Fort Dearborn by Jerry Crimmins is an historical novel about the terrible massacre that occurred at the titular fort, the location of present-day Chicago, Illinois. It is also about the events leading up to the massacre and the lives of the men, women, and children who lived there, and the Indians, as well as what motivated the individuals and races to act as they did. If the events had played out just a little differently, the seeming inexorableness of it all could possibly have been prevented. It’s difficult to say for sure, since the massacre was a part of a joint British/Indian plan to attack in multiple places at more or less the same time.
The novel is extremely well researched, with a compendious number of footnotes at the back of the book which are worth reading in and of themselves. Making an historical novel interesting to its readers can be a challenge; if it only relies on facts, it may seem too dry and impersonal and won’t draw readers in. However, if not enough facts are used, the element of realism is lost. Jerry Crimmins adroitly handles this challenge by having much of the story seen through the eyes of two young boys and their fathers - Jimmy Wheeler, the son of a sergeant in the U.S. Infantry; and Strong Pike, the son of a Potawatomi warrior. These fictional characters are used to personalize the tale and to serve as microcosms of how the events leading up to the massacre and burning down of Fort Dearborn affected the lives of everybody involved.
The Potawatomi and other Indian tribes mentioned, like the Winnebago, Shawnee, and Fox Indians, among others, wanted to halt the encroachment of the Long Knives (Americans) and to drive them from their hunting grounds. They were backed by the British, who still had hopes of laying claim to portions of North America, and, to a lesser extent, by the French. The Americans were about to enter the War of 1812 against the British. The U.S. harbored many resentments against them, causing this war to earn it’s the moniker of “the Second War of Independence.” One of the several reasons America went to war against the British is mentioned in passing in Chapter 26, entitled An Order Arrives: “The British navy had kidnapped ten thousand Americans and forced them to work on British ships to fight France, and Napoleon.”
This chapter’s importance lies in the detailing of an order in a letter given to Captain Heald, the officer in charge at Fort Dearborn, concerning the time to evacuate the fort and how said evacuation should take place. Reading about the various warnings the military and civilian inhabitants of the fort and its environs received in the years, months, weeks, and days leading up to the tragic massacre gives one pause; if perhaps these warnings had been heeded sooner, the outcome might have been much different.
It is true that the attack against Fort Dearborn was directly linked to and backed by a joint British/Indian strategy to attack several key places at roughly the same time. Still, Captain Heald had sufficient notice to have saved the lives of many or all if he had acted sooner. This failure to act quickly enough on the warnings is reminiscent of the warnings given about Katrina and the inability of the dikes to withstand hurricanes of grade 3 or higher.
Fort Dearborn is a fascinating look at how people lived during the early 1800s in America, the relations between the natives and the Americans and other nations involved, and how circumstances and events led up to one of the most famous massacres in American history. One of the best things about the book is that the different peoples are not painted with too broad a brush. The Indians are not portrayed as bloodthirsty savages; some were very sympathetic to the Americans and against the massacre. Among the Americans, things are neither reduced nor made overly simplistic; the conflicting emotions of a few are presented, those who were either born of mixed parentage or who were raised for portions of their lives by the Indians. In some cases, such as that of the Kinzie family, there were conflicting urges between supporting the English or the American side.
In Fort Dearborn, Jerry Crimmins has written a book that is important to understanding of the history of both the nation and the city of Chicago. The novel avoids ethnocentricity, depicting the complexities of the massacre in an enlightening and etertaining way. At times while reading this book, I was reminded of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie books, and of the television series Daniel Boone (who, coincidently, briefly mentioned in Fort Dearborn). The fictional Wheelers had lived in Kentucky, where Boone had also lived, before moving to Illinois. Anyone who has an interest in America’s history and likes historical novels should enjoy Fort Dearborn immensely.