Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Jean Baptiste La Lime was Chicago's first murder victim; killed by John Kinzie in 1812.

Chicago was not a city but a frontier settlement mostly occupied by French-Canadian and American traders, soldiers, and Indians. It was the home of Fort Dearborn, the site of the famous battle that would take place that same year.

But Fort Dearborn's history was bloodied even before it became known for the battle that bears its name. Just two months earlier — on June 17 — it was the site of Chicago's first documented slaying — and some say its first murder. The suspect in the killing was John Kinzie, who, in historical accounts, was sometimes referred to as "Chicago's first citizen." 

Haiti-born Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable is widely considered to own the title of "Chicago's first non-native citizen" today.

"Pointe" is the proper French spelling, but the final 'e' is almost always dropped in documents. The 'du' of Pointe du Sable is a misnomer (a wrong or inaccurate name or designation). It's an American corruption of 'de' as pronounced in French. "Du Sable" first appears long after his death in 1818. I use the correct spelling in this article.
The Kinzie Mansion. The House in the background is that of Antoine Ouilmette. Illustration from 1827.

Successive owners and occupants include:
Pointe de Sable: A fur trader and farmer, he moved from his 1784 farm on the Guarie (Gary) River [1] (north branch of the Chicago River at Wolf Point). He Departed Chicago in 1800.

The Wayne County Register of Deeds in Detroit—Chicago was part of that county during Northwest Territory days—debunks many of the Kinzies’ claims. Their records show Jean Lalime, not Joseph Le Mai, bought De Sable’s trading post in 1800, bankrolled by Lalime and Kinzie’s mutual boss, fur trader William Burnett. There COULD NOT have been confusion because  Kinzie signed the deed as a witness.

Successive owners and occupants include: 

      • Jean Lalime/William Burnett: 1800-1803, owner {{a careful reading of the Pointe de Sable-Lalime sales contract indicates that William Burnett was not just signing as a witness, but also financing the transaction, therefore controlling ownership}}
      • John Kinzie's Family: 1804-1828 (except during 1812-1816).
      • Widow Leigh & Mr. Des Pins: 1812-1816.
      • John Kinzie's Family: 1817-1829.
      • Anson Taylor: 1829-1831 (residence and store).
      • Dr. E.D. Harmon: 1831 (resident & medical practice).
      • Jonathan N. Bailey: 1831 (resident and post office).
      • Mark Noble, Sr.: 1831-1832.
      • Judge Richard Young: 1832 (circuit court).
      • Unoccupied and decaying beginning in 1832.
      • Nonexistent by 1835.
                        The deceased was Jean Baptiste La Lime, a French trader who also served as an interpreter among the settlement's inhabitants and the Indians. La Lime first purchased Pointe de Sable's cabin, later changing hands, and then Kinzie bought the property in 1804. In 1812, Kinzie and La Lime were neighbors, but historical accounts do not portray their relationship as neighborly. There was "bad blood" between them, according to a Chicago Daily Tribune article from 1942.

                        "They had some long association with each other," Russell Lewis, chief historian at the Chicago History Museum, said. "It was a tiny neighborhood… and people were competitive. John Kinzie was not known as a particularly generous or affable person."

                        While Kinzie's name triumphed over La Lime's in Chicago lore, historical portraits of him aren't all flattering. A Chicago Tribune article in 1966 paints Kinzie as an "aggressive" trader who clashed with some American soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn. Ann Durkin Keating, a history professor at North Central College in Naperville, describes Kinzie as a "volatile and violent character." Tensions between Kinzie and La Lime came to a head on June 17, 1812, when the two men met outside Fort Dearborn, La Lime armed with a pistol and Kinzie with a butcher's knife. Keating describes the murder that ensued as "premeditated" in her book "Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago."

                        A witness account of what followed appears in Keating's book: "We saw the men come together; we heard the pistol go off and saw the smoke. Then they fell down together. I don't know. La Lime didn't get up, but Kinzie got home quickly. Blood was running from his shoulder where La Lime shot him."

                        The reasons for the fatal dispute are unknown. Kinzie fled the area afterward and didn't return until authorities ruled the slaying was in self-defense. Historians do not know whether Kinzie attacked La Lime first or if it was the other way around.

                        "The fact that Kinzie, of course, after La Lime was killed, ran away and became a fugitive, is open to many interpretations," Lewis said. "He was innocent if it was self-defense, so why did he run away?" Whether Kinzie did murder La Lime in self-defense — and it's suggested that his gunshot wound is evidence that he might have — another possible reason he fled is his loyalties. 

                        Chicago in 1812 was a frontier settlement with people from all over the world — France, Canada, Great Britain, and possibly Spain, to name a few — and the Indians who already lived there. Lewis said Kinzie may have stood out in this melting pot for his pro-British and anti-American stance. This may have made him unpopular with some of the settlement's inhabitants, possibly leading Kinzie to believe he wouldn't get a fair trial. After recovering from the gunshot wound from La Lime, Kinzie narrowly escaped death again at the Fort Dearborn Massacre, which occured in August of that year.

                        Billy Caldwell, whose history was mainly fabricated, arrived on the scene just after the Fort Dearborn battle and saved the lives of the John Kinzie family. That's the traditional account of what had happened. It didn't happen.

                        Kinzie suffered a stroke on June 6, 1828, and died a few hours later. Originally buried at the Fort Dearborn Cemetery, Kinzie's remains were moved to City Cemetery in 1835. When the cemetery was closed due to concerns it could contaminate the city's water supply, Kinzie's remains were moved to Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.
                        John Kinzie's grave is in Graceland Cemetery.
                        La Lime's body was rumored to be buried near Kinzie's cabin. In 1891, 79 years after the slaying, a partial skeleton thought to belong to La Lime was excavated at Illinois Street and Cass Street (now Wabash Avenue) and given to the Chicago Historical Society, which still possesses the preserved skeleton. The remains have never been confirmed to belong to La Lime, whose legacy remains nearly as anonymous as his skeleton.
                        The alleged skeleton of Jean La Lime at the Chicago Historical Museum.

                        Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


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