Written by a well-known reporter who has reported and edited Chicago papers for the last thirty years, Fort Dearborn is obviously a labor of love, detailing the humble beginnings of today’s metropolis as a frontier trading post. The story opens in 1803 and ends with the massacre of 1812. Told from the point of view of Jim, a boy whose widowed father is a soldier at the fort, the author describes the unique and long forgotten world of tall grass prairie, slough, dunes – and whole lakes of mud – that once fronted Lake Michigan. The fort was surrounded by both great beauty and great danger, for the Potawatomi, Miami, Shawnee and Kickapoo were fighting a rear guard action against the incursion of land hungry Americans. Jim is both fascinated and frightened by Indians. One rebellious day, he borrows a horse and rides out to see a Potawatomi boy he’s befriended at the trading post. It proves to be a bewildering visit. The Indians are less than friendly, because the teachings of the Shawnee Prophet have taken hold, and one of these is to abjure all contact with whites.
The description, reportage, and research are in every way strong. Characterization and dialogue, unfortunately, are ineffective. Jim was the only character with whom I became involved, and his story ends without resolution. The gold in Fort Dearborn is 99 pages of notes, maps, drawings, and excerpts from letters and diaries, which could provide a reader who wants to learn more about the beginnings of this great modern city with an excellent starting place.