1856 drawing showing Fort Dearborn as it appeared in 1831
|Architectural style||log-built fort enclosed in a double stockade|
|Part of||Michigan Wacker Historic District (#78001124)|
Fort Dearborn was a United States fort built in 1803 beside the Chicago River in what is now Chicago, Illinois. It was constructed by troops under Captain John Whistler and named in honor of Henry Dearborn, then United States Secretary of War. The original fort was destroyed following the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812, and a new fort was constructed on the same site in 1816. The fort was de-commissioned by 1837, and parts of the fort were lost to the widening of the Chicago River in 1855 and a fire in 1857; the last vestiges being destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The site of the fort is now a Chicago Landmark, part of the Michigan Wacker Historic District.
The history of human activity in the Chicago area prior to the arrival of European explorers is mostly unknown. In 1673, an expedition headed by Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, though possibly not the first Europeans to visit the area, was the first recorded to have crossed the Chicago Portage and travelled along the Chicago River. Marquette returned in 1674, camped a few days near the mouth of the river, then moved on to the portage, where he stayed through the winter of 1674 75. Joliet and Marquette did not report any Indians living near the Chicago River area at this time, though archaeologists have since discovered numerous Indian village sites elsewhere in the greater Chicago area. Two of La Salle's men built a stockade at the portage in the winter of 1682/1683. A Jesuit mission, Mission of the Guardian Angel, was founded somewhere in the vicinity of Chicago in 1696, but was abandoned in around 1700. The Fox Wars effectively closed the Chicago area to Europeans in the first part of the 18th century. The first non-native to re-settle in the area may have been a trader named Guillory, who might have had a trading-post near Wolf Point on the Chicago River in around 1778. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built a farm and trading post near the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1780s, and he is widely regarded as the Founder of Chicago. Antoine Ouilmette is the next recorded resident of Chicago; he claimed to have settled at the mouth of the Chicago River in July 1790.
In 1682, Ren Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle had claimed a large territory, including the Chicago area, for France. In 1763 the French ceded this area to Great Britain's Province of Quebec following the French and Indian War. Great Britain then ceded the area to the United States at the end of the American Revolutionary War, though the Northwest Territory remained under de facto British control until 1796. Following the Northwest Indian War of 1785 1795, the Treaty of Greenville was signed at Fort Greenville (now Greenville, Ohio), on August 3, 1795. As part of the terms of this treaty, a coalition of Native Americans and Frontiers men, known as the Western Confederacy, turned over to the United States large parts of modern-day Ohio, and various other parcels of land including six square miles centered at the mouth of the Chicago River.
On March 9, 1803, Henry Dearborn, the Secretary of War wrote to Colonel Jean Hamtramck, the commandant of Detroit, instructing him to have an officer and six men survey the route from Detroit to Chicago, and to make a preliminary investigation of the situation at Chicago. Captain John Whistler was selected as commandant of the new post, and set out with six men to complete the survey. The survey completed, on July 14, 1803, a company of troops set out to make the overland journey from Detroit to Chicago. Whistler and his family made their way to Chicago on a schooner called Tracy. The troops reached Chicago on August 17; the Tracy was anchored about half a mile offshore, unable to enter the Chicago River due to a sandbar at its mouth. Julia Whistler, the wife of Captain Whistler's son, Lieutenant William Whistler, later related that 2000 Indians gathered to see the Tracy. The troops had completed the construction of the fort by the summer of 1804; it was a log-built fort enclosed in a double stockade, with two blockhouses. The fort was named Fort Dearborn after Henry Dearborn, the Secretary of War, who had commissioned its construction.
The fur trader John Kinzie arrived in Chicago in 1804, and rapidly became the civilian leader of the small settlement that grew around the fort. In 1810 Kinzie and Whistler became embroiled in a dispute over Kinzie supplying alcohol to the Indians. In April, Whistler and other senior officers at the fort were removed; Whistler was replaced as commandant of the fort by Captain Nathan Heald.
During the War of 1812, General William Hull ordered the evacuation of Fort Dearborn in August 1812. Heald oversaw the evacuation, but on August 15 the evacuees were ambushed by about 500 Potawatomi Indians in the Fort Dearborn Massacre. The Potawatomi captured Heald and his wife, Rebekah, and ransomed them to the British. Of the 148 soldiers, women and children who evacuated the fort, 86 were killed in the ambush. The Potawatomi burned the fort to the ground the next day.
Following the war, a second Fort Dearborn was built in 1816. This fort consisted of a double wall of wooden palisade, officer and enlisted barracks, a garden, and other buildings. The American forces garrisoned the fort until 1823, when peace with the Indians led the garrison to be deemed redundant. This temporary abandonment lasted until 1828, when it was re-garrisoned following the outbreak of war with the Winnebago Indians. In her 1856 memoir Wau Bun, Juliette Kinzie described the fort as it appeared on her arrival in Chicago in 1831:
The fort was inclosed by high pickets, with bastions at the alternate angles. Large gates opened to the north and south, and there were small portions here and there for the accommodation of the inmates. ... Beyond the parade-ground which extended south of the pickets, were the company gardens, well filled with currant-bushes and young fruit-trees. The fort stood at what might naturally be supposed to be the mouth of the river, yet it was not so, for in these days the latter took a turn, sweeping round the promontory on which the fort was built, towards the south, and joined the lake about half a mile below
The fort was closed briefly before the Black Hawk War of 1832 and by 1837, the fort was being used by the Superintendent of Harbor Works. In 1837, the fort and its reserve, including part of the land that became Grant Park, was deeded to the city by the Federal Government. In 1855 part of the fort was demolished so that the south bank of the Chicago River could be dredged, straightening the bend in the river and widening it at this point by about 150 feet (46 m); and in 1857, a fire destroyed nearly all the remaining buildings in the fort. The fort's tower bell was rescued from the remains by Police Constable Jacob Schoenewald and donated for use in the bell tower of St. Joseph's Catholic Church during its construction in 1864. The blockhouse and the few surviving outbuildings were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Fort Dearborn was located at what is now the intersection of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue in the Loop community area of Chicago at the foot of the Magnificent Mile. Part of the fort outline is marked by plaques and a line embedded in the sidewalk and road near the Michigan Avenue Bridge and Wacker Drive. A few boards from the old fort were retained and are now in the Chicago History Museum in Lincoln Park.
Also in 1933, at the Century of Progress Exhibition, a detailed replica of Fort Dearborn was erected as a fair exhibit. As part of the celebration both a United States postage stamp and souvenir sheet (containing 25 of the stamps) were issued showing the fort.
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