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Rebecca Wells Heald

 

The life of this woman is associated with one of the most prominent incidents and horrible scenes of the War of 1812, the massacre at Fort Dearborn, Chicago.

Rebecca Heald was the daughter of Captain Wells of Kentucky. In her early life she resided with her uncle, Captain William Wells, whose life was one of the most singular and romantic of the early border days. He was captured by the Miami Indians when but a very small child, and was adopted by the son of Little Turtle, one of the most famous Indian warriors of the day. After living and becoming completely identified with the lives of his captors, he saw and realized the superior power of the white settlers then fast filling up that section of the country, and he determined to leave his adopted friends and return to his own people, which he did without severing the bonds of friendship then existing.

He joined the army of General Wayne, and his services were most conspicuous and valuable through his knowledge of the country and the Indian character. He commanded an organization of spies and fought in the campaign of Wayne until the treaty of Greenville in 1795, which restored peace between the whites and the Indians, when Wells again rejoined his old friends and foster-father, Little Turtle.

Captain Wells was chosen to escort the troops from Chicago to Fort Wayne at the time of the outbreak in 1812, and while living there with her uncle, Miss Wells met Captain Heald, and in 1812 Captain Heald was placed in command of the garrison at Chicago, at that time a remote outpost of the American frontier. The communication between the posts at Fort Wayne, Detroit, and Chicago was carried on over an Indian trail with a friendly savage as guide frequently. Opposite the fort which stood at the junction of the Chicago River with Lake Michigan and separated by the river stood the home of Mr. Kinsey. They were the first to have knowledge of the outbreak, which occurred on the night of the 7th of April, 1812.

The commander of the fort, Captain Heald, received, on the 7th of August, dispatches from General Hull at Detroit, announcing the declaration of war between the United States and Great Britain. Captain Heald decided upon a plan of action which brought forth the greatest indignation and resentment from his officers and men. He had received orders to distribute all the supplies of United States property equally among the Indians in the neighborhood, and evacuate the post. The officers and men urged upon him the necessity to remain and fortify themselves as strongly as possible, hoping for aid from the other side of the peninsula, but Captain Heald announced that he was going to carry out what seemed to them a foolhardy decision on his part and distribute the property among the Indians and ask them to escort the garrison to Fort Wayne, with the promise of reward for the safe conduct of all, adding that he felt a profound confidence in the profession of friendship on the part of the Indians. This brought on a most unhappy condition of affairs. The troops became almost mutinous, and the Indians set in defiance the restraint which had heretofore been maintained over them.

A council with the Indians was held on the 12th of August, none of the officers attending from the fort but Captain Heald. Secret information had been brought that the Indians intended falling upon the officers and murdering them all. Among the chiefs were several who held personal regard for many of the officers and troops in the garrison, and did their utmost to allay the war like feeling, which was constantly arising and increasing each day among the Indians. On the evening following the last council Black Partridge, a prominent chief, came to the quarters of Captain Heald and said: ''Father, I come to deliver up to you the medal I wear. It was given me by the Americans and I have long worn it in token of our mutual friendship, but our young men are resolved to imbrue their hands in the blood of the whites.' I cannot restrain them and I will not wear a token of peace while I am compelled to act as an enemy.

This should have been enough to allow Captain Heald to appreciate the seriousness of the temper of the Indians, but he went on with his preparation for departure, which was to take place on the 15th.

 Everyone was ready, reduced to the smallest equipment possible in view of the journey before them. Mr. Kinsey had offered to accompany the troops, entrusting his family to the care of some friendly Indians who had promised to carry them in a boat around the head of Lake Michigan to a place on the St. Joseph River, where they should be joined if the march proved successful. The following morning Mr. Kinsey received word from the chief of St. Joseph's Band that they must expect trouble from the Pottawattamies, urging him to give up his plan to accompany the troops and promising that the boat would be permitted to pass in safety to St. Joseph's, and urged him to go with his family instead, but Mr. Kinsey declined this, believing he might have some influence in restraining the savages. When they reached the point between the prairie and the beach the Pottawattamies took the prairie instead of the beach with the Americans and their purpose was soon evident. They attacked the whites, being about five hundred strong. This little band was soon reduced to about one-third of their number and finally Captain Wells was obliged to surrender, under the agreement that their lives should be spared, and that all should be delivered at one of the British posts to be ransomed later by their friends.

Mrs. Heald took an active part in this fight, and through her heroic conduct her life was spared by one of the Indians, who placed her and Mrs. Kinsey and their children in a boat where they were covered with buffalo robes, their rescuer telling the Indians that it contained only the family of Shawneaukee. They were taken back to the home of Mr. Kinsey, closely guarded by the Indians who intended later to take them all to Detroit. After the work of plunder and destruction was complete on the part of the Indians, the fort was set afire.

Black Partridge and Wabansee with three others constituted themselves protectors to the family of Mr. Kinsey. Mrs. Heald and Mrs. Kinsey later succeeded in disguising themselves as French women with some of the clothes they found in the house, and were conducted by Black Partridge to the home of Ouilmette, a Frenchman with a half-breed wife, who had been employed by Mr. Kinsey and whose home was near. Only the absolute devotion on the part of Black Partridge saved these women from massacre. Later they were successfully placed in a boat, and under the care of a half-breed interpreter were taken to St. Joseph and later to Detroit under the escort of Chandonnai, a faithful Indian friend, and the entire party with their servants delivered up as prisoners of war to the British commanding officer.

General Hull at the surrender of Detroit had stipulated that all American inhabitants should remain undisturbed in their homes, and here Mrs. Kinsey and Mrs. Heald were allowed to peacefully reside. Mr. Kinsey, through anxiety for his family, ultimately joined them and surrendered as a prisoner of war. During the fight of which we have spoken Mrs. Heald received seven wounds. Lieutenant Helm was taken by some friendly Indians to their village of the Au Sable, and then to St. Louis, where he was ultimately liberated. Mrs. Helm accompanied her father's family to Detroit. During the engagement, she had a horse shot from under her. The little remnant of the garrison at Fort Dearborn with their wives and children were distributed among the villages of the Pottawattamies upon the Illinois, Wabash, Rock River and Milwaukee until the spring, when they were taken to Detroit and ransomed.

Mrs. Helm, spoken of, was the daughter of Captain Killip, a British officer attached to one of the companies, who in 1794 aided the Indian tribes against the United States Government. On the death of her husband, Colonel Killip, she afterward became the wife of John Kinsey and removed to Chicago, there establishing a thriving trading post among the Pottawattamie Indians. Their daughter married Lieutenant Lina J. Helm, of Kentucky, and is the one spoken of in this account.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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