Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Did a French "Fort Chécagou (Chicagoua) really exist at the mouth of the Chicago River?

In the summer of 1795, a conference was held at Greenville, Ohio, between the Indians and the whites. Over a thousand warriors, the representatives of half a score of tribes, assembled at the call of their conqueror in battle, Mad Anthony Wayne, to agree upon the terms of a treaty which should bring peace to the troubled northwestern frontier. In the negotiations which ensued Wayne assumed, as was fitting because of his recent victories, the attitude of a conqueror. The war had been fought by the Indians to hold, by the Americans to break, the Ohio River as the dividing line between the two races. The whites had triumphed, and accordingly, Wayne demanded of the Indian the cession of a vast tract of land north of the Ohio River. Also, he required a considerable number of small reservations scattered at points of strategic importance throughout the Indian country, for the erection of forts to control important highways of communication and commerce. In the course of the negotiations, a spirited debate arose concerning the extent of the French occupation of the Northwest, involving the historical question which forms the subject of this article.

Little Turtle, the famous Miami chieftain, claimed for his tribe the extensive tract of land reaching from Detroit and Chicagoua on the north to the Ohio River on the south; and from the Scioto on the east to a line from the mouth of the Wabash River to Chicago on the west. Wayne objected that the French had had establishments at various places throughout this region, asserting among other things that he discovered a "strong trace" of them at Chicago. This, Little Turtle bluntly denied, and in the course of a vigorous rejoinder several days later rudely exclaimed: "You told us at Chicago the French possessed a fort; we have never heard of it." 

Whatever the historical validity of the opposing contentions the immediate decision of the controversy was made on other grounds. The Indian leader was compelled to bow before the power of Wayne's grim legion, and accordingly, one clause of the treaty as finally drafted conveyed to the whites a tract of land six miles square at the mouth of the Chicago River "where a fort formerly stood." But over the conclusions, Wayne's legion has no power. Our final judgment upon the issue which the two leaders debated will be determined not by the might of battalions but by the weight of historical evidence. And it is of sufficient importance to the history of Illinois and the Northwest to repay an examination of the available historical evidence with the view of answering, at last, the question whether the French ever, in fact, had a fort at Chicago. 

A great deal has been said and written, aside from the assertions of Wayne in the negotiations at Greenville, on the subject of a fort at Chicago in the French period. Thomas Hutchins, the first and only civil "geographer of the United States," who had himself traveled extensively in the Northwest, placed an "Indian village and Fort" at the entrance of the Chicago River on the map which accompanied his famous Topographical Description of 1778. Whether he intended to indicate that the fort, as well as the village, was of Indian origin is not entirely clear, although Butterfield cites the Topographical Description as his authority for asserting that at the time of the revolution there was "a stockade fort" at the mouth of the river, which, he adds, was occupied only by traders. Many earlier maps might be cited to show the existence of a fort at Chicago in the French period. The testimony of these sources, reinforced by several contemporary narratives that will be considered, has commonly been accepted by historians. Most of the State and local histories which treat of early Chicago with any degree of fullness credit the French fort tradition. 


Mr. Edward G. Mason, a zealous worker in the field of Illinois history thought there was a fort here from 1685 until the end of French control in this region, and the most recent historian of Chicago concludes that "no doubt a succession of forts and stockades" existed here "at one period or another."

In spite of these numerous assertions, however, it is extremely doubtful whether the French ever had a regular fort at Chicago, and it can be shown conclusively that if so it existed for but a short period only. 


La Salle (René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle {Sieur de La Salle is a title only} translating to "Lord of the manor.") and Henri de Tonti passed by Chicago at various times and their movements are known during the entire period of La Salle's activities in Illinois. But for two exceptions, to be noted shortly, they nowhere speak of a fort at Chicago at this time, and the evidence that there was none, though negative, may be regarded as conclusive. There was no establishment at Chicago in 1687 when Cavelier's party was here vainly seeking to push on to Mackinac, nor in 1688, when the same party, having wintered at Fort St. Louis du Rocher, again tarried {stay longer than intended; delay leaving a place} at Chicago while on their way to Canada. There is no evidence that such a fort was established in the succeeding decade; and there is negative evidence to the contrary both in the fact that St. Cosme makes no mention of a fort at Chicago at the time of his visit, and that the French government gave only a grudging permission to Tonti to continue at Fort St. Louis, limiting his yearly trading operations to two canoes of merchandise, and finally, by royal decree, directing the abandonment of the fort. 

We have thus arrived at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Did the French have a fort at Chicago between the years 1700 and 1763? James Logan's report to Governor Keith in 1718, upon the French establishments in the interior, which was used by Keith in his memorial to the British Board of Trade so asserts. By the latter, the statements of Logan were incorporated in a report to the king, and this, apparently, was the source of Popple's representation of a "Fort Miamis" at Chicago on his great Map of the British Empire in America, of 1732.  In spite of this contemporary evidence, which has gained the approval of many historians, it seems very probable that no such fort existed at Chicago in the eighteenth century. That there was no fort here in 1715 is shown by two independent sources. In November of this year, Claude de Bamezay, acting-governor, and Begon, intendant of New France, in a report to the French minister dealing in part with the military situation in the region between the Upper Lakes and the Mississippi, recommended the establishment of several new posts. Among the number, a post at "Chicagou" was urged, "to facilitate access to the Miamis and Illinois tribes, and to keep these nations in our interests." If a fort already existed at Chicago the two highest officials in New France would have been aware of the fact, and there would have been no reason for this recommendation. In this same year, 1715, as part of an elaborately planned campaign against the Mesquakie (Fox) Indians of Wisconsin the French arranged for the rendezvous at Chicago of forces from Detroit, from the Wabash, and from the lower Illinois settlements. A series of mishaps caused a complete miscarriage of the plans for the campaign; but these very mishaps show that if there was a fort, there was at all events no garrison at Chicago. The three parties which were to effect a junction here arrived at different times, and each in turn, ignorant of the movements of the others, abandoned the expedition and retired. Obviously, if there had been a garrison at Chicago it would have constituted an important factor in planning the campaign; and the various bands which were to effect a junction here would have been informed, on their arrival, of the movements of the others. 


That there was no French establishment at Chicago in 1721 is shown by the journal of Father Charlevoix. This year he was touring the interior of America on a royal commission to examine and report to his king the condition of New France. His letters and history constitute the most authoritative eighteenth-century source for his story of New France. In
September of 1721, when the British Board of Trade report was made, Charlevoix passed from Fort St. Joseph, where the city of Niles, Michigan, now stands, down the Kankakee and Illinois to Peoria, and beyond. He had first intended to pass through Chicago, but a storm on the lake, together with information of the impossibility of navigating the Desplaines in a canoe at this season, led him to follow the route by the St. Joseph Portage and the Kankakee. His journal is detailed and explicit; he carefully describes the various posts and routes of communication. He had planned to pass by Chicago and informed himself concerning the portage and the Desplaines River. Yet he gives no hint of a fort here, a thing incomprehensible if such a fort had in fact existed. 

There is abundant evidence in the sources about the operations of the French in the Northwest that they had no fort at Chicago after 1721. In connection with the Fox wars, numerous campaigns were waged in which the Chicago garrison, if there had been one, would have participated. Yet no such force is ever mentioned, and some of the sources make it positively evident that there was neither garrison nor fort here. In 1727 the holding of a great conference with the Foxes the following year at Starved Rock or Chicago was proposed. If this were done, it was deemed necessary for the French to be first on the spot appointed for the rendezvous "to erect a fort" and otherwise prepare for the council. The project never materialized, however, and so the fort was not built. In 1730, when the French succeeded in trapping and destroying a large band of the Foxes in the vicinity of Starved Rock, parties came to the scene of conflict from many directions from Ouiatanon, St. Joseph, Fort de Chartres, and elsewhere; but none came from Chicago, although it was nearer the scene than any of the places from which the French forces did come obviously because there was no garrison at Chicago. In the early winter of 1731-32, a Huron-Iroquois war party passed from Detroit to St. Joseph and thence around the southern end of Lake Michigan and on into Wisconsin to attack the Foxes. The party paused at Chicago long enough to build a fort in which to leave their sick. This fort was evidently a temporary Indian shelter, but it is also evident that if an ungarrisoned French fort had been standing here the construction of such a shelter would have been unnecessary. An official list of the commanders of the various western posts a dozen years later is preserved in the French colonial archives. The posts at Detroit, Mackinac, Green Bay, St. Joseph, Ouiatanon, and elsewhere are mentioned but the name of Chicago is not included in the list. Finally, an exhaustive memoir by Bougainville in 1757 upon the posts and trade of the interior of the continent makes no mention of a post at Chicago, although the neighboring posts which are known to have existed at this time receive careful attention.


It seems evident, then, that the French had no fort at Chicago during the eighteenth century. Did they have one here at any time during the seventeenth? Two exceptions to the proposition that La Salle and Tonti make no mention of such a fort have been noted. In a letter written from the Chicago Portage, June 4, 1683, La Salle speaks of a "fort" here built by two of his men the preceding winter.


This structure Mason describes as a "little stockade with a log house within its enclosure" and declares it to have been the first known structure of anything like a permanent structure at Chicago. 
But a log hut constructed by two men and never garrisoned by any regular force hardly merits the name of a fort, in the ordinary acceptation of this term, even though it was surrounded by a stockade. 
Those who speak of a French fort at Chicago in this period refer not to this structure but to the "Fort of Chicagou" commanded by M. de la Durantaye in the winter of 1685-86. 

Our information concerning this fort is very scant, being confined to a simple mention of it with the name of its commander in Tonti's memoir of 1693. At the end of October of 1685, Tonti started from Mackinac in a canoe on Lake Michigan to go to Fort St. Louis on the Illinois River. Because of the lateness of the season, his progress was rendered impossible by the formation of ice in the lake. This compelled him to return to Mackinac, whence he again set forth, this time by land, for Fort St. Louis. An earlier account of this trip than that of 1693, but of equal brevity, was written by Tonti in the summer of 1686. It does not even mention Durantaye's "Fort of Chicagou," but it adds certain details concerning Tonti's trip of importance in determining the location of that establishment. 


Tonti was, of course, familiar by 1686 with both sides of Lake Michigan. In view of this fact it is extremely improbable that having to go by land from Mackinac to Fort St. Louis in the wintertime he would make the long detour around the head of Lake Michigan and Green Bay, and down the western side of the lake, rather than follow the shorter route down its eastern side and around its southern end. This reasoning finds support in the statements of Tonti of the distances he traversed. The entire distance from Mackinac to Fort St. Louis he gives as 200 leagues and states that after traveling 120 leagues he came to Durantaye's fort. It was, therefore, 80 leagues from Fort St. Louis. The usual estimate of French travelers of this time of the distance between Chicago and Fort St. Louis was 30 leagues; while the distance overland from St. Joseph to Fort St. Louis was approximately 80 leagues. Incredibly, Tonti would estimate the distance from Mackinac to Chicago by land at 120 leagues, and that from Chicago to Fort St. Louis at 80 leagues, a distance two-thirds as great. The supposition that Durantaye's fort was on the St. Joseph River rather than the modern Chicago harmonizes well both with the probabilities of the case and the distances given us by Tonti. 


The foregoing reasoning is not, of course, absolutely conclusive of the location of Durantaye's "Fort of Chécagou." It is strengthened, however, by one other consideration. If such a fort was in fact here in January of 1686, what had happened to it in the interval between this time and Cavelier's visit in the autumn of 1687? Jouteps narrative of the adventures of this party is given with a wealth of detail. Both in the autumn of 1687 and again in the spring of 1688 the travelers stayed in Chicago for several days. Not only does the narrative impliedly show that there was then no garrison or fort here, but it contains no mention of such an establishment at any previous time.

A detail from a 1688 map by French-Canadian cartographer Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin which includes the first reference to "Fort Chécagou" on a map. The terms had been applied to this area as early as 1681 when La Salle referred to the area as Chécagou. On a map Franquelin drew in 1684, he seems to have referred to the "River Chehagou" and the area as Cheagou.
The French had no fort at Chicago in the eighteenth century, then, and if they had in the seventeenth it could only have been a temporary structure that quickly disappeared. It remains to suggest an explanation of the origin of the widespread belief that there was a French fort at Chicago. It seems evident that it was due largely to the cartographers, who, residing for the most part in Europe, found themselves at a loss to interpret correctly the narratives of the explorers, which were themselves oftentimes confused and inaccurate, or lacking in detail. That the cartographers often labored in the dark, and that their work was frequently erroneous, will be apparent from a comparison of their maps with those of an authoritative modern atlas. The representations of the map-makers can no more be relied upon implicitly than can the narratives of the time, and there is as much reason in the one case as in the other for subjecting them to critical scrutiny. 

The erroneous belief in the existence of a French fort at Chicago in the eighteenth century probably originated with Father Hennepin, the garrulous companion of La Salle. He had been at La Salle's Fort Miami on the St. Joseph River, and had passed with his leader down the Kankakee River and the Illinois River. 

Yet his New Discovery, first published in 1697, contains a map showing "Fort des Miamis" at the mouth of a stream emptying into the southwestern corner of Lake Michigan. It is obvious from a comparison of this map with the one in Hennepin's earlier work, the Description of Louisiana, published in 1683, that this representation is intended for the St. Joseph River and La Salle's Fort Miami in Indiana, which, by a stupid blunder, have been transferred from the southeastern to the southwestern side of the lake.
The myth of a French fort at the mouth of the Chicago River emerged following the publication of this map of Lake Michigan by Louis Hennepin in 1698. His map showed Fort Miami near the mouth of the St. Joseph River, however, he showed the river as emerging from the southernmost tip of the lake. Hennepin's map was widely copied, but cartographers — knowing that there was no river at the southern tip of Lake Michigan — erroneously assumed that Hennepin had intended to show the Chicago River, and so it became widely accepted that there had been a French fort at the mouth of the Chicago River.
The New Discovery enjoyed widespread popularity, and numerous editions were issued during the following years, not only in French but also in foreign languages. Hennepin's maps, too, were widely copied in other works, and so the blunder concerning the location of Fort Miami was perpetuated. Evidently, this was the source of Logan's error. Ignorant both of the fact that Fort Miami had stood at the mouth of the St. Joseph, and that it had been destroyed nearly forty years before, he located it at Chicago in 1718. How his statement, incorporated in the Board of Trade Report of 1721, and Popple's map of 1732, became, in turn, the fruitful parent of fresh error, we have already seen. Even though the public school children of Chicago are today being regaled, in one of the authorized textbooks, with a picture of the early French fort at this point, the weight of historical evidence tends to support Little Turtle's contention that such a fort never in fact existed.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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