The outrageous PC whitewashing of the Fort Dearborn Massacre

Now comes the news that the Chicago Park District, bowing to political correctness of the most outrageous sort has renamed the site commemorating the Fort Dearborn Massacre as the Battle of Fort Dearborn.


Tableau on the Michigan Ave. bridge depicting the Fort Dearborn Massacre

As someone who has been researching a book about the War of 1812 for the past three years, I can say this, indeed, was a bloody massacre, committed by an overwhelming number of Pottawatomie and other Native Americans, whose victims were scores of white men, women and children. The two sides did not meet as equal forces on a battle field. On one side was a column of hundreds of Native American warriors who descended from behind the sand dunes on a column of soldiers and civilians who had  handed over Fort Dearborn to the Indians and were peacefully departing. The column of 148 soldiers and civilians, including women and children, presented no threat to the Native Americans. When it was over, more than 60 were killed, and most of the rest taken prisoners and sold into slavery. One entire wagon load of children too young to make the hike on foot were slaughtered.

There is no way to make this out as an even-handed battle, in which there was no “winners” or “losers,” as the backers of this monstrous renaming would have us believe.This renaming has no more legitimacy than renaming the American masscre of civililans in the Vietnam Village at My Lai a “battle,” as if it were a case of two sides were engaged in even numbers evenly armed.

To those who would respond by reminding me of all the wrongs that were done to Native Americans in numerous other settings, I would have this to say: Have you lost all sense of morality, in which we can justify one cruelty by pointing to another? Both sides have a lot to account for, but rewriting the facts won’t get us any closer to mutual understanding.


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  • Both sides have a lot to account for. Hmm. Yet there was only one genocide. Seems to me you need to do some more thinking, pale face. Or just shut up and deal with it.

  • In reply to DCYank:

    Very good, calling each other names will certainly lead to greater understanding.

  • Battles versus massacres? This isn't anything new, to be honest. For years, in classrooms and in history books, Wounded Knee and Sandcreek, where scores of Indian men, women, and children fell victim to slaughter, were referred to as battles much to the anger of the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne-Arapaho nations. If they were called 'massacres,' some whites became defensive, as perhaps some Indians have become in this situation. If it's a massacre, it should be commemorated as one as Ft. Dearborn should be. More importantly, I hope more people understand the frustration felt when the reality experienced by one group is undermined by a game of semantics all because some people are too proud or ashamed to admit when they (or their ancestors) have been wrong.

  • In reply to OKSooner:

    Apparently you didn't read to the end of the column, where I anticipated your response.

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    Apparently you didn't read what I wrote and therefore didn't understand my point so I'll make it really simple for you: I was agreeing with you and making the comment that frustration can be experienced by both sides when there is no understanding between.

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    Dennis, your last paragraph reminds me of Pat Buchanan's column about Jews in Germany retaliating against some German citizens in the immediate aftermath of World War II, though he wasn't so shameless as to onclude it with "both sides have a lot to account for." And just how much have you written about the ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans, like the Cobell v. Norton suit where for over a decade the U.S. government has argued, while it admits we unilaterally assumed control of valuable mineral rights on Indian reservations and promissed to pay royalties to the landowners, and that we didn't pay royalties, we don't have to try to do an accounting because much of the records have been lost, damaged, or never kept in the first place. Naw, ignore that, but get enraged over the naming of a park. You coward.

  • In reply to Rusty:

    The atrocities committed against Native Americans are well-documented and are not being contested here. You suggest that I can't write about this one issue unless I revisit the entire history of those atrocities, a clearly impossible requirement. What this post has to do with Pat Buchanan, I'm not sure, but whatever feeble rhetorical device you deploy doesn't detract from the point of the column. This was a massacre.

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    Dennis, of course you cannot "revisit the entire history of those atrocities", as you so deftly set up Rusty's "suggestion" before dismantling it as an "impossible requirement". Mmmm, one point for you. As an historian, I hope you cannot isolate this unfortunate event and proclaim it whatever you like. It has a history and a context, much like the process in which you are engaged, and by not acknowledging that, your words will not stand the test of inquiry, nor of time.

  • In reply to OKSooner:

    Two things you might consider, Dennis:

    First, does the outcome of this massacre/battle make it more of one than the other? The Pottawatomies surprise attacked a US military garrison during a time of war, and furthermore, did not kill everyone present. Pottawatomies were also killed in the attack, which tilts the balance toward a battle rather than a massacre.

    Second, as someone who has studied American Indian history for several years, I would disagree that the Pottawatomies faced "no threat" from the Americans. Perhaps there was no imminent threat, given that the Americans had relinquished the fort, but the presence of American settlers always presented a threat in the early 1800s to American Indian tribes; tribes were quite conscious that White settlers, either fronted or backed by the US military, posed a serious risk to their survival.

    I don't mean to subtract from the suffering of the American victims of this massacre/battle, but the context is also important.

  • In reply to cjfjapan:

    Attacked a garrison? Outside the walls of the fort, as the column of soldiers and civilians were peacefully leaving under the promise of safe passage? What, you mean that the children just happened to get in the way? The "context" was that the garrison and settlers had turned over the fort as well as its provisions and arms, to the tribal leadership Native Americans, who could have, and indeed did, walk in and recover them. Then burned the fort to the ground. Those who were leaving the fort were indeed turning the land back to the Native Americans. Yes, yes, we all knew that the soldiers and settlers would sometime be back, which was reason enough to kill them now.

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    The arms and munitions where all destroyed prior to leaving the fort, as well as the liquor. The military leadership knew of the pending attach, as indian chief Black Partridge had warned them, and the military leaders had sent reinforcements from Ft. Wayne for the trip back.

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    Just about everybody tries to re-write history for their own purposes.

  • In reply to cjfjapan:

    More reaction at:

  • In reply to OKSooner:

    Furthermore, "outrageous PC whitewashing" might be a bit of namecalling on your part too, eh?

  • In reply to OKSooner:

    cjfjapan: Let's turn it around for moment. If this had been hundreds of U.S. Cavalry attacking 148 retreating Indians, would you still be making the same "its a battle not a massacre" argument? Somehow I doubt it...

  • In reply to OKSooner:

    Probably not, but that assumes that one was an invader and one was a defender. Even though the US had "claimed" the Great Lakes by 1783, it was still Indian Country, and the US military and settlers were considered invaders by some tribes. Defensive war has been justified by ecclesiastic, national and international authorities for centuries.

    In the bigger picture, don't all societies celebrate their victories and mourn their defeats? This was clearly a defeat for the US military, but should this be seen only from their perspective? The Tribune piece on this articulates well, IMHO, the current Pottawatomie perspective. James Loewen's recent book "Lies Across America" shows how one-sided most historical monuments are. I'm glad this one is getting at more sides to the story than just one.

  • In reply to OKSooner:

    I agree with you that renaming the monument is wrong. White settlers who were outnumbered were massacred by Native Americans allied to the British during the War of 1812. However, I do not agree with your attempt to shut down your critics by suggesting they are immoral. It is worth remembering that the atrocities committed against Native Americans by whites far outweighs the reverse. The reason is because so few Americans know about the systematic destruction of Native Americans in the late 19th Century. Few Americans know about the Sand Creek Massacre, the Wounded Knee Massacre and countless other atrocities against native peoples. I recommend Dee Brown's book, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." It is the most shocking book I have ever read--an account of brutality only equaled in my estimation by Elie Wiesel's "Night," an account of the Holocaust. Truth be told, the war against the Native Americans was a genocide. Yet I see no monuments, no remembrance and no contrition.

  • In reply to craigbarner:

    Nobody's renaming any never had a name in the first place.

  • In reply to OKSooner:

    This is a really dumb piece, but then you write in favor of the birthers and seek to self promote your upcoming book so what would one expect? No one is renaming the massacre of Ft. Dearborn or whitewashing it. Go out and read the historical marker. The community is paying tribute to the event, just as the Chicago flag does (one of the stars) through a park naming. When you name a park do you have to bend to political correctness? Yes, you do. Naming a park is a political function not an historical account. naming the park has brought attention to the event, and efforts are underway to broaden the awareness of the event by having the park included in historical tours. Additionally, for every Soldier Field event some 15,000 or so folks will pass by the new historical marker and may learn something, and may even have their curiosity tweaked to go find a book about the event, or Google it. No one is making it out as an equal battle, or a battle only among soldiers or anything else by the name of a park. IT commenmorates an important historical event near the event's location and does so in a manner so as not to offend.
    On the contrary your swipe and ridiculous position that the park district is rewriting history is done for a single motive -- profit. To allow you to sell a free lance column and to promote your forthcoming book. Maybe you should donate a percentage of your royalties to the community groups and individuals who volunteered their time to get this done.

  • In reply to OKSooner:

    "Now comes the news that the Chicago Park District, bowing to political correctness of the most outrageous sort has renamed the site commemorating the Fort Dearborn Massacre as the Battle of Fort Dearborn."

    This is completely false. The site is being renamed from Columbia Park. The site never before commemorated the Fort Dearborn Massacre. Don't let facts get in the way of your fake outrage.

  • In reply to rottietal:

    This is from the Chicago Tribune story (linked to in my post):

    A tragic chapter in Windy City history known to generations of schoolchildren as "The Ft. Dearborn Massacre" will be renamed by the Chicago Park District on Saturday.

    With a military honor guard and Native American dancers, a patch of green at 18th Street and Calumet Avenue is to be dedicated the "Battle of Ft. Dearborn Park."

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    First, I don't see how repeating a false statement from the Tribune exonerates you. Be a journalist. Second, your statement went beyond the false one in the Tribune, because you said the Park was renaming "the site commemorating the Fort Dearborn massacre." The small park at 18th never before commemorated anything to dow ith Fort Dearborn. And the Tribune never said it did.

    Why is it so hard for you to simply confess to your mistake?

  • In reply to DennisByrne1:

    Lazy reporting and research Dennis. I expect more from you. A symptom of today's Blog reporting laziness, just passing on other peoples information without checking facts. The park never had a name thus there was no renaming, nor was it ever named "The Fort Dearborn Massacre" Park, nor is the use of the name "Battle of Ft Dearborn Park" meant to alter the definition of 'massacre' or 'battle'. The use of "whitewashing" is a bit hysterical.

    The Chicago Park District wanted to name the park (privately constructed and transferred over to CPD inventory in 2007) Harriet Monroe Park, as the Chicago Poetry Society promised $$$ for the naming rights. The community disagreed, and wanted to name the park "Black Partridge Park", after the Native American who warned of the attack (the military did know), and also was depicted in the statue that stood on the land built by George Pullman from 1890's to the 1970's (the statue was removed due to disrepair it's foundation and the city feared lawsuits & liability if it ever fell over - it is now stored under Roosevelt Rd).

    The city and PC police then stepped in and feared the Black Partridge name may be insulting (despite its factual historic link), as Black Partridge could be considered as a sell out by some. Thus to avert the 'massacre' of the history of the site and it's impact on Chicago's Historical lore, a compromise on "The Battle of Ft Dearborn" park was reached.

    By naming "The Battle of Ft. Dearborn Park", all aspects and views of the event could be communicated in the big picture of it's historical context, and will not be buried under
    the name "Harriet Monroe Park" for $$$$, which would be far worse "whitewashing" or "greenwashing" or "political correctness".

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