A Story of a Chicago Fort

In September of 2012, I was approached by the organizers of the Algonquian Conference to participate in a discussion on differing perspectives of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, which took place in the first year of the War of 1812.[1]  Oddly, as I began to think about that event from over 200 years ago, my thoughts turned to the more recent past.  In August of 2006, I experienced a strange moment while standing with my nephew Jarrid near the site where Fort Dearborn once stood, on the sidewalk at the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  Embedded in the sidewalk at that corner are a series of brass strips embossed with the words “SITE OF FORT DEARBORN.”  What happened to us while standing next to those strips of brass was seemingly inconsequential, and yet the memory of that one weird moment continues to bubble up to front of my mind from time to time.

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Strip of brass in Chicago sidewalk laying out the position of Fort Dearborn. Neewe to Karen Baldwin for all of the excellent pictures of the bridge and its associated sculptures and text.

Jarrid and his sister Jessie were in Chicago to help Tamise, my wife, and I move back to the city from Oxford, Ohio.  After the hard day of carrying boxes up three flights of narrow Chicago apartment stairs, I took him out for a trip around downtown.  Jarrid descends from Eepiihkaanita, a man also known by the name William Wells.  Eepiihkaanita died during the battle that followed the evacuation of Fort Dearborn on August 15, 1812.[2]  Because his ancestor died in course of events tied to that place we made it a priority to intentionally go there.  It is of course a dramatically changed landscape, the direction and shape of the river have both been altered and all that remains of the fort are the brass strips embedded into concrete skin of the city like a well worn metallic dotted line.  A significant part of the ground where the 1812 fort once sat was lost to erosion and city planning. Today, the scene is commanded by the Michigan Avenue Bridge, which runs across the Šikaakwa Siipiiwi (the Chicago River).[3]  The pillars of this bridge “attempt” to tell the story of the city of Chicago and include at least one scene dedicated to the Battle of Fort Dearborn in which Eepiihkaanita gave his life.  The “attempt” at telling the story of Chicago starts with explorers and priests and progresses to settlers, defenders, and rebuilders.  Along the way it references “savage” Indians as the backdrop to a story focused on the “progress of civilization.”

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Was “Aquenackwe” Little Turtle’s Father?

Was “Aquenackwe” Little Turtle’s father?  Probably not.  Like many Myaamia (Miami) children, I grew up with stories of family genealogy.  One common story that I heard was that my family descended from Little Turtle’s sister, Tahkamwa (Maria Louisa Richardville).  In family genealogies, Little Turtle and Tahkamwa’s father was always listed as “Aquenackwe” or “Aquenackqua” sometimes with the English “The Turtle.”  Later in life, as I began learn to speak our heritage language and started to investigate historical documents for myself, I learned how much confusion there was around this name and how small mistakes, made by amateur American historians, spread this confusion far and wide.

The confusion began in the late 1800s, as early midwestern historians misread an already poorly recorded version of the name Mihšihkinaahkwa.  Through a series of errors in hearing and writing, this common Myaamia name was replaced by “Aquenackwe” in the historical record.  This elder Mihšihkinaahkwa was born sometime in the early 1700s and died sometime in the mid to late 1700s.  The younger Mihšihkinaahkwa, who would become famous as the Myaamia war leader called “Little Turtle,” was born around 1750 and died in 1812.  These two men may have been father and son, but there is substantial doubt around that point as well.  The story of how the name of the elder Mihšihkinaahkwa became confused as “Aquenackwe” is an interesting one that shines a light on the difficulties that historians have had understanding Myaamia names and kinship.

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