GARRISON AMBUSHED! FORT DEARBORN BURNED!

 

Excerpts from the Autobiography of William Henry Thorne, concerning the Events at Fort Dearborn.

Alex Ranieri

I have often been urged by my friends and family to record some instances of my life, which has been adventurous enough to make out of it many wonderful stories for the entertainment of my children and grandchildren. Although I have often recounted these stories, (at too much length, according to some of my acquaintance,) I had never considered putting them to paper. However, I have been prodded and cajoled and downright threatened, so I have finally decided to concede.

The Author's Recollections Concerning Fort Dearborn:

In the spring of 1812, I turned fourteen. This momentous occasion was unfortunately overshadowed by the mounting tensions between the local Potawatomis, Ojibwes, and Oddawas against our small settlement. Their visits to the fort became more hostile, and I, who was privy to the Algonquin language through the good sense of the Ouilmette sisters and the warrior Black Partridge, understood perhaps more thoroughly the intense hatred and distrust directed our way. I once heard a young warrior murmur to his fellow, in his own tongue, of course, that he would have liked to take a tomahawk to the head of every white child.

This was no more extreme than the sentiments of the Americans; my own father told me at every opportunity that all Indians should be boiled in oil. Yes, emotions ran very high in those days, and do still, as the Americans push ever westward and there is nowhere left to go.

At any rate, things came to a head. Captain Heald received orders that the Fort was to be evacuated. We were all bound to follow orders from above. In exchange for the provisions of the fort, we were to get a Potawatomi escort through the dangerous march to Fort Wayne. William Wells, the great war hero, and honorary Miami, advised Heald to dispose of the ammunition and alcohol beforehand-- it would fuel the war, he said. Heald agreed, and as a result our escort never appeared.

We marched out of the Fort at nine o'clock in the morning on August the 15th. I was among the soldiers, in the company of my father and a young soldier named Tanner Freeman. He and I knew each other well. He had learnt Algonquin from a poor Potawatomi widow, to whom he gave food and clothes, and we often spoke to each other in that language.

It was very quiet, I remember-- no chatter, or other friendly noises. Even our marching was swallowed up by the sand. On that hot, windless day, only the little lapping waves of Lake Michigan cut through the heavy air. I was sweating horribly in my uniform and was very thirsty. A few times I was tempted to break rank and drink from the lake to my heart's content-- but of course it was unthinkable, and I checked myself.

William Wells had ridden ahead as a scout, his observation and knowledge of the terrain being the keenest. I still remember him, bursting like some demon out of the horizon, waving his hat over his head. His face was terrifying to look at-- he had painted it all black, in the way Miamis do when preparing for battle and death. It was enough to make you wish you'd never been born-- and he was on our side!

He was informing us of an ambush. We formed rank and faced away from the lake, towards the dunes.

We were not kept waiting.

They had been hiding in the trees behind the dunes, and now they ran out, hundreds of warriors armed with muskets and tomahawks and clubs. I fired my own musket wildly. I'm quite sure I missed; and then before I knew it I was using it as a club against an Oddawa warrior. Imagine that! A young man whose best experience with a gun was small-game hunting, fighting against a full-fledged, angry warrior!

Well, I certainly didn't kill that man-- he almost killed me-- but just as the tomahawk was coming down on my head, I blinked. When I opened my eyes, he was gone, and I was fighting someone else! Life is stranger than fiction, I can tell you.

My recollections are a little hazy-- I'm sure anyone who's done any fighting can tell you, it's not easy to keep your head-- but by the end of it I was in a very bad way. Two deep wounds to my left leg, three gashes on my right arm, and a club wound to the side of the head, never mind the usual cuts and scrapes. I was in horrible pain, and took no note of the carnage. I vaguely remember seeing the fort going up in flames and a lot of very happy warriors celebrating, but the rest of the journey to the Indian camps escapes me.

At the camps, however, my memory serves me well. Tanner Freeman and my father had both survived, and they were in much better shape than me. One of my father's friends, Thomas Burns, was not. I will not recall the details of his torture and killing, but if I was lucky to escape remembering the carnage of the battle, my luck did not carry far.

Freeman, perhaps to distract himself, engaged me in conversation. I will always consider myself in his debt for our talk-- for I'm ashamed to say that I was angry, and full of hatred.

I said something to the effect that all Indians were savages who ought to be culled. Freeman's face turned anxious.

"You must never say such things, William." His voice was strained, as if he were reminding himself as well as me. "'That way madness lies.'"

I was resolute. "No human behaves like that." I said, jerking my head at one of the women torturing Thomas Burns.

He turned to follow my gaze and was silent for a few moments. Then he turned back to me, eyes eerily calm. "And what would you do to her, if you could?"

I looked away, and was overcome with fury. "Rip out her scalp." I snarled. Freeman nodded, and indicated the scene in front of us. "Like that?" My lesson was learned. Badly wounded, I knew my fate was to follow Burns. I am proud to say that I did

not panic, although I came close. I believe it was this steadfastness that saved my life. Once Burns was dead, it was my turn. Someone grabbed me by the scruff of the neck. I could hear Tanner Freeman and my father shouting. I looked around me blindly,

and caught the eye of an old woman. She regarded me with a furrowed brow. I focussed on her, a point of thought and

calm, while all around me was shouting and hollering. She stood up. "Wait!" She called in Algonquian, and threw up her hand. Although her voice was

not loud, the shouting stopped in an instant.

The woman who had tortured Thomas Burns turned to her. "What is it, Prairie Hen?"

Prairie Hen pointed at me. "I want that to be my grandson."

There was an uproar, but Black Bird, who had led the ambush, stood up and gestured for silence.

"He's mine!" Shouted the man holding me. "He's mine to do with as I choose!"

Black Bird glared at him, and asked Prairie Hen, "Why this man? Why not choose one who is healthy?"

She shook her head. "It must be this one." "He's wounded!" Came a shout from the crowd. "He's not fit to replace Red Hawk!" The old woman snapped. "He is more than fit to replace my dead grandson,

should I say so!" She turned to my captor. "I formally request that you relinquish him to my care, to do with as I choose."

"Why?" I heard him snarl, his breath hot on my face. There was a gasp from the assembly. It was Black Bird who spoke then, his voice frigid. "For the honor of helping an

elder, Wolf. Hand him over." That moment before he did so was the longest I've ever spent in this world. At

length, however, I was released to Prairie Hen. I'll admit, I was so grateful to have my life once again in my own hands that some of my hatred vanished there and then. The rest of it was to slowly dissipate through the next few years, until at last I embraced my new existence wholeheartedly.

Of course, I was one of the lucky ones. Other captives were tortured and killed. However, Tanner Freeman also made a new life for himself-- as husband to the widow he had helped so many times. They lived together until their deaths.

As for me, you children well know that I also married, and am now a respected elder myself (though not by some of you!). Every day I think of Prairie Hen, and pray for her guidance. Because of her decision, I was able to live to see many things, and have had time enough to come to understand them. Not many people can claim to be so fortunate.

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