Massacre of Chicagoans at Michigan Ave or Raging Battle?

AUGUST 15th - 48 people, including 12 children, are killed at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt in Chicago. 20 more would die after the initial violence. 

Thankfully, this isn't breaking news (Original title picture courtesy of

The city of Chicago has long made the news for its violence, including its shootings, murder rate, police policies, gang activity (dating all the way back before Prohibition), racism and countless other instances of violence. Unsurprisingly, history tends to repeat itself. Even Chicago's earliest history was marked by shootings that may or may not have been justified or based on race, depending on who you asked. In this instance though, no one questions that the conflict was racially motivated. At the time, it didn't revolve around "Black Lives," "Blue Lives," or "All Lives," but it was more related to Chicago's "Blackhawks."

On August 15th, 1812 the inhabitants of Fort Dearborn were attacked by Potawatomi Indians. The city of Chicago was still yet to be conceived and the resulting conflict is presently heralded as "The Battle of Ft. Dearborn." Back in 1812, however, the news of the conflict spread through the U.S., where it was referred to as the "Ft. Dearborn Massacre." Ft. Dearborn could have been considered the "Alamo" of the War of 1812. The ensuing rhetoric from American politicians and revenge taken against Native Americans was widespread and fierce. 


On June 18, 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain, which kicked off the war of 1812. By July, 600 British troops and Native Americans had descended on Mackinac Island in Michigan and captured 61 U.S. troops and Ft. Mackinac. The war had begun. At the time, there were over a hundred U.S. soldiers and citizens residing in Ft. Dearborn, which was located in modern day downtown Chicago. 

Word of the U.S. defeat eventually reached Ft. Dearborn, but not until August 9th. The United States was concerned that it could no longer support the fort with either supplies or protection and the fort needed to be evacuated. By this time many Native American tribes--tired of U.S. expansion into their territories--were beginning to join the British cause. The members of Ft. Dearborn needed to head south to Ft. Wayne (present day Indiana). They intended to trade a majority of their liquor and ammunitions to the Potawatomi tribe to ensure a safe passage to Indiana. They even met with the tribe to let them know that they would be evacuating Ft. Dearborn and heading Southeast. The Americans at Ft. Dearborn ultimately decided to burn their excess liquor and ammunitions fearing the that goods could lead to unwanted violence against them (little did they know)... The Potawatomi men and especially the young, warrior-aged men were upset about the fact that they were deprived of the Ft. Dearborn goods. On August 15th about 100 Americans evacuated Ft. Dearborn, but on their intended route to Ft. Wayne, they were met by over 500 Potawatomi soldiers. The encounter left 48 Americans dead. This included 12 children, 2 women, and a number of militiamen and soldiers. 20 more Americans would die from wounds, torture, and captivity.

Original Photo Courtesy of

Original Photo Courtesy of


Today the more common reference to the Potawatomi-American conflict is the "Battle of Ft. Dearborn." Somewhere along the way this shifted from the "Ft. Dearborn Massacre." A Chicago Tribune Article titled, "It wasn't the Fort Dearborn Massacre," was even published on the 200th anniversary of the conflict (2012). The article cites the idea that, "Words are Powerful," so we should call it the "Battle of Ft. Dearborn," not the "Ft. Dearborn Massacre." While (almost...) any politician today would probably side with the Tribune article, as a historian I have to wonder if this is mitigating what actually happened at the event? Let's dive into a few other instances of the word massacre or the lack of the word in other conflicts as we assess the historic importance of verbiage.  

I mentioned the "Battle of the Alamo" previously, so it only makes sense to start here. There were quite a few similarities in the Battle of the Alamo and the Ft. Dearborn conflict. 1). They were both "forts" under siege during a war with a foreign enemy on disputed soil. 2). The territorial disputes were unclear, but without conducting an unbiased poll, I would venture to say that most people today would agree that the U.S. was laying claim to land in the Midwest and Texas that wasn't exactly their land. 3). The American side of both conflicts suffered heavy defeats. Every Alamo defender died, most likely about 200 men. Accounts even suggest that James Bowie was so ravaged by illness that he couldn't even move from his bed to defend himself as he was killed. Not every man died at Ft. Dearborn, but over 50% did. 4). The fighting at the Alamo lasted about 90 minutes, the fighting at Ft. Dearborn lasted about 15. Both were relatively short conflicts, but perhaps a 90 minute conflict seems less like a massacre than a 15 minute one. 5). There were American women and children present at both the Alamo and Ft. Dearborn. 

So, why was Ft. Dearborn remembered as a massacre and the Alamo a battle? Probably because at the Alamo the Mexican General, Santa Anna, pledged safe passage for every woman and child. Not only did he pledge safe passage, but he also gave each woman $2 dollars and a blanket so that they could continue on their way. At Ft. Dearborn 12 children and 2 women were killed. 14 women and children were killed in a battle where only 15 of Potawatomi men were killed total. 

From the opposite standpoint we can compare the "Ft. Dearborn Massacre." To the "Massacre at Wounded Knee." In fact, when I googled the term "massacre," this is what I found. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary uses the Wounded Knee Massacre as an example sentence. The U.S. was the aggressor on this occasion almost 80 years after Ft. Dearborn. The U.S. was forcefully attempting to take away the arms of the Sioux indians (so much for the 2nd Amendment). As you can guess, this erupted into a full blown conflict (most likely started by the U.S. Downplaying the gravity of each of these historical situations, they were pretty similar on paper. The U.S. wanted the Sioux's guns (just as the Potawatomi wanted the American's guns) and eventually a conflict broke out. Obviously, the big difference in this case was that the American's of Ft. Dearborn had previously offered their guns, not so much the case for the Sioux. All in all, at least 200 Native American men, women and children were killed and about 30 American soldiers suffered the same fate. I do want to state the fact that this was a terrible massacre caused by the Americans and is correctly categorized as such. If one looks at the numbers, though, they aren't so far off proportionately from the Ft. Dearborn conflict.

At Ft. Dearborn, ~70 Americans were killed, while ~15 Potawatomi were killed. At Wounded Knee ~200 Native Americans were killed while ~30 Americans were killed. The distribution falls to the Wounded Knee side, as Native Americans suffered the higher rate of death. However, based on the logic, should the Battle of Ft. Dearborn be classified as a massacre? In today's world, where violence seems to be a mainstay, perhaps every conflict should be considered a massacre? However, this isn't about political correctness or peace. This is about classifying history. What do you think?

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Bryant HoltComment