Vickroy: Geographer honors victims of Fort Dearborn
DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org | (708) 633-5982 August 1, 2012 8:14PM
Sherry Meyer, of Palos Heights, poses with some of the historical materials involving early Chicago, the War of 1812 and Fort Dearborn at Palos Heights Public Library in Palos Heights, Illinois, Tuesday, July 31, 2012. Meyer will be giving a presentation on Chicago's role in the War of 1812. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Want to go?
Sherry Meyer presents “Remembering Fort Dearborn” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Palos Heights Public Library, 12501 S. 71st Ave.; (708) 448-1473; palosheightslibrary.org.
Meyer also has a website, fortdearborn.us, and a Facebook page dedicated to remembering the fort.
Updated: September 3, 2012 12:35PM
The great tragedy lasted only 15 minutes, but, says Sherry Meyer, its effect has lasted centuries.
Let’s journey back to a time when rivers and waterways were America’s super highways, when it took weeks, even months for messages to get from Point A to Point B, when Chicago was just an outpost on the country’s northwest frontier.
Fort Dearborn, named for Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of war, was established in 1803, the same year the Louisiana Purchase was finalized and the state of Ohio was admitted to the Union. The fort was located at what would become the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive.
Back then, Chicago was a place where farmers, traders and researchers settled, protected from danger and hostility by the military men who lived with their families at the fort.
“At this time, America struggled with its identity,” said Meyer, an urban geographer who studies that period in Chicago history. She will present “Remembering Fort Dearborn” at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Palos Heights Public Library. She also has a website and Facebook page dedicated to understanding Fort Dearborn’s role in history and to honoring those killed in the Fort Dearborn massacre.
“At the time the fort was built, we were still trying to establish boundaries and define what it meant to be American,” she said.
Expansionism was a popular notion. Many Americans wanted to head westward.
But to Native Americans, expansionism meant encroachment. It also meant not keeping promises made during the Revolutionary War to establish a homeland territory in the Midwest for Indian tribes.
At the same time, increasing tension between Americans and the British over trade with Britain’s enemy, France, and over who should rule Canada laid the groundwork for the War of 1812.
While many may mistakenly consider the war to be a sequel to the American Revolution, the War of 1812 really deserves to stand on its own issues. And now, in its bicentennial year, it deserves to be remembered, Meyer said, particularly by Chicagoans.
“At the end of the War of 1812, the future of America had been decided, and Chicago was to play a significant role,” said Meyer, of Palos Heights.
Word traveled slowly back in 1812. Though war had been declared in June, when Fort Mackinac came under siege in July by British soldiers and their Indian allies, none of the surrendering occupants knew about it. But when supply runs from Mackinac stopped, those stationed at Fort Dearborn soon learned the news.
On Aug. 15, Gen. William Hull, commander of all U.S. troops in the territory, gave the order to evacuate Fort Dearborn.
The 150 or so occupants were to be accompanied to safety at Fort Wayne by the Potawatomi, in exchange for the fort’s cache of supplies. But at the last minute, leaders decided to burn the supply of alcohol and ammunition rather than give it to the natives.
Two miles from the fort, the evacuees were overtaken by a Native American war party in a violent clash that lasted for minutes and took centuries to heal, Meyer said.
Eighty-six people were killed on the beach. The next day, the Potawatomi burned the fort to the ground. It was later rebuilt and subsequently torn down.
Today, brass strips outlining the original fort’s perimeter are located at the intersection of Michigan and Wacker. There is a sculpted depiction of the battle and an essay about it engraved on Michigan Avenue’s southwest bridgehouse.
On Memorial Day, Meyer organized a ceremony honoring those who served and were killed there. On Aug. 15, the 200th anniversary of the evacuation, she hopes to host a commemoration ceremony. A city permit is pending.
Meyer also is writing grammar school curriculum about Fort Dearborn. This fall, she’ll also host workshops on crafting forts and wigwams.
Meyer, who has taught at Valparaiso University, North Central College and the College of DuPage, is passionate about keeping this chapter in Chicago’s history alive.
“I’m looking at the way we write on the earth every day. The writings are a record of who we were and who we hope to be,” she said.
“It’s important to remember our origins and to understand where we came from and the sacrifices we made in making this country,” she said. “I like to say that geography is history with an address.”