Today marks the 200th anniversary of the incident at Fort Dearborn, a flashpoint in the history of Chicago and an event labelled both a battle and a massacre. The reason for the dispute rest more in politics than history, however. This is unfortunate. We already know that the American trek westward across North America was marked by an unrighteous land grab. It does not change the fact atrocities were committed on both sides of the dispute. This is, after all, the nature of all warfare. When such disputes become about the preservation of a politically correct climate, however they serve the cause of history no more than did the wanton glorification of the manifest destiny that destroyed what was a noble culture that existed centuries before Europeans arrived in the Americas.
History does not seek to take sides, though it always does. In reading several accounts of what happened I can say that there is no reason not to call what happened at Fort Dearborn a massacre. Doing so does not mean white settlement was justified, the United States was righteous in its actions, and native groups had no right to hostility. The feeling, however, is that if we call the Fort Dearborn incident what it was we betray the claim that native Americans were wronged . This betrays history and cheapens our understanding of the past. The truth is you can’t just pick one side to be all righteous and run with it. Warfare is never that simple, even when it is justified.
Fourteen years ago today, a bomb ripped apart several shops in Omagh Northern Ireland and took 31 lives. The Real IRA, who were responsible for the blast, knew the history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the hate visited on Roman Catholics there, yet few in either the north or the Republic of Ireland today seeks to justify the actions of this group based on this past. In doing this the Irish have been able to move beyond so much of the hate that marked their past to work on real solutions. And this is done because there is no need to make one side or the other the devil. It is true in the fray of the fight, people have reduced one another to good or evil, but in coming to terms with the blast itself and the past it points to, the Irish have sought to look harshly and honestly at themselves and talk to one another. Such a thing could never happen in what we call the “pc climate” here in the United States or the other places (such as northern Europe) infested with this phenomenon.
Instead we think if we just beat up on WASP America enough, we can some how rectify our sins. So we go about calling massacres battles and do nothing to actually compensate native groups, unless you consider income made feeding the addiction to gaming such a thing. But there is no honest conversation. And without this there can never be any real understanding of the past, which is the only way we ever build a righteous future.
Truth is we should just call Fort Dearborn a massacre. We should do this even as we acknowledge the atrocity our fledgling nation visited on native Americans. We should look to examples like Ireland and South Africa to see how conversation is done. And yes that can hurt. It means seeing that humans are very capable of being less than human, but it also lights the way to seeing and becoming what is best about being human.
Notes: I don’t know if many people know when they are in the Billy Caldwell Woods or standing on Kinzie Avenue or Wells Street that they are in places named for settlers of Fort Dearborn. It is also important to the student of history to know the most heinous actions of the Fort Dearborn massacre did not actually take place at Fort Dearborn but as settlers were fleeing the site. This episode was also part of the much larger War of 1812 that pitted British and American forces against one another, each using Native American allies. I have read a few accounts of these events but this one in Chicago Magazine seems to be pretty complete and in keeping with most accounts.