Between the Battles | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Between the Battles 

During a lull in the bloodshed, natives and soldiers took time out for a footrace through the countryside near Fort Dearborn.

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Fort Dearborn, built in 1803, had three cannons, scores of muskets, and as many as 96 American soldiers, who lived behind 14-foot walls of rough-hewn logs. These inner walls, which were topped with iron "crow's-feet," were surrounded by a lower second fence made of saplings, and the no-man's-land between the walls could be swept by gunfire from two blockhouses at opposite corners of the fort. The blockhouses could also fire beyond the outer walls should an Indian or British enemy rashly approach.

An Indian prophet said the Americans were the spawn of the evil spirit and "scum" from the Atlantic Ocean, and the Great Spirit would soon bury them all. A chief of the Potawatomi tribe, the dominant Indian tribe in the Chicago area, called the Americans the "white devil with his mouth wide open." In 1807, British officials sent a message to Indian tribes on the shore of Lake Michigan to prepare for a fight against the Americans that would cause warriors to "wade up to their ankles in blood."

It might seem that at Chicago's birth Indians and Americans were consumed with mutual hatred. And sure enough, when the Americans evacuated the fort in 1812 they marched into what today is called the Fort Dearborn Massacre. But for the most part, Indians and whites coexisted. There was a day when a man from the "Big Knives" (the soldiers) and another from the Potawatomi, or Neshnabe ("the People"), ran a five-mile footrace in front of a peaceful crowd.

August 17 is the 200th anniversary of the day when the first U.S. soldiers occupied this area. The troops slogged overland from Detroit to Lake Michigan, then followed its southern shoreline. Their captain and the women and children arrived by sailing ship from Detroit. They built their fort inside a U-shaped bend of the river by what is today Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. A fort was needed to protect the Chicago portage.

In that era, when freight moved best by water, the Chicago portage was the hike between the Chicago River and the Des Plaines River--which is to say between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River watersheds. Visionaries could see that if a canal were dug, the Chicago portage could link the Atlantic Ocean with New Orleans. The portage was crucial to the fur trade and to the eventual settlement of what whites considered the wilderness.

The Indians recognized the value of the Chicago portage. But to them the land was not empty and wild; it was the fruitful world they intended to pass on to their children. Yet they'd enthusiastically joined in the fur trade since the 17th century, even though as animal numbers declined the trade drew white men farther and farther into the interior. The merchandise, guns included, that the Indians could acquire by trading furs was irresistible.

In 1803, when the soldiers erected Fort Dearborn, Lake Michigan was less than 300 yards east. Across the river, a strip of grass and low plants about 350 yards wide ran along the north bank, and beyond it was forest. In that open space Jean Baptiste Point DuSable had built, in the last decade of the 18th century, a large log house with many outbuildings. DuSable's home stood just about where the automobile turnaround is today at the northeast end of the Michigan Avenue bridge (this according to a map by Don Schlickan in Compendium of the Early History of Chicago to the Year 1835 When the Indians Left, by Ulrich Danckers and Jane Meredith).

Three much smaller cabins were widely dispersed along the north bank, the farthest out at Wolf Point. DuSable had moved away by the time the American soldiers arrived, and his house and the other, simpler cabins were occupied by civilian families, all headed by white men married to Potawatomi.

The south bank of the Chicago River west of the fort was an uninhabited marsh for much of the year. Holding scattered trees, it ran west almost to the fork of the river and south as far as today's Madison Street. Farther west and southwest was tallgrass prairie.

The soldiers built Fort Dearborn directly across the river from DuSable's big house. Security was very much on the mind of Captain John Whistler and his men, for only eight years had passed since the end of the long and bloody Indian wars that followed the American Revolution. Yet the soldiers were far from being harassed when they arrived and began to unload their ship. Two thousand Indians came to watch. They called the sailing ship a "big canoe with wings."

In those days Indians brought in most of the furs. White traders and a few black traders paid the Indians with manufactured goods--such as cloth and clothing, tools, guns, powder, steel arrowheads, steel tomahawks, jewelry, beads, and cooking utensils--and hard-to-get imports, such as ostrich feathers and cocoa powder. Once the fort was raised, Indians came to its vicinity regularly to trade. They traded either with the government store--the "factory"--which the government had created for them on the south bank, or at John Kinzie's private trading house on the north bank, where the goods were better but no doubt more expensive. Kinzie, who had moved into DuSable's former home, also sold liquor, something the government would not do.

Indians also came once a year to the Indian agency outside the fort to receive their "annuities." These were payments from the U.S. government for land the Indians had sold to the United States. Indian chiefs visited the fort regularly to say hello and receive gifts, and on occasion Indians who were sick showed up to sample a white man's remedy.

At Fort Dearborn, as at most border posts, months and years went by when almost nothing happened aside from the misadventures of too much drink. According to Dr. John Cooper, an army surgeon at Fort Dearborn whose reminiscences are held by the Chicago Historical Society, Whistler and his officers would go out for pleasure rides unarmed. Things got so peaceful that in the summer of 1809 an official in Washington ordered the soldiers to do the Indians' blacksmith work--apparently to save the money the fort had been paying a traveling blacksmith. This meant repairing the Indians' metal traps and tools, even their guns. A civilian Indian agent pronounced military discipline at Captain Whistler's fort lackadaisical.

In 1808 several hundred Indians led by the great warrior Main Poc demonstrated outside Fort Dearborn. They were protesting the poor quality of goods, traps, and guns sold to them at the U.S. government "factory." The next year Winnebago from around the present Illinois-Wisconsin line launched an attack on the fort. It failed because the Indian agent had been tipped off. The Indians decided to stay for gifts and trade, according to a letter from Indian agent Charles Jouett that's in the National Archives. Jouett and the "attackers" wound up negotiating over the horses the Winnebago allegedly stole.

In this relatively placid atmosphere at least one soldier and perhaps many more used to run for exercise far out on the prairie. The Indians, according to an account of life in early Chicago by Kinzie's daughter-in-law, Juliette Kinzie, were known for an "Indian trot" in which they ran for miles. The Indians were allowed a small permanent camp about 1,000 yards southwest of the fort, and no doubt each contingent watched the other's runners. Word spread of a swift young soldier and a swift young Potawatomi. An idea developed.

The soldier was Lieutenant William Whistler, son of the commander of the fort. Cooper described Lieutenant Whistler as "over six feet, and like his father, famous for his personal strength and powers of endurance." Cooper wrote that the young Potawatomi was a chief, but he recorded neither his name nor his village. "They were both magnificent specimens of vigorous young manhood, and of the same age and size. The Indian was a great runner who had never been beaten. The distance was five miles."

Staging such a race before spectators could have been risky. Forty years earlier, British soldiers at Fort Mackinac had left the gates of their fort open to watch Indians play lacrosse. The Indians got inside and massacred the garrison. Yet John Whistler and the Indians managed the Fort Dearborn race without incident. The Indian spectators probably came from the nearest permanent Indian village, which according to Cooper was 16 miles away near the bend of the Calumet River. The Potawatomi in those days lived intermixed with the Ottawa and the Chippewa (or Ojibwa) in many villages.

Cooper says "several hundred" Indians and the entire garrison witnessed the race. "The wager was the lieutenant's horse and accoutrements against those of the chief and his steed." American soldiers didn't decorate their mounts, but paintings of the Potawatomi in Indiana done in the 1830s show horses decked out in grand style, with silver chains and jewelry, many bells, and colorful cloth decorations.

Cooper tells us there were plenty of side bets. Indians liked to gamble and the soldiers were willing. The officers and soldiers of Fort Dearborn "accepted all wagers offered by the Potawatomi," including "many Indian ponies and other property," against whatever the soldiers wished to put up. The enlisted men owned little, but the officers could have put up their personal horses or their personal cows or dogs.

The path of the race is unknown. Billy Whistler and the young chief could have run out 2.5 miles along one of the main trails, probably straight south, and then come back. If they'd done that, most of the race would have been out of everyone's sight. Or they could have run round and round the fort, as Achilles and Hector ran round and round that other place long ago. But it's not likely Captain Whistler would have allowed Indian spectators to surround the fort.

So the two contestants probably ran around an area that is today's downtown. To avoid the marsh near the river, they would have started at about Madison Street, possibly even at State and Madison. Whatever the route, Whistler finished running it 16 yards in front.

Indians and whites fascinated each other. Indians imitated so many of the whites' ways that Indian prophets periodically felt a need to condemn the practice and urge a return to the proper Indian way of life. Whites emulated the Indians' elaborate figures of speech. Intellectuals devoted much time to learning and recording Indian ways.

But ultimately, of course, whites and Indians were competing for the same land. The U.S. government kept buying land from the tribes that many Indians didn't want to sell. The Indians were well aware that white people had come to America only in recent centuries and that the Indians had once occupied all the land to the Atlantic Ocean. Tecumseh, the great Indian leader, wanted to drive the whites at least south of the Ohio River, and the British told him that the king of England would help accomplish this. When the War of 1812 began, Tecumseh joined the British side.

Indians influenced by Tecumseh attacked in Detroit and Chicago on the same day. They assaulted Fort Dearborn as the soldiers and civilians there were abandoning it, having been ordered to evacuate by a befuddled old general in Detroit. The same general surrendered the town and fort of Detroit to the British and Indians.

The toll of Americans who were killed in the Fort Dearborn Massacre, or later died or were killed in captivity, reached 61. Sources disagree, but as few as 2 or as many as 15 Indians were killed in the battle.

Long before the massacre, the army had transferred the Whistlers to other outposts. Cooper says that in the War of 1812 the young Potawatomi chief who had run against William Whistler fought against the Americans, possibly near Detroit. The young chief challenged the Americans to send someone out to meet him in man-to-man combat. Lieutenant Whistler answered, and they dueled again, this time to the death "with knives, swords and tomahawk," according to Cooper. And Cooper says Lieutenant Whistler killed the Indian.

But it should be noted that Cooper had gone back east long before this confrontation. Cooper wouldn't have seen it or been anywhere near it. There is good reason to reject this ending, and I choose to. I'd rather believe that both runners lived to old age and often told the story of how they raced when they were young.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Damon Locks.

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