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Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago

Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago

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by Ann Durkin Keating

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In August 1812, under threat from the Potawatomi, Captain Nathan Heald began the evacuation of ninety-four people from the isolated outpost of Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne, hundreds of miles away. The group included several dozen soldiers, as well as nine women and eighteen children. After traveling only a mile and a half, they were attacked by five hundred


In August 1812, under threat from the Potawatomi, Captain Nathan Heald began the evacuation of ninety-four people from the isolated outpost of Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne, hundreds of miles away. The group included several dozen soldiers, as well as nine women and eighteen children. After traveling only a mile and a half, they were attacked by five hundred Potawatomi warriors. In under an hour, fifty-two members of Heald’s party were killed, and the rest were taken prisoner; the Potawatomi then burned Fort Dearborn before returning to their villages.

These events are now seen as a foundational moment in Chicago’s storied past. With Rising up from Indian Country, noted historian Ann Durkin Keating richly recounts the Battle of Fort Dearborn while situating it within the context of several wider histories that span the nearly four decades between the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, in which Native Americans gave up a square mile at the mouth of the Chicago River, and the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, in which the American government and the Potawatomi exchanged five million acres of land west of the Mississippi River for a tract of the same size in northeast Illinois and southeast Wisconsin.
In the first book devoted entirely to this crucial period, Keating tells a story not only of military conquest but of the lives of people on all sides of the conflict. She highlights such figures as Jean Baptiste Point de Sable and John Kinzie and demonstrates that early Chicago was a place of cross-cultural reliance among the French, the Americans, and the Native Americans. Published to commemorate the bicentennial of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, this gripping account of the birth of Chicago will become required reading for anyone seeking to understand the city and its complex origins.       

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Keating (co-editor, The Encyclopedia of Chicago), a history professor at North Central College in Illinois, sets the record straight about the War of 1812’s Battle of Fort Dearborn and its significance to early Chicago’s evolution. The author explores the overlooked evacuation of 94 people from Fort Dearborn to Fort Wayne under pressure from the Potawatomitribe, a valiant action costing half of Capt. Nathan Heald’s soldiers with the rest of the civilians taken captive.Famous names from Great Lakes loreplay an important part in her informative, ambitious account, such as British trader John Kinzie, U.S. Capt. William Wells, the Potawatomi chief Main Poc, trader Jean Baptiste Point de Sable, and the Indian chief Tecumseh. A welcome aspect of Keating’s work is the fair play she exhibits in shifting her focus between the Americans, the French, the British, and the Native Americans, making sure she touches on every notable event, regardless of the faction. On bookshelves in time to honor the bicentennial of the Fort Dearborn battle, Keating’s well-researched book rights some misconceptions about the old conflicts, the strategies of the whites and Indians to keep their land, and how early Chicago came to exist. 35 illus., 4 maps. (Aug.)
Wall Street Journal
[O]pens up a fascinating vista of lost American history. . . . It's a great story, and Ms. Keating's neutral, unemphatic prose makes it register all the more clearly.

— Lee Sandlin

Wall Street Journal - Lee Sandlin

“[O]pens up a fascinating vista of lost American history. . . . It's a great story, and Ms. Keating's neutral, unemphatic prose makes it register all the more clearly.”
Walter Nugent

“How did Chicago stop being Indian Country and become American? Ann Durkin Keating has recast that struggle into a story far more complex than the conventional ‘manifest destiny’ tale. Well researched and written, this book is an eye-opening account of Chicago's earliest, most contested days.”
Donald L. Miller

“Ann Keating has taken on the least explored area of Chicago history—its raucous beginnings—and brought it magnificently to life. The book is a landmark work, deeply researched and vividly written.”
Frederick E. Hoxie

“Ann Keating has given us a new three-dimensional picture of Chicago’s founding.  Rising Up from Indian Country paints a compelling picture of Chicago’s Indian Country origins and skillfully describes the tragedy at Fort Dearborn from the perspective of all who participated. This is a dramatic story that invites readers both to absorb new facts about the past and to reflect upon their meaning.”
Dominic A. Pacyga

Rising Up from Indian Country is a masterful study of Chicago’s founding story. Ann Durkin Keating displays her ample skills as a historian, tackling the city’s frontier experience and exploring the roles of the major players, especially those of John Kinzie and of Native Americans during this complex early period. She has cut through the fog of legend to give us a valuable look at Chicago when it was still Indian Country.”
Journal of American History - John P. Bowes

"Keating wants the people of Chicago to understand their origins more fully so that the ?rst star on the city’s ?ag can represent the intercultural history of Chicago more than a misunderstood battle. But this book provides something just as important for a wider audience. Rising Up from Indian Country adds depth and breadth to an understanding of the geographic, social, and political transitions that occurred on the shores of Lake Michigan in the early 1800s."
The Historian - Steven C. Eames

"Keating presents an excellent addition to the interpretation of Chicago’s early history while at the same time providing a reminder to all historians that early border societies were very complex."
Library Journal
Keating (history, North Central Coll.; coeditor, Encyclopedia of Chicago) uses the relatively obscure fall of Fort Dearborn on August 15, 1812, to explore the history, from the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 to the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, of the land that would become Chicago. She tells the story through the experiences of the Americans, Frenchmen, and Native Americans residing in the region. She also traces how the fall of Fort Dearborn has been remembered over time, most notably through the evolving treatment of a monument built in 1893 titled the Fort Dearborn Massacre, which has gone from publicly marking a seminal event in Chicago's history to being hidden from the public as a politically incorrect representation of the Potawatomi. VERDICT This monograph is recommended for everyone interested in the War of 1812 in the frontier regions of the Old Northwest. Readers should also consider Gillum Ferguson's Illinois in the War of 1812 and Adam Jortner's The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier.—John Burch, Campbellsville Univ. Lib., KY

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The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago


Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-42896-3

Chapter One

John Kinzie and the Traders in the Indian Country of the Western Great Lakes, 1763–1812

John Kinzie was born in 1763 in Quebec at one of the most significant moments in American colonial history. He would grow up in a world turned upside down by 1763, as new alliances and opportunities emerged in British colonial territory resting uneasily on an Indian Country. His mother, Emily (Anne) Tyne, came to North America as the wife of a British army chaplain, William Haliburton, and mother (or mother-to-be) of an infant daughter, Alice. They were part of the first British force to occupy Quebec after the impressive victory of General James Wolfe over the Marquis de Montcalm in September 1759. While British troops secured their hold on New France in 1760 by capturing Montreal, Kinzie's mother dealt with the death of her first husband. Alone in a war-besieged land, Emily married a surgeon in the British army in 1861, and John Kinzie was born two years later. The senior John Kinzie (Kenzie) died soon after his son's birth. Emily Kinzie, with two small children, had little choice but to seek out a third husband.

John's mother, widowed twice, married William Forsyth Sr. in 1765. Forsyth was a widower with four young sons (William Jr., Philip, Robert, and George) who had served in the British military and worked in the fur trade. Their blended family included Kinzie and his half-sister, Alice Haliburton, a half-brother, Thomas, born in 1771, and his stepfather's four older sons.

Initially, the family lived in New York City, where John Kinzie and two of his stepbrothers attended school. By 1768, however, the family had moved to Detroit, where William Forsyth purchased a tavern next to the fort and set up a thriving business selling liquor and other goods to the hundred-odd British soldiers stationed there. Forsyth and his sons constructed a ball field adjacent to their inn to draw in even more business.

Living at Detroit, the teenage Kinzie was not affected much by the Revolutionary War (1776–83), which was a distant distraction. Detroit, with about three hundred residents, was a British stronghold, "the very center of British military and governmental power in the western country." As well, Detroit was important to the fur trade in the Indian Country to the west. Traders traveled to Indian villages, but Indians also came to Detroit, where British gifts solidified their colonial hold on the region.

John Kinzie, seeking to make his way in this world, apprenticed with a silversmith, learning a craft in demand both by British colonists and in the fur trade. Silversmiths made buckles, cups, and other silver items for Euro-American families, as well as reworking silver pieces made in other colonies or in Europe. They also made silver ornaments and trinkets for the fur trade. By 1785 the twenty-two-year-old Kinzie was making wristbands, large crosses, armbands, and broaches to Indian tastes, as well as repairing silverwork for leading Detroit families.

Kinzie's skills as a silversmith helped him develop relationships with Indian traders and agents, some of whom he probably met as a youth at the Forsyth tavern. He made connections with some of the most prominent British traders in town, including Alexander McKee (the British Indian agent), John Hay (deputy Indian agent), Matthew Elliott, and Simon Girty. These men had left western Pennsylvania during the Revolution as Loyalists, and Kinzie allied himself deliberately with them.

Kinzie could have stayed at Detroit, but his opportunities were limited—the fur trade drew him into Indian Country. The people he would meet along the way shaped his understanding of Indian Country and his place in it.


John Kinzie did not move into an undifferentiated wilderness. The core of the Indian Country in the western Great Lakes was a dense, ever-changing system of tribal villages. Also, several networks of non-Native places including administrative, military, and trade centers operated within (or adjacent to) Indian Country during the colonial period.

In a traditional view of the "wilderness" of the American frontier, there was little room for the systems of villages and towns that served the disparate peoples of the Indian Country of the western Great Lakes. According to this imagined view of the past, only as Americans moved westward were there urban or proto-urban settlements. As historian Richard C. Wade writes, places like Pittsburgh, Lexington, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis were "planted far in advance of the line of settlement and they held the West for the approaching population ... through the wilderness." Wade persuasively argues for a central role for cities in the frontier. However, he ignores the networks of Native and non-Native places that made up Indian Country well before the arrival of American settlers on the scene.

There was, in fact, a broad range of settlements across the region well in advance of any Americans. Most villages were small, comprising just four or five extended families, but a few reached substantial size. Saukenauk, the summer town of the Sauks along the Mississippi, had a population of over a thousand. To the south along the river, Kaskaskia, long the French administrative center for the Illinois Country, also had a population of over two thousand by 1750. These networks of Native and non-Native villages and outposts ebbed and flowed with the seasons and over time, but remained a vital part of Indian Country.

Over the first half of the eighteenth century, the French established colonial administrative and trade centers in Quebec, Louisiana, and Illinois Country. Forts at Detroit, St. Joseph, Michilimackinac, Ouiatenon, and Vincennes, as well as Fort Chartres and Fort Miami, anchored the French colonial presence in the region between Quebec and Louisiana. Kaskaskia and later St. Louis became important centers along the Mississippi River, connecting the region to New Orleans, while Detroit became the northeast entrepôt, with connections to Montreal and Quebec.

After 1763 the British took nominal control of these administrative and trade centers in Quebec and Illinois, while the Spanish gained colonial control over New Orleans and St. Louis. The British also took over the former French forts across the western Indian Country, eventually abandoning St. Joseph, Ouiatenon, and Fort Chartres. Like the French before them, fewer than a hundred British soldiers staffed the smaller forts, while Detroit grew into several hundred residents.

As well as these deliberately planted colonial settlements, there were dozens of trading posts founded by French, British, and American traders across the western Great Lakes. Without a doubt, the fur trade led most non-Native people into Indian Country.

The fur trade had been an integral part of the western Great Lakes for more than a century. French traders traveled to Indian villages and sold their goods in exchange for beaver, otter, bear, and deerskins. The fur trade brought cloth, blankets, guns, iron implements, and alcohol to Indian tribes. These goods were both utilitarian and ceremonial: they were immediately useful to everyday life, but they also cemented a ceremonial relationship with newcomers.

French traders sought out Indian women as their wives because their ties to specific Indian villages and tribes were strengthened through marriage to local women. And these Indian women brought their skills as cooks, guides, herbal physicians, farmers, and household managers. The mixed-race children of these traders and their Indian wives were known as métis. The métis population grew with the fur trade, where their intermediary role gave them possible advantages over both their Indian and European counterparts. Métis women generally either married other métis men in a village or married incoming Euro-American traders.

Métis played a critical role in the Great Lakes fur trade. While some traders moved into their wife's Indian village, others established separate settlements that were distinct from those of either their Indian or Euro-American neighbors. Their buildings were often a composite of Indian and French styles, set in a rambling style in contrast to the rectangular grids of the European towns. Land ownership was not significant, with land titles rare in métis villages. Many métis families adhered to Roman Catholicism, but it evolved more as a house religion than a congregational one by the late eighteenth century.

Dress, language, and food reflected the melding of two distinctive cultural traditions. Métis wore a combination of European and Indian styles that could include the blue pantaloons and capote of their French forebears, coupled with moccasins and feathers drawn from their Indian heritage. Most métis children became fluent in French as well as the Algonquian language of their mothers. Young métis women learned to farm, but the methods and crops reflected both Indian and European traditions. French plows, wheat, and dairy cows were found alongside fields of corn, squash, and beans.

French fur traders continued to trade in the expanding territory of the Potawatomis and their allies long after the official exit of France in 1763. However, British traders also began to make their way to Potawatomi villages, vying for trade that had once been almost exclusively in French hands. After the American Revolution, American traders joined into the mix, in a trade conducted in various Algonquian dialects, French, and English. Those with facility in all these languages had the greatest access across Potawatomi country.

By the 1780s, some two dozen villages along the upper Great Lakes and the rivers that fed into them served as centers for the fur trade, including Milwaukee, Peoria, St. Joseph, Chicago, Kekionga, River Raisin, and Sault Sainte Marie. These settlements were near Indian villages but were not Indian villages. They were also closely tied to the larger trading outposts at Michilimackinac, Detroit, and Vincennes, but were not so tightly under colonial administration.

French, British, and American traders continued to move into Indian Country to seek their fortunes. They gravitated to established fur-trading outposts in the western Great Lakes. Among them was John Kinzie, who would tie his fortune to Indian Country. Kinzie was closely associated with three fur-trading outposts during his career: Kekionga, St. Joseph, and Chicago. As he moved to each of these places, his life would become intertwined not only with local Indians, but also with other traders, most especially with William Burnett and Jean Baptiste Point de Sable.


John Kinzie began trading south of Detroit at Kekionga in partnership with John Clark. Kekionga was a political and military outpost in the Indian Country in the western Great Lakes. There were at least six Shawnee, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Miami villages in the vicinity. The Delawares and Shawnees living near Kekionga were refugees from the expansion of the new United States into the trans-Appalachian West as American settlers moved into Kentucky and southern Ohio. The Shawnees, Delawares, and Miamis attacked American farmsteads in the hopes of stanching further migration. Their raiding parties destroyed farms, killed settlers, and took others captive, all with the hope of driving Americans back east.

While Kinzie was far from most of this fighting, he traded with Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware villages that included young American captives who had been taken as children and raised as members of Indian families. Kinzie no doubt encountered these captives, particularly in the Shawnee and Delaware villages in which he traded. One of these captives was Margaret McKenzie.

Over a decade before, while Margaret's father was away from their western Virginia farm, a Shawnee war party killed her mother and younger siblings, and took Margaret and her sister Elizabeth as captives. Both sisters grew up together among the Shawnees, and they met John Kinzie and his partner John Clark while they traded at Kekionga. The partners set up households with the sisters, affording them close connections within the Shawnee villages. Kinzie fathered three children (William, Elizabeth, and James) with Margaret McKenzie between 1788 and 1793. They made a life in Indian Country, where their neighbors included other British traders, but also Shawnee, Delaware, Potawatomi, and Miami villagers.

Little Turtle lived almost all of his life just to the west of Kekionga. While his village had traded with the French for generations, his family shifted their allegiance to the British before the Seven Years' War. During the Revolutionary War, as Little Turtle came to adulthood, he fought alongside the British against the Americans and became a war chief. Little Turtle watched with trepidation as American settlers poured into western Pennsylvania, western Virginia, Kentucky, and southeastern Ohio. Shawnee and Delaware refugees from these areas settled into villages nearby Little Turtle's village, and the British established Kekionga as a trading outpost in this increasingly dense and heterogeneous Indian Country. Like Kinzie, Little Turtle maintained his alliance with the British as he raised a family that included his daughter Sweet Breeze. He no doubt knew Kinzie and perhaps traded with him, although Kinzie had stronger ties to the Shawnees than to the Miamis around Kekionga.


To the northwest of Kekionga, St. Joseph flourished near the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The French established a fort and Catholic mission in the area, drawing people to the area. When they relinquished the fort in 1761, Pontiac and his allies took it until the British negotiated for control. For the next two decades, the British held the fort, while the remaining French traders prospered in trade with area Potawatomi villages. After the American Revolution, the British abandoned the fort—leaving the region to Potawatomi villagers and their traders.

Kakima was a Potawatomi woman born near the St. Joseph River around 1763, the year of John Kinzie's birth and the year that Pontiac's forces attacked nearby Fort St. Joseph. She was the sister of two Potawatomi leaders, Topinbee and Chebanse. Her parents brought her to Detroit for a Catholic baptism as an infant, as the mission was abandoned when the French left the region. As a result of generations of trade, Kakima no longer wore traditional Potawatomi clothing. Instead, she dressed in purchased cloth, decorated with trade ornaments.

Kakima's marriage to an American trader, William Burnett, in 1782 continued a long tradition among the St. Joseph Potawatomis where Indian women married traders. The couple traveled to Detroit to have their marriage performed by a Catholic priest, and they would later bring their children there to be baptized. Their household developed into a burgeoning trading outpost with a large house, a barn, storehouses, a blacksmith shop, and a bakery.

In addition to managing their trade while Burnett was away, Kakima was responsible for the successful farming operation. Like most Potawatomi women, she was a skilled horticulturalist. She cultivated fields of corn and wheat, as well as apple, peach, quince, and cherry orchards. Kakima also packed maple syrup in tradable baskets (mokucks). The farm surplus was often a substantial part of the trade goods that Burnett offered. For instance, in 1791 Burnett had "a great deal of corn" for sale, enough to fill three canoes (of a size that required three men in each). With their profits from farming, Burnett financed "adventures": a canoe loaded with goods that traders took to distant Indian villages. The monies from their agricultural surplus also paid for better equipment, such as a light French plow that Kakima could use, as well as for items like tea and salt.

While Burnett was clearly a shrewd trader, he relied heavily on Kakima's family connections. In turn, her extended family came to rely on Burnett's business associates to get the goods and services that they needed. She had many brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins in the vicinity, which provided a ready market for their trade goods. In February 1790, when Burnett arrived back at St. Joseph from his winter post along the Kankakee River, he found that Kakima, "his Indian woman," had "done on her part in the trading very, very well."


Excerpted from RISING UP FROM INDIAN COUNTRY by ANN DURKIN KEATING Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ann Durkin Keating is professor of history at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. She is coeditor of The Encyclopedia of Chicago and the author of several books, including Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age and Chicago Neighborhoods and Suburbs: A Historical Guide, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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