Escape from Fort Dearborn

by Tali Gleiser

The morning we left Fort Dearborn marked the beginning of the end of my life. The twelve short years I spent on this planet had never been easy, as the daughter of a high-ranking army officer we were constantly being moved from place to place and I often felt like more of a gypsy than a descendent of the first American settlers. That morning I watched as my mother scrambled around our home, frantically grabbing whatever we could carry on our backs. My two year old brother began to fuss and cry, because he could sense the tension in the air, he was far too young to comprehend what was going on. Before we left, my mother put her hands on my shoulders and said, “Eleanor, I want you to promise me that no matter what happens, you will not give up until you and Williams are at your father’s base in Indiana. You will be safe there.”

I told her I promised we would make it. As I hugged my mother and hurried out the door I could smell the fear on everyone around us.

It didn't take long for them to ambush us. I had heard stories about the savages all my life, but no story could capture the true horror I faced that day. They came from everywhere, the other former occupants of Fort Dearborn fell before us like heavy rain drops falling on the ground into a puddle of damnation. My mother handed me baby William, “Don’t let him see, and whatever you do, don’t look back. Run as far as you can when it’s safe, hide in the woods, until then follow the shore line and you will find Indiana. I love you – go!”

I ran until putting one foot in front of the other felt unnatural. When I was deep in the woods I found a huge old tree with a gash in the side that created a shallow cave just large enough to fit William and I. If I cradled him to my chest. I didn’t want to sleep, the only noise I could hear were the final screams of my mother, as her life was unrightfully cut short. I wished I hadn’t looked back. Despite my mind’s reluctance to sleep, I dozed into a state of nothingness. I awoke to my brother squirming in my arms; I had almost forgotten where I was. I felt a pair of eyes on me. I looked out at a pair of dark bare feet attached to a native woman carrying a child in a sling on her back. I was {had been} taught to be afraid of her, but her eyes were filled with sympathy, and despite her crude English, there was sincerity in her voice. She led me back to a collection of tents arranged into smaller circles. Her and an {another} elderly woman gave me supplies and food for William and I, and even gave e a sling to help carry him. I explained to her where I was going and the elderly woman drew a map in the dirt. I used every ounce of mental strength I had left to memorize that path. They began chanting and singing a “Prayer of Protection,” the sounds of this would have usually frightened me but I had begun to realize that not all Indians were enemies. I tried not to think of my mother, I tried pretending I had her strength. The next morning I set off for Indiana again, I was scared, but I had promised my mother I would protect William and wouldn’t give up until I was at our father’s base. The next few days of our journey was like walking through Hell. The summer heat was unbearable and I quickly began running out of supplies. I had given most of our food and water to Williams. It was two days before we saw the lake again. I had walked to a narrowing of water and I could have sworn I saw Indiana from the shore. If I had slept at all I didn’t know it. I didn’t stop walking for two days; it was as if every part of my body had shut down except for my legs mechanically marching one step after another. William began to squirm and fuss, I took him off my back and set him down, he sat quietly staring up at me with his big innocent eyes. He wouldn’t remember this; I hoped he would remember me.

When I first saw the ship, I thought it was a mirage. I had been fighting the darkness since I first stopped at the shore and I could feel my body shutting down like someone blowing out candles in a room one by one. At first, I had been able to drag myself to the water and drink from the lake, but it made me sickly body emptied whatever remained in my stomach unto the ground. It felt like we were by the water for days, but it had been barely three hours. William sensed something was wrong and remained by my side. I had just begun losing the battle to keep my eyes open and my lungs breathing when I realized we had been brought unto an American Army ship. Everything was gray and I have holes in my memory but I know I told them who my father was.

I’m in a bed in a tent {off the ship?}. The lantern in the corner of the room keeps flickering. I hear men talking and the words, “Yes, sir.”

My father is kneeling beside me. He tells me I’m strong and brave and to keep being strong. The lantern in the corner keeps flickering. I hear mire men talking; I’m with my father in Indiana. The light of the lantern stops flickering, it stays bright, and then it’s dark.

“I kept my promise, Mama,” is the last thing my father hears me say. It goes dark. I made it out of Fort Dearborn.

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