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What Happened at Fort Dearborn

In "Rising Up From Indian Country," Ann Durkin Keating tells the story of a foundational event in Chicago's history, the battle of Fort Dearborn.

Book review, Aug. 10, 2012

About the Fort Dearborn Massacre, which happened 200 years ago this month, the historian Ann Durkin Keating wants to make two things clear: It didn't happen at Fort Dearborn, and it wasn't a massacre. But that's surely what you were expecting to hear. When it comes to American history, myth-busting revisionism remains the order of the day. You can hardly pick up a book about Paul Revere's ride without bracing yourself for the news that it was some other guy and he took the bus.

To be fair, Ms. Keating doesn't go all the way to the postmodern extreme and deny that something actually took place near Lake Michigan on Aug. 15, 1812 – maybe it wasn't at Fort Dearborn (a site now swallowed up by downtown Chicago), but it was at least in the neighborhood. Nor does she claim that the event wasn't deeply unpleasant. She'd just really rather you didn't call it a massacre.

So what happened – Here is the gist: Fort Dearborn was an isolated frontier garrison in a region then generally known as Indian Country, or else just "the Country." At the outbreak of the War of 1812, the fort was surrounded by several hundred Potawatomi warriors who were allies of the British. The American commander, Nathan Heald, received orders to evacuate – he would have been smarter to disobey and ride out the siege, but he seems to have believed that he had a tacit understanding for safe conduct. He, his troops – more than 50 of them – and a few dozen white settlers made their way from the fort down the Lake Michigan shore. After they had gone about a mile and a half, they were attacked. The fighting was short-lived and brutal. Inside of an hour, more than half of Heald's soldiers were killed; Heald himself, and almost all the survivors, were badly wounded. Many settlers were dead as well, including most of the children; some of the women had been taken captive. Several severely wounded soldiers were tortured to death that night.

This was the Massacre – or, as Ms. Keating prefers, the Battle. She would rather not say anything bad about any Indians who took part, and the word "massacre," I think we can all agree, has negative connotations. So Ms. Keating nitpicks at the word relentlessly. In a massacre, she notes, the killings are "indiscriminate"; that can't apply here, because the Indians had reasons. The targeting of the women and children, for instance, was perfectly logical: "From the perspective of the Potawatomis," she writes, "these women and children represented an advance guard of American settlers who challenged the bounds of Indian Country." Once this is understood, we can fix blame for what happened where it really belongs: "squarely on the shoulders of the U.S. government." Of course; where else?

It would be a pity if this kind of nonsense distracted readers from what is novel and valuable in Ms. Keating's book. Its exploration of the back story to the – well, perhaps we should just call it the "event" – opens up a fascinating vista of lost American history. The Country was not, as historical studies of the region usually picture it, a timeless domain of isolated villages among trackless forests; it was a place with its own tangled and difficult heritage. Since the 17th century it had been an ambiguous border region – the kind sometimes called a "shatter zone" – crowded with refugees, exiles and renegades on the run from the great Iroquois wars of the Northeast. By the time the main line of Ms. Keating's story begins, the Country had achieved a certain fragile balance, where the people of several ordinarily hostile tribes, together with a large number of white traders who had married Indian women, all mingled.

But by the early 19th century, this peace had started to unravel. Large numbers of white settlers were pushing into the frontier, with the backing of the American government. Their presence prompted the first major nativist political movement among the Indians, led by a mysterious figure known as the "Shawnee prophet." The prophet believed that settlers wanted the Country for themselves and that the treaties offered by the white government were nothing more than empty exercises in chicanery. It would be hard to argue that he was wrong there. But he went further and called for Indians of all nations to cleanse themselves of white influence altogether: no intermarriage, no trading for white goods, no alcohol. Even some of his most militant followers thought this was excessive.

Fort Dearborn, which was both a garrison and a trading post, became the center of growing unrest. Ms. Keating takes us through the inner workings of the fort from a unique vantage: a white trader named John Kinzie who had spent most of his life in the Country. Kinzie understood the anger of the local population, because he shared it: He wanted the newcomers to stay out and leave the Country the way it had been. On the other hand, he didn't have any use for the Shawnee prophet and his followers either – after all, if they succeeded, he would be out of business.

Much of the entertainment of "Rising Up From Indian Country" comes from watching Kinzie dealing and double-dealing with both sides in an increasingly desperate attempt to keep afloat as the situation deteriorated. As always seems to happen with people whose only interest is to stay neutral and make money, he found himself inexorably drawn further in – until, when everything at Fort Dearborn finally imploded, he was stuck precisely at ground zero.

It's a great story, and Ms. Keating's neutral, unemphatic prose makes it register all the more clearly. There are downsides: She summarizes the prophet's views lucidly enough but entirely misses the galvanic excitement he stirred up in the Country and throughout the Midwest (which contemporary accounts describe vividly). What does come through, however, is a sense of how complex and murky the issues were becoming and how tough it ultimately became to sort out the rights and wrongs.

Did the Indian warriors really kill the settler children because they were concerned with long-term demographic trends in the Country? Maybe, but elsewhere Ms. Keating argues plausibly that the children just had the bad luck to get between a band of warriors and the supply wagons, which were the real prize. How much did the occurrences of that day ultimately affect the fate of the Country? Ms. Keating would like them to be seen as decisive: White reprisals for it were what destroyed the Country, and this was the "foundational event" that led to the birth of Chicago and the creation of the modern Midwest. But her narrative strongly suggests otherwise: The event was ultimately an irrelevance – the prophet had been right, and whites had been determined to take the Country all along.

Ms. Keating frames her narrative with the odd story of a sculpture commissioned late in the 19th century as a commemoration of the event. It shows an Indian warrior rescuing a female settler from another Indian with a raised tomahawk. Commissioned by George Pullman, the sculpture stood for decades on the site of Fort Dearborn; then it was moved to the Chicago Historical Society; then out to a public park; then into storage – bounced around the city endlessly because nobody much likes it. It's too gruesome, too politically incorrect and too sheerly ugly to make for comfortable public viewing. But it does depict something that actually happened: The Potowatomi warrior Black Partridge rescued John Kinzie's stepdaughter. Many of the Potowatomi present that day objected strongly to the attack and did intervene to save settlers' lives. (Kinzie too was among those rescued – even in the midst of the bloodshed, he had managed to cut another deal.)

What the incident says about the larger issues of American colonization and the expulsion of the Indians isn't even remotely straightforward, but that's the point. As Ms. Keating's book shows, the more confused, violent, chaotic, ambiguous and ugly your image of a historical event becomes, the closer you may be getting to the truth.

This article appeared Aug. 10, 2012, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: Rising Up From Indian Country by Anne Durkin Keating (Chicago, 294 pages, $30)