Windy City Spooks: Ghosts Of The Fort Dearborn Massacre

Fort Dearborn 1803 Woodcut

Long before the first skyscraper was built. Long before the fire that almost wiped the city from the map. And long before Chicago became a world class city, it was nothing more than a field of stinky onions that mixed with the vast expanse of the prairie lands. 

Chicago became a city that Americans gravitated towards. Shortly after the War of Independence, the west opened up with promises of a new life far away from the overcrowded cities of the American east. Many men, women and children left those cities behind and answered that clarion call of, “Westward, ho.” The only problem was that people were indigenous persons already living on the land that Americans looked to settle upon.

As Americans moved further west and began to outnumber the Native American populace, tensions were raised resulting in many conflicts between the two population groups. To protect these American travelers from harm, the United States military established and manned military outposts throughout the west. 

Fort Dearborn was one such fort.

In 1803, Captain John Whistler, along with forty of his best men, built Fort Dearborn. The fort was large enough to house a full garrison of soldiers as well as officers’ quarters. At first, the contact between Americans and the local tribes were tense but manageable. 

But that wouldn’t last for long.

In 1810, Captain Whistler was replaced by Captain Nathan Heald. When Heald took command of Fort Dearborn he did something that was greatly frowned upon, he allowed the wives and the children of the soldiers to live within the fort’s stockaded walls. This would soon prove to be disastrous.

In 1812, the United States found themselves at war once again with its greatest foe of the time, Great Britain. As the American and British forces duked it out in the east, those that moved west hoped that the conflict would avoid them. 

As the war progressed, the Native American tribes of the Potawatomi and Wyandot were all too happy to form an alliance with the British. The Native tribes regarded the American settlers as interlopers of their sacred land. 

As tensions increased and skirmishes became common, General William Hull ordered Heald to evacuate every man, woman and child from Fort Dearborn and make a hasty retreat to nearby Fort Wayne. Unfortunately, by either accident, design, or just plain old stupid recklessness, Heald felt that he could negotiate with the tribal leaders. 

On the morning of August 12, Heald left the safe confines of Fort Dearborn and began his negotiations with the leaders of the native tribes as over five hundred Potawatomi and Wyandot warriors surrounded the fort in a siege like fashion. 

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When Heald met with the tribal leaders he promised to leave behind weapons, ammunition and all the whiskey they could handle if they allowed safe passage for all those inside the fort. Captain Heald, the great diplomat, was elated when the tribal leaders accepted the terms. Unfortunately, those inside the fort did not feel the same way.

When Heald returned he told his senior officers of the great job he had done negotiating with tribal leaders. When he told his men the terms, I can only imagine his men reacted. Needless to say, they told Heald how amazingly stupid the terms were. The men convinced Heald that if he stuck to this agreement, what was stopping the tribes from using those guns to cut all of them down? Heald did the only logical thing upon this realizaiton, he broke the agreement and tossed all the weapons, ammunition, and whiskey down a deep dark well. 

On April 16th, under the protection of Potawatomi warriors, Heald and all the citizens of Fort Dearborn moved out. As the Americans made their way to Fort Wayne, word got to the warriors that Heald double crossed them. And without further ado, the Potawatomi guides turned on the Americans and all hell broke loose.

What occurred in that field could only be described as a blood bath. The Potawatomi showed no mercy as they viciously attacked the Americans. When all was said and done, many Americans as well as Native Americans, lay dead in the grassy field with their blood mixed for all time. 

Today, the Fort Dearborn Massacre, as it came to be known, is commemorated by a plaque at the corner of 16th and Prairie Avenues on the near south side. The citizens of Chicago were reminded of this violent history of Chicago’s early days with a modern, grisly discovery.

In the 1980s, a mass grave was discovered containing the remains of the dead. At first, researchers believed that these poor souls were the victims of a cholera outbreak sometime around 1840.  But after dating the bones, and presumably the tomahawk wounds were a dead giveaway, it was determined that these mortal remains were those of the victims of the Fort Dearborn Massacre.

It would appear that the souls of the victims of this violent genocidal rampage are anything but at rest. Visitors to the location have reported screams of anguish, weapons firing, and some have reported witnessing the wispy apparitions of the massacre victims and the Native warriors who carried out the horrific attack. It would seem that the massacre of Fort Dearborn is still playing itself out, possibly for all eternity.

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About Rick Hale 106 Articles
Rick Hale became interested in anomalous phenomenon at an early age after encountering an apparition in his grandparent's home. Rick is the author of "The Geek's Guide To The Strange and Unusual: Poltergeists, Ghost and Demons," and "Behold! Shocking True Tales Off Terror...And Some Other Spooky Stuff." Rick has been published in Haunted Times Magazine, Paranormal Underground Magazine, The Supernatural Magazine, and Legends Magazine. Rick appeared in Ghost Tapes 2 and Ghost Tapes: The Series found at

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