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Reflections: Fort Dearborn was key to northern Illinois settlement

Roger Matile
Roger Matile

The Chicago Portage had been recognized as an important route between the waters of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River from the time of the Jolliet and Marquette expedition down the Mississippi in 1673.

Hearing tales that a large river lying west of the Great Lakes flowed toward what might be the Pacific Ocean, the governor of New France dispatched an expedition to determine the truth. He chose Louis Jolliet, an experienced frontiersman, along with Jesuit priest Father Jacques Marquette as leaders for the exploratory journey. Jolliet was an engineer, mapmaker and explorer, while Marquette was a gifted linguist, creating a good team.

Leaving the Straits of Mackinac, the expedition paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay, and then down the Fox River of Wisconsin to the portage to the Wisconsin River. They floated down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi River, and then turned downstream. By the time they reached the mouth of the Arkansas River, Jolliet had become convinced the Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, not the Gulf of California, and so the group headed back north.

When they reached the mouth of the Illinois River, some friendly Native People explained the Illinois was a shortcut to Lake Michigan, and so the expedition headed upstream on the Illinois. Jolliet noted in his account of the return voyage that he felt a canal easily could be built linking the Chicago River and that of the Des Plaines-Illinois system, connecting the waters of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.

Jolliet, however, was about 150 years ahead of his time, and the area that one day would be the bustling city of Chicago remained little more than a dismal swampy area with a few fur traders’ cabins until after the Revolutionary War. A canal linking the lake with the Mississippi system wouldn’t open until the late 1840s.

Although the Revolutionary War supposedly awarded the United States control over the Illinois Country, British fur trading interests weren’t willing to be put off so easily. Those commercial interests fomented Indian warfare against American settlers, resulting in the Battle of Fallen Timbers on Aug. 20, 1790, at which the Indians were badly defeated by the U.S. Army under Gen. Anthony Wayne. In August of the next year, in the Treaty of Fort Greenville, Wayne demanded several land cessions from the Indians so the U.S. could build forts to maintain control over the area north and west of the Ohio River – the Northwest Territory. One of these cessions was “one piece of land six miles square, at the mouth of the Chicago River.”

It was not until March 9, 1803, however, that orders were sent to Fort Detroit appointing Capt. John Whistler to command the proposed fort and its construction. Six weeks later, Whistler left Detroit with six men to survey a site for the new Army post. After his return June 14, an Army detachment to build the fort marched overland from Detroit to the new fort site under the command of Lt. James Strode Swearingen.

Meanwhile, Whistler traveled to Chicago via the lake route in a small sailing vessel with his wife and 15 children. On the afternoon of Aug. 17, the Army detachment reached the Chicago River and began construction of the fort where the sluggish stream bent southward before entering Lake Michigan.

For a number of reasons, it took a long time to build the new fort. Chicago was little more than a swamp, and the men were constantly stricken by “bilious fevers” and other diseases. Furthermore, there were no trees on the swampy site, so the men had to transport 14-foot logs needed for the fort’s walls from the opposite side of the river, and then haul them to the site by brute strength.

Upon completion in 1804, the post was named Fort Dearborn in honor of Henry Dearborn, a Revolutionary War hero and Secretary of War from 1801-1809 in President Thomas Jefferson’s administration.

The initial garrison of the fort consisted of three officers and 66 men, including four sergeants, three corporals, four musicians, one surgeon’s mate and 54 privates. Two small brass cannons were the fort’s only artillery.

At the outbreak of the War of 1812, the fort was ordered to be evacuated. As the garrison was marching away, local Native American tribesmen attacked. The subsequent Fort Dearborn Massacre resulted in the deaths of 39 men, two women and 12 children, as well as the capture of several others.

After the war ended in 1814, it was determined that the Chicago portage still was important enough to warrant being guarded by a fort, so Fort Dearborn was ordered rebuilt. Accordingly, work to rebuild the fort began July 4, 1816, four years after it was destroyed. The newly rebuilt fort was occupied until 1823, when the War Department ordered the garrison withdrawn.

This proved somewhat premature, however, and with the outbreak of the Winnebago War in 1827, troops once again were garrisoned at Fort Dearborn. After the Indian trouble subsided, the fort once more was abandoned, only to be reactivated in 1832 when the Black Hawk War broke out in northern Illinois.

After the Black Hawk War, treaties were signed in Chicago that forced the member tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy (Potawatomi, Ottawa and Chippewa) to give up their claims on land in northern Illinois, which eventually resulted in the removal of the Indians starting in 1835.

Shortly after Christmas 1836, the U.S. Army fired a final salute, and the flag at Fort Dearborn was hauled down for the last time. The old fort’s blockhouse was dismantled in 1857, and the last of the remaining barracks were destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871.

Today, the only remains of the old fort are plaques and a line embedded in the sidewalk and street near the Michigan Avenue Bridge and Wacker Drive in Chicago’s Loop – a far cry from the swampy site of old Fort Dearborn.

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