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Replica Fort Dearborn

By Cate LiaBraaten

For more information about the above photo of the replica Fort Dearborn, please see UIC's digital collections page.

Fort Dearborn at the Century of Progress Exhibition was a replica of the United States Army fort that was built where the Chicago River met Lake Michigan in 1803. This replica was the first building at the fair open to the public. It opened in 1931, and welcomed many visitors before the fair opened as well as during the 1933 and 1934 seasons.

The original Fort Dearborn is most known for a battle that has frequently been referred to as the “Fort Dearborn Massacre.” In 1812, the United States Army members posted at Fort Dearborn as well as their families were ordered to evacuate the fort. As they evacuated, they were attacked by Potawatomi warriors, and the fort was burned. This violence was part of an ongoing conflict between the United States and multiple tribes in the area that became known as the Midwest.

At the fair, the Fort Dearborn replica celebrated the memory of the original Fort Dearborn as a triumph of (white) civilization over the wilderness. It was a representation of the modern city of Chicago’s roots as grassland. The building was a concession with a separate entrance fee operated by A Century of Progress, Inc. Many of the men in charge of the fair and the replica fort had ties to the United States military, and were proud of a representation of the past that focused on military history, even though Fort Dearborn was most famous for a battle the United States lost. The battle was framed as a massacre and the experiences of settlers and soldiers at the old fort was told as a triumphant story: one where rugged and hardy people struggled through hardship. This story of the past was deeply appealing to many Chicagoans and visitors in the 1930s. In the throes of the Great Depression, they took comfort in a story about their predecessors struggling and the ultimate triumph of the United States in establishing a major city where the Chicago River met Lake Michigan.

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