William Hull's Detroit Campaign
The Fort Dearborn Massacre
On August 15, 1812, Captain Nathan Heald was prepared to carry out the final details of a rather disturbing order from his American commander, General William Hull. Heald was told to lead his modest group of soldiers, militiamen, women and children, out of Fort Dearborn to the safety of Fort Wayne. More than half of this party would not live to reach their destination.
The evacuation of the fort, located near the mouth of the Chicago River, comes as Hulls confidence in his Northwestern campaign begins to crumble. After hearing that Fort Mackinac has fallen to the enemy, Hull decides that Fort Dearborn is at risk.
Relations with the nearby Potawatomi and Winnebago had become increasingly strained. William Henry Harrison had campaigned against the local Natives since 1811. More and more Indians were siding with the British. Given the volatile situation, many residents of the fort were convinced that staying put was less risky than physically exposing themselves on a march. Heald, though sympathetic to their point of view, could not be persuaded to disobey his commander.
Hull also ordered the destruction of all the forts excess arms, ammunition, and whiskey. Heald was to distribute the remaining goods to the local Indians in the hopes of appeasing them. Blankets and food were not foremost on the Indians minds; the booty they had hoped to gain had been deliberately destroyed. Some sources would later claim that the Indian attack was in retribution for this deed.
The party of fifty-four soldiers, twelve militia, nine women and eighteen children was led by a former Miami warrior, Billy Wells. Under the influence of Wells, who was born white but raised as an Indian, thirty or so Miami warriors agreed to accompany the group. Wellss face was painted black. The war paint was an appropriate symbol of the imminent danger. He fully expected an ambush and spotted signs of it early in the journey. Just over a nearby sand dune, Chief Blackbird waited to strike. He was at the head of a five hundred-man Potawatomi and Winnebago ambush party.
Wells and Heald led a desperate attack up the dune. The wagon-train of women and children was left unprotected. In no time, the Americans were completely surrounded and alone; the Miami warriors had fled upon realizing the strength of the other tribes. Half the soldiers were killed and the local militia force was systematically wiped out. One bloodthirsty young warrior slipped into a covered wagon and beheaded twelve children. Mrs. Heald's black slave, Cicely, was one of two women killed while fighting to save the young ones.
Heald was wounded but alive. Wells was not so lucky. His head was cut off and his heart eaten by the chiefs who hoped to gain some of his courage. Despite Healds efforts to ransom the survivors, more were killed after the battle. Others remained Indian prisoners for almost a year.
This violent defeat of the Americans, coupled with the British success at Detroit, convinced the tribes of the Upper Mississippi and Missouri to join Tecumseh's growing Confederacy. Within weeks of the outbreak of war, Fort Wayne remained the only U.S. military post in the Old Northwest. American hopes of a quick three pronged assault of Canada evaporated. The American public was outraged by the brutality of the Fort Dearborn Massacre and cried for revenge.