Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Lost Communities of Chicago - Shanty Town and the District of Lake Michigan. (aka The Sands; Streeterville)

Captain George Wellington Streeter
George Wellington Streeter was born in Flint, Michigan, in 1837. Before the Civil War, he wandered the Great Lakes region, working at various times as a logger and trapper, an ice cutter on Saginaw Bay, a deckhand on Canada's Georgian Bay, and a miner. 

He married his first wife, Minnie, and then traveled west in a covered wagon, returning to Michigan on the eve of the Civil War. He joined the Union Army as a private and served in the Tennessee theater.

After the war, he became a showman, lumberjack, and steamship operator. After his wife left him (she ran off with a vaudeville troupe), he came to Chicago in the mid-1880s and married again. 

He and his new wife, Maria, decided to become gun runners in Honduras. Streeter bought a steamship and named it "Reutan." 

Before piloting it down to Central America, Streeter took a test cruise in Lake Michigan in 1886 during a gale. The ship ran aground about 450 feet from the Chicago shore.
The Steamship "Reutan" docked on the Chicago River.
In the days that followed, Streeter surveyed the situation and decided to leave his boat where it was. At the time, Chicago was amidst a building boom after the great Chicago fire of 1871. Streeter found excavation contractors who were eager to pay a fee for the right to dump fill on the beach near his boat. 

He eventually amassed 186 acres of newly created land. Consulting an 1821 government survey, Streeter determined that his man-made land lay beyond the boundaries of both Chicago and Illinois and therefore claimed that he was homesteading the land as a Civil War veteran.

Unfortunately, prominent Chicagoans such as Potter Palmer and N.K. Fairbank owned the land adjacent to Streeter's land accretions. These men claimed that Streeter was a squatter and had no legal rights to the land. Streeter argued differently, declaring, "When I come here ther warn't a particle of land for me to squat on!"
Sensing that his enemies would try to oust him, Streeter replaced his ship with a homemade two-story tar-paper "castle." The first floor was his war room; the second floor was his residence.
Captain Streeter's Converted Boat Fortress/Home
When private detectives and thugs attempted to serve allegedly specious warrants on Streeter, he and his wife responded with sawed-off muskets filled with birdshot. On one occasion, Streeter's wife drove off three deputies by dousing them with boiling water.
Click for a full-size map.
Several times, assailants were killed during their attempts to storm what Streeter called his "District of Lake Michigan." But the city found it challenging to keep Streeter in jail, and one time he was acquitted of self-defense. 

Another time he proved that the birdshot in his rifle could not possibly have killed the policeman found with a piece of lead in his heart. When he was arrested for refusing "to disperse," he successfully argued in court that he could not disperse as he was only one person. 

But in March 1902, John Kirk, an imported Western gunman, was killed in Streeter's district. Streeter was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, and Streeter claimed he was framed; the governor of Illinois agreed and pardoned him nine months later. But while Streeter was in prison, his wife died.

Streeter resumed control over his domain. To finance his side of the battle, Streeter sold lots to upward of 200 prospective homeowners, as well as refreshments, alcoholic beverages, and snacks to real estate shoppers and the just plain curious. 

Unable to oust him by force, his foes turned to the courts. However, the law of riparian rights was murky, and Streeter's lawyers - paid with deeds of land - proved to be able adversaries. 

Streeter offered various theories about why the land belonged to him in real life. Sometimes he claimed it by squatters' rights, and other times he'd bought a deed from a mysterious John Scott "someplace in Michigan."

The longest-running explanation was a purported land grant from President Grover Cleveland that Streeter waved in front of judges for 25 years — until, that is, a handwriting expert took the witness stand in a 1918 trial and put a chemical test to the document's signatures, as the Tribune reported. "Lo and behold, the signature of Cleveland faded away, and there arose in its place the quaint and sturdy signature of President Martin Van Buren!" Streeter's name vanished by a similar process, revealing the actual grantee was Robert Kinzie, a pioneer Chicagoan. The judge ruled that the document "was and is now a clumsy forgery," adding that weather bureau records showed no evidence of a storm the night Streeter claimed to have been shipwrecked.

But finally, shortly after his arrest in 1918 for selling liquor without a license and assault on a police officer, agents of Chicago Title and Trust Company, armed with warrants, put the torch to Streeter's castle. 
By now, Streeter had married a third time, and his wife, Emma "Ma" Streeter, charged the group with a meat cleaver, but to no avail, and the couple retreated to a nearby boat to wanly continue the fight. He never returned, and Streeter spent the next few years operating a floating hot dog stand in East Chicago. The old rogue died on January 24, 1921, at age 84.

Many dignitaries, including William Hale Thompson, the mayor of Chicago, attended his funeral. His wife continued to wage war both inside the courtroom and on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1925 the federal district court in Chicago ruled that because Streeter never divorced Minnie, his first wife, "Ma" Streeter, was not legally married and thus ineligible to file claims for Streeter's property. The last suit brought by alleged heirs was dismissed in 1940, thus finally ending a half-century of colorful warfare and litigation concerning the sovereignty of the District of Lake Michigan - to this day still called Streeterville, in honor of its founder. 
Shows Expanding Chicago Shoreline by Year. 
The land that Streeter so ardently fought for is now the most expensive part of Chicago. It is on the Near North Side of the city, bounded by Oak Street on the north, Michigan Avenue on the West, Grand Avenue to the south, and Lake Michigan on the east.

Today this area is a named neighborhood called Streeterville. The property continues to be valuable, and the John Hancock Center now towers where the Reutan fortress used to be.
A statue of "Cap" stands at Grand Avenue
and McClurg Court, Chicago, Illinois.
Read Captain Streeter, Pioneer. Published in 1914.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 


  1. Thanks for posting the story of Cap Streeter and helping to keep the history of Cap and Streeterville alive! The sculpture of Cap Streeter, by Artist Dennis Downes, provides depth to the community and we appreciate having a reminder of our eccentric founder. Cap Streeter is also a stop for the Architectural Tours who find enjoyment tell the colorful stories of Cap's adventures and escapades. We appreciate our history and how Streeterville received its name, from our own Cap Streeter!

  2. You learn something every day thank you Neil

  3. What a great story and great pictures. I love articles about shanty towns and Chicagogoans. Do you remember the "boat people" that used to live in makeshift houseboats along the Chicago River on the east side of Greebie's Shipyard near Belmont?

    1. My article: Houseboats on the Chicago River; The History of Living on the River.

  4. I just love this story. It is so “Chicago” with ingenuity, the Fire, forgeries and politics. Stubbornness, too. Wonderful that he even had a floating hot dog place. Of course, he left us with a permanent curve in the shoreline hat plagues us to this day, but what a great guy. The statue is awesome.


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