#848: The Last War Dance

November 10th, 2017

Chicago’s last war dance started by the Wrigley Building, then headed west along the riverbank past Trump Tower, Marina City, and The 3D Printer Experience.

800 Potawatomi warriors danced through the Merchandise Mart, across the old walking bridge that predated the abandoned train track now permanently slung at attention, south past glass towers of law firms and global investment banks, stopping for special performances across the river from the Starbucks and east along Lake Street at the Franklin Self Park, Ronny’s Original Steakhouse at the Thompson Center, and the 7-Eleven at Dearborn.

All were entirely naked, except a strip of cloth around the loins. Their bodies were covered all over with a great variety of brilliant paints. On their faces, particularly, they seemed to have exhausted their art of hideous decoration. Foreheads, cheeks, and noses, were covered with curved stripes of red or vermilion, which were edged with black points, and gave the appearance of a horrid grin over the entire countenance. The long, coarse, black hair, was gathered into scalp-locks on the tops of their heads, and decorated with a profusion of hawk’s and eagle’s feathers, some strung together so as to extend down the back nearly to the ground.

Thus spaketh future Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice John Dean Caton, who watched from the second floor of a hotel just north of what’s now an OK Starbucks along the river.

Not a great Starbucks. An OK one.

In August 1835, the Potawatomi left Illinois. The 1833 Treaty of Chicago, forged in lies and liquor, had given them two years to get the hell out of town.

Although a some individual Potawatomi joined Sauk leader Black Hawk’s uprising in 1832, the tribe en masse had kept out of the conflict, even sending a delegation to Chicago in May of that year to assure the Americans the Potawatomi were on their side. But two days after the delegation, a small band of Sauk crossed the Iowa-Illinois border into American territory and attacked a powerful U.S. detachment of 275 men under the command of Major Isaiah Stillman.

How’d it go? Today it’s known as the Battle of Stillman’s Run.

To save face after the humiliating defeat-and-retreat, an officer fabricated a report that it hadn’t been a small Sauk party they scampered away from, but instead they had been “invaded by a powerful detachment of Indian Warriors of the Sac, Fox, Winibago, and Potawatomii and part of the Kickapoo Nations.”

I can’t claim the officer’s lie was a turning point or if, coupled with rumors of Potawatomi involvement and the generally worsening blood between the tribe and settlers, it was just a convenient excuse. Either way, the U.S. government was done with the Potawatomi. After the Black Hawk War was quashed in August 1832, Congress appointed a commission of three to deal with the Potawatomi and “extinguish Indian title within the states of Indiana, and Illinois and the Territory of Michigan.”

The trio negotiated a deal at Camp Tippecanoe, Indiana, in October, getting all the Potawatomi land in Illinois, plus sections of northern Indiana and Michigan. Part of the deal included merchandise valued at $45,000 paid to the tribe immediately, with another $30,000 in goods to be negotiated by treaty the next year at, you guessed it, Chicago.

Pushed and prodded west over the next year in a forced migration that — like the others — was plagued with disease and incompetence, with resentment growing among Potawatomi who didn’t recognize the deal their leaders cut and settlers angry them Injuns won’t go away so the Whites could farm and build canals, the procession arrived in the future City That Works in the autumn of 1833, months behind schedule and hungry for that promised $30K in goods. A cold winter and the torching of Potawatomi crops by Black Hawk’s army meant the settlers were able to hunker down and starve out the tribe members who didn’t recognize the Camp Tippecanoe treaty, so for many early Chicago whites, this forced delegation would be the last Potawatomi they would ever be.

Chicagoans marked up goods as high as 50 percent for the Potawatomi. Prostitution was rampant. Settlers and French traders flocked to the encampments to get the Potawatomi drunk and take them for all the money they had left from the Camp Tippecanoe payout, along with every single possession they owned.

They had brought some whiskey and given them which soon made them drunk, then some directed their attention while others stole all their goods even taking their last blanket. Many who had 3 or 4 blankets the day before yesterday were naked. They will give anything they have for whiskey and as soon as they are drunk they are stripped to the skin by the whites. Such infernal villainy would make the Devil blush.

– Treaty observer Henry Van Der Bogart.

The sale of alcohol to the Potawatomi was illegal, but the tribe was there to negotiate a treaty. The government found a drunken negotiation partner to be a pliant one and turned a blind eye to the sales.

The sin may lie at the door of the individuals more immediately in contact with them, but for the character of the people as a nation, it should be guarded against, beyond a possibility of transgression. Who will believe that any act, however formally executed by the chiefs, is valid, as long as it is known that whisky was one of the parties to the treaty.

– British traveler Charles J. Latrobe.

Three U.S. officials signed and 77 Potawatomi leaders put X marks on the Treaty of Chicago on Sept. 26, 1833. The refugees from Indiana and other out-of-town points dispersed as soon as they got their payments, eventually leaving only the Potawatomi originally from the Chicago area. The treaty gave them two years to get out.

Their lives in the settlement were spent as prey of bunco, greed, and alcohol, but on an unnamed day in August 1835, the final 800 Potawatomi left Chicago as warriors, putting on what they knew would be their last war dance on their native lands.

Caton continues:

Their muscles stood out in great hard knots as if wrought to a tension which must burst them. Their tomahawks and clubs were thrown and brandished about in every direction, with the most terrible ferocity, and with a force and energy which could only result from the highest excitement, and with every step and every gesture they uttered the most frightful yells, in every imaginable key and note, though generally the highest and shrillest possible. The dance, which was ever continued, consisted of leaps and spasmodic steps now forward and now back or sideways, with the whole body distorted into every imaginable unnatural position, most generally stooping forward, with the head and face thrown up, the back arched down, first one foot thrown far forward and then withdrawn, and the other similarly thrust out, frequently squatting quite to the ground, and all with a movement almost as quick as lightning.

With a final dance for the garrison at Fort Dearborn, by the modern intersection where you can get a hop-on-hop-off tour bus, a great snapshot of Trib Tower, or an official NHL-licensed jersey of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Potawatomi departed as gods. The only people left for the settlers to scam were each other.

And they did.

This is an edited sliver of a larger work I’ve been pulling together, a companion piece to my Chicago Corruption Walking Tours

If you’re a publisher, literary agent or magic genie who specializes in wishes about book deals, email me at 1001chicago@gmail.com and we’ll talk.

In the meantime…

Read Caton’s full account of the last war dance

Read another book selection I cannibalized into a 1,001 story (That story ends with even more links to corruption tales.)

Or cleanse your palate with a nice story about a Polish woman’s lucky art

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