dunes. They were lower. They were about the height of a man, because you could see the rifles of the Indians sticking up behind the sand hills, and as the Indians moved, you could see the tips of their rifles. And so the battle began when the Indians fired on the marchers.

LOERZEL: Crimmins says at least sixty-one people from Fort Dearborn died during the battle or after the Indians took them captive. The battle gained its reputation as a massacre because the white victims included three women and twelve children. On the other side, about fifteen Indians died. Not all of the Potawatomi wanted to attack. Some of them argued against the ambush. Black Partridge even warned the U.S. soldiers to watch out.

CRIMMINS [33:34]: ... the night before the battle, Black Partridge went to Captain Heald and told him ... [33:47] 'Leaden birds are singing in my ears.' ... [34:01] he meant he could hear the sound of bullets and musket balls flying through the air. And he said he could not restrain his young men, and if the Americans left the fort in the morning, they were going to be attacked. And Captain Heald ignored that.

LOERZEL: John Low says his ancestors were fighting on the side of the British in the War of 1812 because they wanted to protect their land.

LOW [41:43]: There was a lot of angst over land loss, over Indian people feeling ripped off by the American government, by traders. There was a sense of loss. And they wanted to stop it.

LOERZEL: The Potawatomi won the Battle of Fort Dearborn, but twenty years later, they signed a treaty giving up their land. John Low's ancestors in the Pokagon [pronounced Po-KAY-gon] band of Potawatomi converted to Catholicism, so they were allowed to stay in Michigan and Indiana. Others were forced to march west in what Low calls "a trail of death."

LOW [23:17]: The prairie Potawatomi, who lived much more in the Illinois area, a little further south of Chicago, they didn't want to convert to any form of Christianity, and the Potawatomi in Indiana, all of them were forcibly removed in a giant ethnic cleansing.

LOERZEL: Tina Feldstein [pronounced feld-stine] is president of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance. She says most of her neighbors did not know the historical importance of the former battleground at the corner of 18th and Calumet.

FELDSTEIN [4:33]: I would say that the majority of people do not know how significant this site actually is... [5:50] I mean, God, since I've been coming down here, it was nothing more than an abandoned type of lot or gravel.

LOERZEL: Colonel Tom Purple, a deputy brigade commander for the Illinois National Guard, works at an armory down the street. Until recently, he was unaware that he was just a block away from the place where twelve members of the Illinois Militia died in 1812.

PURPLE [44:57]: Fort Dearborn is a very important part of the Illinois National Guard history. We trace our origins back to the Illinois Militia... [47:15] We should remember what happened here. We should remember who was here, why they were here, and in the military standpoint, all those who have fallen in developing our country and our city.

LOERZEL: John Low says he likes to think of the park as more than a battlefield.

LOW [18:30]: ...on one day in 1812, it was a place of conflict. For thousands of years before, it was a place that was given to us all, you know, from the creator, is what we believe. And so it's now a place where people live and where people come. And it's a place of, I think, peace and understanding.

LOERZEL: The Battle of Fort Dearborn Park will be dedicated from 10 to 11 a.m. on August 15th. The Illinois National Guard will present a ceremonial honor guard, Native Americans will play music, and historical re-enactors will dress up like Fort Dearborn folks from 1812. They will not, however, re-enact the battle.

For WBEZ, I'm Robert Loerzel.