Whatever Happened to Captain Heald and his Wife?

Captain Nathan Heald was ordered by General William Hull to evacuate Fort Dearborn, near Chicago, on August 15, 1812.  After he left the fort, with 54 regulars, 12 militia, 9 women, 18 children, 30 Miami warriors and Indian agent William Wells, the group was attacked by 500 Potawatomi Indians.  One historian, John Latimer, author of 1812:  War with America, says that Heald and his wife survived the resulting massacre, “and were later ransomed to the British.”(p. 69)  In the Buffalo Gazette of September 22, 1812 (reprinted on October 7, 1812, by the New York Spectator), an account of the evacuation of Fort Dearborn is given by Aaron Greely, “late surveyor general of the Michigan Territory,” who had “arrived at Fort Erie on Saturday, on board the brig Adams, after the remarkably short passage of 33 hours [from Malden].”  This is Mr. Greely’s account of the surrender of Fort Dearborn:

“He states, that the Indians had besieged that place, that the Pottawattamies, with a Mr. Burnett, a trader from St. Josephs, had come down to the relief of the garrison, but that the besieging Indians compelled them to join them, threatening to make war upon them and destroy them if they did not.  The garrison surrendered–the terms of capitulation were, that the Indians should spare the lives of the garrison, who were to have as much of the arms, ammunition, provision, &c as they could carry away.  Capt. Wells, who had come from Fort Wayne to conduct the garrison to that place, at night ordered a quantity of powder and balls to be thrown into the Chicauga river, to prevent its falling into the Indians’ hands, which, when they discovered in the morning, so incensed them, that they fired upon the garrison as they marched out of the fort.  Capt. Wells was killed.  Capt. Heels the commandant of the garrison, and his lady who were marching out of the Fort, were both wounded.  Capt. H. in the thigh, and Mrs. H. by a rifle ball in her wrist and another through the same arm.  Their lives were saved by Mr. Burnett, the trader, who claimed them as friends, and offered to purchase their ransom.  Capt Heels and his lady are now at St. Josephs with Mr. Burnett.  There were no British officer or troops at this engagement.–Mr. Greely had the above information from a Pottawattamie Chief residing at St. Josephs, who was present at the surrender of Fort Dearborn.”

There is an additional reference to those taken prisoner at Chicago in an “extract of a letter to Gov. Edwards, from an Agent of the U. States who was at Lands Creek on the Illinois river, 150 miles above Peoria, on the 30th ult.” published at Louisville and reprinted in the Carolina FederalRepublican on July 24, 1813:  “The Indians are much alarmed, they talk big, but with a very low heart–and after their corn  is planted, if they are drove further back, they will starve.  I pity the poor distressed prisoners who are among them (those taken at Chicago )not that the men are ill treated, for they live as well as the Indians do themselves, which God knows is poor living for whitemen–but the poor women I am told are half starved, and unmercifully beat in the bargain.  It is a thousand pities, that government does not try to bring them off, or that a certain sum is not raised by subscription in the two territories for the purpose.”

At this point, I ask the reader to imagine a drum roll, for, it is EARLY NINETEENTH CENTURY NEWSPAPERS TO THE RESCUE! The Crawford Messenger, of Meadville, Pennsylvania, printed an article concerning Heald some time previous to early November, 1812, which was fortunately picked up and reprinted by the Pittsburgh Mercury of November 5, 1812.  Since the Mercury probably had a wider circulation than the Messenger, it may be that Heald’s story was carried to other parts of the United States also.  This account, unlike Greely’s, is first-hand.

The Healds’ story is prefaced by these comments from the editor of the Crawford Messenger:  “We have been kindly favoured by a friend, with the following particulars of the surrender, massacre and sufferings of the Americans at fort Chicago, as narrated by capt. Heald and his lady.”

A considerable time has elapsed since the evacuation and massacre at fort Chicago, but as yet, few particulars respecting the treacherous and savage cruelty of the Indians have appeared.  The unfortunate persons who left the fort were supposed all to have fallen victims to savage barbarity; and indeed from the relative numbers of the attackers and the attacked, it can scarcely be conceived that of the whole number one should have escaped; yet of the few that did escape, were capt. Heald and his lady.–They arrived at this place yesterday morning, and state, that the day previous to the evacuation of the fort, the Indians, in considerable numbers had collected there, without manifesting any hostile temper, and received from the hands of capt. Heald all the public stores, provisions, &c. as a consideration for a continuation of their friendship.  A day or two previous, capt. Wells, with about thirty professed friendly Indians, arrived to assist capt. Heald and his party to make good their way to fort Wayne.   The fort of Chicago consisted of about one hundred souls, from fifty-five to sixty effective men–the residue were women and children.  On leaving the fort the line of march was formed; the friendly Indians were put in the front and the rear; the women and children, with the men under the command of capt. Heald, in the centre.  Thus they proceeded about a mile and an half from the fort, when the Indians were discovered behind banks of sand on the margin of the lake.  The Indians immediately commenced a fire on captain Heald, which was returned by him–in less than fifteen minutes there was but about fifteen of the forty, twelve children and three women that remained alive.  With them, capt. Heald retreated to the centre of a large plain beyond the reach of gun shot from the surrounding woods in which the Indians were placed.  In this position they remained some time, and although the Indian force amounted to five hundred, they dared not advance upon this small party.  After a considerable pause, an Indian advanced from the woods to the edge of the plain, and beckoned to capt. Heald to approach him, which was done, when the Indian proposed, if they would become prisoners, they should be protected, which was accepted of by capt. Heald, doubting, at the same time, whether those savages would observe, with good faith, their engagement; and indeed afterwards capt Heald heard of some of the prisoners being put to death.  Mrs. Heald received during the attack six wounds (all of them flesh wounds) and was then taken prisoner.  She was close to capt. Wells when he fell, and immediately upon his falling, an Indian ran up to her, caught her horse by the bridle, and conveyed her off into the woods.  This Indian was without a gun, but was armed with a war-club–when he proceeded some distance with her, he raised his war-club with an intention to kill, she caught his arm, and with a smile on her countenance asked what he intended to do?  The savage replied KILL–He then desisted for a moment, and but a moment–he raised his war-club with a countenance still more ferocious, when, with extraordinary presence of mind, Mrs. Heald said, don’t kill me, I am a silversmith.  She was then conducted to a place where a number of Indians had collected after the battle–she was then taken off her horse and purchased by a half-Indian, whom she had frequently seen at Chicago.  A mule was the consideration of her ransom.  She was then secretly conducted by this Indian, to a birch canoe on the lake, and there covered with skins.  Next morning capt. Heald, who was wounded in the arm and leg, was brought to the very same canoe–in this they coasted along the lake, under the protection of an Indian trader, until they arrived at Michilimackinac, a distance of three hundred miles from which place he sailed in the Caledonia to Detroit, and from Detroit to Buffalo in the brig Adams, and was landed, with his lady, on the American shore, as a prisoner of  war, the day previous to the capture of those vessels by the Americans.”  [The Adams was captured by the Americans off Fort Erie, Canada, on October 9, 1812]

The Pittsburgh Mercury continued the story on April 9, 1813 (reprinted by the Knoxville Gazette on May 17, 1813) by printing a portion of a letter from Sergeant Walter Jordon, of the regulars at Fort Wayne, to his wife in Alleghany county, Pennsylvania, dated Fort Wayne, October 19, 1812.

“Fort Wayne, October 19, 1812

I take my pen to inform you that I am well, after a long and perilous journey through the Indian country.  Capt. Wells, myself and an hundred friendly Indians left Fort Wayne on the first of August to escort in capt. Heald, from fort Chicaugo, was he was in danger of being captured by the British.  Orders had been given to abandon that fort and retreat to fort Wayne, a distance of 150 miles.  We reached fort Chicaugo on the tenth of August, and on the 15th we prepared for an immediate march, burning all that we could not fetch with us.  On the 15th, at 8 o’clock we commenced our march with our small force, which consisted of capt. Wells, myself, and our hundred Confute Indians, capt. Heald’s hundred men, ten women and twenty children, in all 232.  We had marched half a mile when we were attacked by 600 Kickapoo and Wynbago Indians.  In the moment of trial our Confute savages joined the savage enemy.  Our contest lasted 10 minutes, when every man, woman and child was killed except 15.  Thanks be to God, I was one of those who escaped.  First they shot the feather of my cap next the epaulet from my shoulder and then the handle from my sword I then surrendered to four savage rascals.   The Confute chief, taking me by the hand and speaking English, said ‘Jordan I know you, you give me tobacco at Fort Wayne.  We wont kill you, but come and see what we will do with your captain.’  so leading to where Wells lay, they cut off his head and put it on a long pole, while another took out his heart and divided it among the chiefs and they eat it up raw.  Then they scalped the slain and stripped the prisoners, and gathered in a ring with us fifteen poor wretches in the middle.  They had nearly fell out about the divide, but my old chief the White Racoon holding me fast, they made the divide and departed to their towns.  They tied me hard and fast, and placed a guard over me.  I lay down and slept soundly until morning, for I was tired—-In the morning they untied me and set me parching corn, at which I worked attentively until night.  They said that if I would stay and not run away, that they would make a chief of me, but if I would attempt to run away they would catch me and burn me alive.  I amused them with a fine story in order to gain their confidence; and fortunately made my escape on the 19th of August, and took one of their best horses to carry me, being seven days in the wilderness.  I was joyfully received on the 26th at Wayne.  On the 28th they attacked the fort, and blockaded us until the 16th of Sept. when we were relieved by Gen. Harrison.”

Sgt. Jordan’s numbers of those who survived differ from those given by Captain Heald, which may be accounted for by the fact that the Captain and his wife left the scene before Sgt. Jordan did.

There is one more account.  On May 21, 1814, the Plattsburgh Republican printed the names of nine men, “of the first U. S. infantry, who survived the massacre at Fort Dearborn or Chicago, on the 15th of August, 1812.”  These men had just reached Plattsburgh from Quebec, where they had been taken after they had been purchased by a French trader, and sent to Quebec, “where they arrived on the 8th of Nov. 1813.”    It then quotes Capt. Heald, “in his report of this affair, dated October 23, 1812,” stated that “Lieut. Lina T. Helm with 25 non-commissioned officers and privates, and 11 women and children were prisoners when we separated.”  The Republican reports the released men stating “that the prisoners who were not put to death on the march, were taken to Fox River, in the Illinois territory, where they were distributed among the Indians as servants.”  According to the Republican, Lt. Helm was ransomed, and, of “the 25 non-commissioned officers and privates and the 11 women and children, the nine persons above mentioned are believed to be the only survivors.”
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About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden