The Birth of Chicago-Wilderness and Whiskey

Imagine the now great city of Chicago as just a patch of forest, sand, and swamps that was host to several indian villages. I read about the birth of Chicago in the book Rising Up From Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and The Birth Of Chicago by Ann Durkin Keating. The word “Chicago” is believed to be derived from the Miami-Illinois word “Shikaakwa” which means smelly onion or striped skunk. In 1768, there were 30,000 indians living in the western great lakes area-still a very wild and unsettled terrain only known to a few fur trading Europeans. The French were the most pronounced Europeans during this time and they often married indian women to form better trading bonds with the various tribes. These interracial parings produced cute “métis” babies which would be the first people to settle in Chicago-having an established trade outpost by 1788. With the passing of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 and thus the establishment of the Northwest Territory (today’s Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin), the door slowly creaked open for settlement of the far western reaches of the young empire. These first settlers were entering a world that was unforgiving in terms of nature and natives. European’s desires for land were met with indian’s desire for trading goods-ammunition, steel, and especially whiskey. Treaties began to arise that ceded native land to Americans in exchange for annual annuities payments and offerings of peace. The Fort Wayne Treaty of 1803 led to the construction of Fort Dearborn near the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. This fort legitimized Chicago as a far western trade post but there was still only a few hundred people living in the settlement.

Fast forward to August 15th, 1812. The War of 1812 is underway and for the past two decades anger has been growing among indian tribes because of the relentless pursuit of land by the US. Britain harnessed this anger and used indians to assist in the capture of Mackinaw Island and Detroit early in the war. Fort Dearborn was now under pressure of attack and American military personal were ordered to evacuate. As the party of 148 left the fort they were soon ambushed by 500 Potawatomi indians-killing 86 men, women, and children. This was known as the “Fort Dearborn Massacre” but the word “Massacre” was erroneously used to rally US citizens against indians in general. Interestingly, some of the indian warriors took the hearts of the slain and ate them to gain strength and courage. Fort Dearborn was burned and the whole settlement of Chicago was abandoned by the Americans. The War of 1812 would end in 1815 and this would mark a new era in Americas quest for territory. Between 1816-1833, Potawatomies ceded nearly 18 million acres of land. This cession of land was accomplished through month long negotiations between whites and Indians. Unfortunately, indians did not have centralized leadership and many of the land agreements were signed by those with no authority. In return for their land, indians were given annuities and the promise that they could keep some land to continue living in the area (this would turn out to be a lie). The indians really had no choice but to negotiate with the Americans because the trade of alcohol would cease until an agreement came about; the spread of alcoholism among natives was a serious issue.

With the land secured, a new Fort Dearborn was constructed in 1816. This fort would soon thrive especially with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1826-speeding travel from the east from 6 weeks to 2 weeks. By 1833 the last treaty of land cession was signed by the Potawatomies and Chicago began its rise to the major city we know today. This story is fascinating when you put in the context of a lifetime. Imagine someone who was born in 1812 when Fort Dearborn burned down to 1893 when the population of Chicago surpassed 1 million people and it hosted the World’s Fair! The courage of the early settlers is admirable but the exploitation of indians is quite sad. The negotiations for land were not fair because indians would speak for tribes that were not represented and the concept of land ownership to indians was far different then European ideology. In the end, the story of Chicago is the story of American conquest, ambition, and the relentless desire for resources.

How could the early American’s gained land in a manner more befitting to the indians? What cities history are you interested in learning about?

4 thoughts on “The Birth of Chicago-Wilderness and Whiskey

  1. This is a very interesting post. I don’t know much about the history between the Indians and Americans, but from what I know is that Indians are very protective of their land and many tribes have waged war with other tribes as well as ambitious European Americans. There were numerous Native American tribes that existed in the past, but now most are extinct. With that said, I’d like to know more about the different tribes, especially the Comanche Indians, who were known as the most brutal and probably the most hated of all the tribes. In terms of wanting to know about a particular city history, I’d like to know how New York City was developed. It’s such a great metropolis that learning about it’s humble beginnings would be fascinating.

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    • The Potowanamis were actually one of a few Indian tribes that tried to negotiate openly and were able to keep some of their lands. The Comanches were far less open to negotiations and were unfortunately left with very little after western expansion. I would love to read about New York City history. Stay tuned for that post.

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  2. I just watched the history of New York City – so this post is also very interesting to me. At the time the Native Americans were taken advantage of, no doubt – could it have happened in a more civil nature? – I’m not sure – and you really can’t blame them for lashing out – but they do have special laws now and I think our government is holding to their promises. Maybe that could be your next book – how are they being treated at present time? Just by the casino’s popping up, I would say some tribes are making money, hopefully they are sharing the profits to benefit their people.

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