by Carmen Doyle
The battle at Fort Dearborn wouldn’t seem to have much to do with Fort Wayne. After all, the battle took place in what is now Chicago! But there IS a connection that leads us to share with you this interesting bit of history.
William Wells had been kidnapped by Miami Indians in Kentucky when he was an adolescent. He adapted to the Indian way of life, becoming Little Turtle’s son-in-law and fighting on the Miami side in the defeat of St. Clair in Ohio. Shortly after that, Wells decided to stop fighting on the side of the Indians. He became a scout and interpreter for General Anthony Wayne. Wells also served as the first Indian agent for Fort Wayne.
When the War of 1812 was declared, the British attacked Fort Detroit. The Commander of the U.S. Army of the Northwest, William Hull, surrendered. Fearing that Fort Dearborn could no longer be adequately supplied, Hull ordered the commander at Fort Dearborn to evacuate and retreat with all the soldiers and residents to Fort Wayne.
Wells had a niece, Rebekah, from his Kentucky family. Rebekah had married Nathan Heald, who was the Commander at Fort Dearborn.
(An interesting fact is that Fort Dearborn was designed by John Whistler, who also designed Fort Wayne. John Whistler’s grandson painted the now famous “Whistler’s Mother”.)
Fort Dearborn was in an area held by the Potawatomi Indians, who were hostile to the Americans. On August 9, 1812, Heald received orders from Hull to distribute all provisions from Fort Dearborn to the Potawatomi in hopes of the Potawatomi providing a safe passage to Fort Wayne. However, all spare weapons and ammo, along with the whiskey, was to be destroyed. Heald worried that the Indians would make “bad use of it if in their possession”.
On August 12, William Wells arrived at Fort Dearborn with 30 friendly Miami to provide an escort for the evacuees back to Fort Wayne. The next day, a meeting between Captain Heald and the Potawatomi was held and Heald told the Potawatomi that he intended to leave the fort. The Potawatomi believed that this meant that all the guns, ammo, provisions and whiskey would be given to them. They also believed that if they escorted the evacuees to Fort Wayne, they would get money.
On August 14, a friendly Potawatomi chief, Black Partridge, warned Heald that there would likely be an attack, as he could no longer hold back the young men of the tribe.
On August 15, the garrison left Fort Dearborn on their way to Fort Wayne. There were 93 people in the party, including noncombatants (mostly women and children). William Wells (his face painted black in the Miami tradition of a warrior willing to fight to the death) along with some of the friendly Miami, led the evacuation.
Less than two miles after leaving the Fort, the garrison was attacked by a large number of Potawatomis.
According to Heald’s report, when the company was attacked, they marched to the top of a nearby sand dune and attempted to charge the Indians. However, this had the effect of separating the cavalry from the wagons carrying provisions and the noncombatants. The Potawatomis charged the gap and began to tomahawk and scalp the people in the wagons, according to an account published later in the Fort Wayne Daily Gazette.
When Wells saw what was happening, he tried to ride to help those in the wagons. Before he could make it, however, he was surrounded by Potawatomis. He fought back and killed many of the Indians who were fighting him, but there were so many that he was shot and killed. When he was dead, the Potawatomis cut out his heart and ate it in the belief that William Wells’ courage would be passed on to them.
The battle lasted just 15 minutes. Over half the garrison--52 Americans--were killed.
There are two different versions of what happened to the Miami escort that William Wells had brought with him. They either fought alongside the Americans or turned and ran when the fighting started. The differing accounts led William Henry Harrison to claim that the Miami fought AGAINST the Americans and used the massacre as an excuse to attack Miami villages. The attack on Miami villages made Chief Richardville and Pacanne side with the British in the War of 1812- but the Americans still won the war.
Here are some books available at the History Center on William Wells:
- Blacksnake’s Path by William Heath
- Heart of a Warrior by Joe Krom (fiction)
- Miami Indians of Indiana by Stewart Rafert
- Outpost in the Wilderness: Fort Wayne, 1706-1828 by Charles Poinsette
- On the Heritage Trail- Bicentennial Heritage Trail Committee
- Land of the Indians: Indiana by Karl A. Kieper