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Editorial: Revisiting a massacre and a sunken ship

Passengers scramble off Eastlafter excursisteamer rolled over Chicago River July 24 1915. More than 800 people were killed.  |

Passengers scramble off the Eastland after the excursion steamer rolled over in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. More than 800 people were killed. | Sun-Times library

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Updated: September 13, 2012 6:17AM

Ask a Chicagoan what the first of the four stars on the city’s flag stands for and there’s a pretty good chance he’ll say “the Fort Dearborn Massacre.”

That would be incorrect, technically, the star representing the fort itself, not the battle on Aug. 15, 1812 — 200 years ago this Wednesday. But the common misconception says something about how large the battle still looms in the standard story we tell ourselves of Chicago’s earliest days.

Ask a Chicagoan about the Eastland excursion boat disaster, though, and there’s a good chance you’ll get nothing but a quizzical look. That tragedy, on July 24, 1915, in which the Eastland unceremoniously rolled over in the Chicago River and 844 people drowned, claimed far more lives than the Battle of Fort Dearborn. It remains, in fact, the deadliest disaster in Chicago history. Yet the Eastland gets but a cursory mention in most histories of the city.

What’s going on?

The Battle of Fort Dearborn, obviously, was about much more than body counts. It quickly was understood, even in its time, as a last gasp in a clash of civilizations on the Great Lakes frontier. The white settlers and soldiers, having abandoned the fort, were fleeing by foot and wagon when they were attacked by Potawatomi warriors. Sixty-one to 63 men, women and children from the fort and 15 Indians were killed. But the Americans would return and rebuild the fort four years later — and drive the Indians from their land for good.

The battle of Fort Dearborn — it is now politically incorrect even to call it a massacre — is a classic case of history being written by the victors, only to be revisited and rewritten as the faces of the victors change. For decades, in the Chicago of our grandparents and before, schoolchildren were taught to see the battle through a monocultural lens in which heroic pioneers were set upon by savage natives. But that view has been evolving for a long time, leaving Chicagoans today considerably more aware of the injustice of Indian displacement and far less sure of who the real victims were.

History often morphs along that way: Truths become truisms, which become doubts, which become falsehoods. Frontier martyrdom devolves into cultural imperialism.

The Eastland disaster, on the other hand, looks like a less complicated tale of bad ship-building, with no larger significance. The ship was simply too top-heavy.

But there is a cautionary twist to the Eastland story, largely overlooked. The Eastland’s dangerous design had been ignored and denied by its operators for years, even in the face of a formal complaint. The Eastland disaster is about a problem that’s still with us today — businesses that put profits before safety.

Why then has the Eastland been forgotten? A smart new play at Lookingglass Theater, “Eastland: An Original Musical,” says the secret may lie in who did not die that day — anybody rich or famous.

Those on board the ship were the employees and families of the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works in Cicero, going to a company picnic. They were working people with names such as Novotney, Dubek and Zajicek. There were no Astors or Guggenheims, like on the Titanic, and no Fields or Pullmans.

Sometimes history is about looking at things in a different way. Other times it’s about the negative space, what we never even see.

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