Hubbard became an entrepreneur in 1813 at the age of eleven when his father moved the family to Montreal. Gurdon borrowed twenty five cents from a friend and began buying “the remnants of (farmer’s) loads of poultry, butter, cheese, etc. and peddling them… realized from eighty to one hundred dollars, all of which went into the family treasury.”
While his early life in the fur trade was filled with high adventure and feats of daring and strength, Hubbard was always focused on improving and expanding his businesses.
Prior to his arrival in Chicago, he had made the acquaintance of Morris Kinzie, who gave Hubbard a letter of introduction to his father, John Kinzie.
Hubbard settled in Danville, Illinois in the early 1820s. Beginning in 1822, Hubbard began moving his trade goods by pack ponies from his 80 acre farm on the Iroquois River north of Danville, south along an old buffalo trace, known as the Vincennes Trail. He took his hogs and cattle to sell at the population, transportation and market center of Vincennes, Indiana on the Wabash River.
At one point, upon learning that a band of Indians were planning a raid on Danville, Hubbard walked 75 miles to Danville in a single night, earning the nickname “Pa-pa-ma-ta-be,” or “Swift-Walker.” As stories of his feat spread, a local Indian tribe questioned the veracity of the story. According to legend, Hubbard challenged the tribe to put up a champion and succeeded in beating him in a race by several miles.
Following that he would use the trail to carry traded goods from Chicago to the south, and to bring his furs north. He established trading posts every forty to fifty miles. Over the following years traffic increased as settlers from the east moved into the Indiana and Illinois farmlands. Hubbard’s livestock, and their wagons, widened and hardened the trail into a road. It began to be known as "Hubbard’s Trace 'or Hubbard’s Trail.
While serving in the Illinois General Assembly in the 1830s, Hubbard lobbied to have the Illinois & Michigan Canal built to connect the Chicago River to the Illinois River, defeating a competing proposal to build the canal from the Calumet River to the Illinois. Hubbard would eventually go on the serve as a director of the I&M Canal Board.
In 1834 the state legislature designated the Hubbard Trail as the first State Road. It was marked with milestones from Vincennes to Chicago. On most of the old trail’s route through Illinois today it is still marked as State Route 1. At its northern end in Chicago, Hubbard’s old trail is known as State Street.
Seeing the vast potential of Chicago's location, Hubbard and his second wife Eleanora moved from their Iroquois River farmhouse to Chicago on January 4, 1834. It took them six days to travel up Hubbard’s Trail to Chicago in a procession of cattle, hogs and horse drawn sleighs. Winter weather made travel over the frozen trail, and passage over the frozen rivers, easy.
After moving to Chicago in 1834, Hubbard opened a land office and began reaching out to East Coast investors.
Hubbard built a three story brick warehouse in the winter of 1843 while his freshly killed hogs were preserved on the ice of the Chicago River. In the spring his building was finished. It had a large insulated room for keeping meat cold through the warm months with ice cut from the river and nearby marshes It was the first brick warehouse built in the small town and detractors labeled it “Hubbard’s Folly." Within a few years his businesses had outgrown the building on the north side of the Chicago river, near modern-day LaSalle Street, and in 1836 he built an even larger warehouse (for $44,000) on the north bank.
To his meat packing business he added warehousing, freight forwarding and “lightering" (moving cargo and passengers between shore and ships anchored in the lake). In 1860, one of his ships, the Lady Elgin, sank off the coast of present-day Highwood.
Hubbard was elected as an alderman for the 7th Ward in 1860. He began writing his autobiography, which had grown to more than 800 pages when Hubbard lost his manuscript in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Building his fortune in meats and furs allowed Hubbard to enter into the insurance business, and he was the first underwriter in Chicago. Following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, he was nearly bankrupted by the insurance payments he had to make, but he was able to survive the setback.
Following the fire, he began to recreate it, but only managed to get to 1829 when he died (although the manuscript has since been published).
With Chicago destroyed by fire, Hubbard set out for the East Coast, where he drew maps of Chicago from memory to interest backers in helping to rebuild the city. His success meant that he was able to rebuild his fortunes before his death.
Hubbard married three times. His second wife was the former Eleanora Berry of Urbana (married from 1831-1840) and his third was his cousin, Mary Ann Ellis Mills Hubbard (married from 1843 until his death). He had one son, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, Jr., with Eleanora (b.1838).
Hubbard recovered from his financial setbacks following the Great Chicago Fire, but his health began to deteriorate. In 1883, he became ill and in 1884, he had his left eye removed. The following year, his right eye was removed. Hubbard died on September 14, 1886 and was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.
Chicago honors Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard by naming the street, Hubbard Street for him, as is Hubbard High School and Hubbard’s Cave, the nickname given to a section of tunnel on I90 and I94 highway (the Kennedy Expressway).
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.
At a time when men of virtues were desperately in short supply, the story of Illinois pioneer Gurdon Hubbard is a compelling one. It reaffirms the conviction that integrity, faith, loyalty, courage and a moral sense of responsibility are virtues worth cherishing.
Two books written by Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard are available in PDF format from my Digital Research Library of Illinois History®
1) Autobiography of Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard; pub:1911
2) Incidents and Events in the Life of Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard; pub:1888