Chicago: the Origin Story

It’s hard to imagine Chicago as less than a destination. She’s the kind of city that walks into a room and everybody stops whatever they’re doing. She’s talented, riotous, at times beautifully serene, and at others, ear-splittingly chaotic. But up until the mid-1800s, she was more often than not a portage to somewhere else.

For centuries, this spot at the southwest corner of a giant inland lake has been a transportation hub. The Odawa, Miami, Ojibwe, Illinois, Potawatomi, and other indigenous tribes could get from one place to another through the network of rivers and streams they called chicagoua. There’s a continental divide running through the area, and a short strip of land separates rivers flowing east, to Lake Michigan, and west, to the Mississippi River.

The French explored this stinky, swampy land in the 1600s; Marquette and Jolliet, followed later by La Salle, forded and portaged and mapped. Jolliet suggested that cutting a canal could connect Lake Erie to the Gulf of Mexico, a prescient glimpse of Chicago’s future. Gradually, a few European men traded with and occasionally married into the local tribes. Those unions may have been about love, but they were also good business: once you were a member of the family you had the keys to the kingdom. Or, at least, some guidance and a relative safety net.

None of the explorers stayed for any length of time. A few seasonal trading posts popped up over the years, but relations between the original inhabitants and the newcomers had sometimes violent outcomes. By the late 1780s, however, the Revolution had spawned a new country and this land became one of its territories. In 1795, the Treaty of Greenville gave the Americans “one piece of land six miles square at the mouth of Chikago river emptying into the south-west end of Lake Michigan,” and it wasn’t too much longer before the original inhabitants were kicked out completely.

As you can imagine, that didn’t go well.

Chicago’s first non-native permanent settler, like his predecessors, was French. Unlike his predecessors, he was black. Jean Baptiste Point de Sable* and Kitihawa, his Potawatomi wife, settled on a plot of land on the north side of the chicagou river. When they arrived isn’t exactly known, but according to a journal entry that Hugh Heward, a clerk out of Detroit, made in 1790, the couple was already well established. The de Sables sold their property in 1800 to Jean Baptiste Lalime for the impressive sum of $1200. They could get such a princely amount because, by that time, the property consisted of a home filled with furnishings, as well as a barn and several outbuildings. For a remote trading post in a place that smelled like garlic, this was quite the setup.

In 1803, the U.S. government saw the importance of establishing a presence in Chicago and sent Captain John Whistler to begin building Fort Dearborn. The next year they completed construction, and with the perceived safety of a military outpost, more settlers arrived. It was more of a trickle than a flood, but their increasing numbers made the Potawatomi none too happy. The locals had already given up so much of their home, and while the French had been transient, these new Americans had no intention of leaving and claimed the land as their own.

At the same time, tensions between Britain and its former colonies escalated, until it became a full-on war in 1812. After General William Hull learned that Fort Mackinac had fallen to the Brits he ordered the evacuation of Fort Dearborn. The order arrived on August 9, and on August 15 Captain Heald led a garrison of 55 regulars, 12 militia, 9 women and 18 children. The small group got about a mile and a half south when around 500 Potawatomis attacked. The tribe took the few survivors prisoner and burned the fort.

In 1816, the United States Army rebuilt Fort Dearborn and the Treaty of St. Louis gave the country the land it needed to create the canal Jolliet had conceived of a century and a half prior. There was no mad rush to take up residence though, and in 1820, there were only about sixty people. Garrisons ping-ponged in and out. In May of 1823, the garrison was ordered to evacuate and left by the fall of that year. On October 3, 1828, Fort Dearborn once again housed a garrison of about sixty. Two and a half years later, they left for Green Bay, but were back at the fort on June 17, 1832. Then, on July 10, the “Sheldon Thompson,” a boat bringing soldiers for the Black Hawk War, also brought cholera. Within a week there were 58 fatalities.

Chicago couldn’t catch a break.

Except, while all of this do-we-stay-or-do-we-go was happening, Illinois entered the Union in 1818, the wildly successful Erie Canal opened in 1825, and in 1826 Congress gave Illinois the acreage it needed for its very own canal. Three years later the Illinois Legislature appointed a Canal Commission to make this water highway a reality, and in 1830 James Thompson drew the first street grid of Chicago. Prospectors and daring pioneers bought lots and lo and behold, on August 12, 1833, the stinky, swampy land officially became a town.

*Was the founder of Chicago’s name du Sable or de Sable? If you look around present-day Chicago, Jean Baptiste’s name is spelled du—Du Sable Bridge, Du Sable Museum, even the statue of him at Pioneer Court, marking the site of his home. Yet, an earlier tablet at Pine (present-day Michigan Avenue) and Kinzie spelled his name de.  An authoritative article by John Swenson in EarlyChicago.com states that de Sable was Jean Baptiste’s chosen legal name, and the “du” spelling didn’t appear until long after his death.

Sources for Chicago: the Origin Story

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