Monday, November 18, 2019

An Examination of the Birth of Chicago.


In historical writing and analysis, PRESENTISM is the introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past. I believe presentism is a form of cultural bias, and it creates a distorted understanding of the subject matter. Reading modern notions of morality into the past is committing the error of presentism. I'm well aware that historical accounts are written by people and can be slanted, so I try my hardest to present articles that are fact based and well researched, without interjecting any of my personal opinions.


The growth of modern (Chicagoua) Chicago, since its first beginnings has resulted in much bewilderment over the decades. Seldom has a great city arisen amid natural surroundings more unpromising than those afforded by the site of primitive Chicago.

The sluggish river slipped into the lake over a sandbar which effectually blocked the entrance to vessels, and nowhere within a hundred miles could shipping find shelter from the storms which raged with peculiar violence at this end of Lake Michigan. A few miles to the west ran a continental watershed but only a few feet in depth. The river itself commonly ran with no perceptible current, and to the horizon limit, the landscape stretched in one monotonous level of flat uniformity. The prairie at certain seasons of the year was entrancing, but the melting snows of spring or heavy rain at any time transformed it into a vast, shallow lake, over which the canoe of the Indian or the occasional bateau of the fur-trader plied its way regardless of the course of the river.

The consequences of such an environment from the viewpoint of human occupation are sufficiently obvious. During much of the year, early Chicago presented all of the attributes of a first-class marsh. There was nothing done about drainage until the townsmen in 1858, by a magnificent exercise of will power and energy, raised Chicago out of the mud from the morass in which it had been built up to its present level. As for highways, during the dry periods in summer one might travel anywhere over the prairie sod, which afforded an excellent footing for horses. In spring and autumn, however, and after rain, at any time the road quickly turned to a bottomless sea of mud, the despair of all who were compelled to traverse it. It's no wonder that pioneers were fond of recalling that they had come through Chicago on their journey west and that they "wouldn't take a quarter section there as a gift."

From his particular point of view, the pioneer farmer was correct in his judgment, yet a wider knowledge would have shown him that nature had marked the site of early Chicago as the spot where a great city should arise. Cities are the offspring of commerce, and they commonly develop at points on the highways of traffic where a break in transportation occurs. Even a slight familiarity with the physiography of the interior of the continent, combined with a knowledge of the working of economic law, would have sufficed to assure the observer of the future destiny of Chicago. How the matter presented itself to the minds of far-sighted contemporary observers is revealed in the story of Arthur Bronson and Charles Butler, who first visited the place in the summer of 1833.
Chicago in 1833
CLICK TO VIEW A FULL-SIZE MAP
Bronson and Butler were two shrewd businessmen from New York, whose attention had been directed to the western country by the events of the Black Hawk War. They concluded to investigate the situation with a view to possible investments, and their attention was directed to Chicago by no less than General Winfield Scott [1], whose unhappy experiences there the preceding summer had not blinded him to the future promise of the place. On their arrival in August of 1833, they found a village of about two hundred people in the early flush of its first real boom, "infested" by thousands of Indians gathered for the impending council of peace with the Great Father (President of the United States). 

To the northeast lay the territory of Michigan with a population of 20,000 souls, most of them gathered in the vicinity of Detroit. The northern half of Indiana as yet contained but a few scattered settlers, while between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi stretched a vast unoccupied expanse of land, covered with luxurious vegetation, beautiful to look at in its virgin state, and ready for the plow of the farmer. "One could not fail," wrote Butler at a later time, "to be greatly impressed with this scene, so new and extraordinary, and to see there the potential of that future when these vast plains would be occupied and cultivated, yielding their abundant products of human food, and sustaining millions of population. Lake Michigan lay there, 420 miles in length north to south, and it was clear to my mind that the productions of that vast country lying west and northwest of it on their way to the eastern market, the great Atlantic seaboard, would necessarily be tributary to Chicago, in the site of which even at this early day the experienced observer saw the possibility of a city destined from its position near the head of the lake and its remarkable harbor formed by the river, to become the largest commercial emporium of the United States." 

The foresight of these men found adequate reward, both of them reaping fortunes within a few years from their investments in Chicago real estate. Since the world had as yet no comprehension of the astonishing era of iron-horse (railroad) development which lay immediately at hand, this early forecast of Chicago's future was uninfluenced by any knowledge of the factor which has contributed most to the city's present greatness. They were aware, however, of that other factor so potent in the upbuilding of Chicago, its location on Nature's great central thoroughfare between the waters of the Great Lakes and those of the Mississippi River system.

The prosperity of Chicago and her possibilities of future growth have alike been conditioned, at every period of her existence as a city, by the character and extent of her highway systems. These have been of a threefold character, comprising waterways, country thoroughfares, and railroads. The waterways come first in point of time, if not of present importance, and some consideration of them necessarily enters into every discussion of the origin of Chicago.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that Chicago owes her very existence to the fact of her strategic location on one of the most important water routes of North America. It was no mere chance that led the first white man who ever explored the upper Mississippi Valley to the site of future Chicago. In the primitive state of the country, the waterways possessed importance unknown to the present generation. The Chicago-Illinois river route constituted one of the natural thoroughfares leading from the St. Lawrence River system to the Mississippi, and the Chicago Portage was one of the five great "keys of the continent." So low is the continental divide at this point that in times of spring floods or heavy rains it was frequently covered with water, and the Des Plaines River at such times discharged through the south branch of the Chicago River into Lake Michigan, as well as down its normal channel. This was rectified in 1887, novel in human history, of reversing the flow of the Chicago River, thereby sending the city's sewage down the Illinois River instead of into Lake Michigan, where its water supply is drawn.

Under such physiographical conditions, it is not surprising that the first explorer who ever visited this region should conceive the idea of connecting Lake Michigan with the navigable waters of the Illinois River. With statesmanly prevision Louis Jolliet, in 1673, called his government's attention to the advantages which would accrue from cutting a canal across the Chicago Portage. His hasty tour of observation afforded him no adequate conception of the difficulty and magnitude of the improvement proposed, but his vision was transmitted to posterity and almost two centuries later found realization.

From the first entrance of the American government into the Northwest, its officials understood the strategic importance of the Chicago-Illinois waterway. When in 1794 Anthony Wayne broke the power of the northwestern tribesmen in the battle of Fallen Timbers, a portion of the price of victory extorted from them in the ensuing treaty of Greenville was the free use of this highway, and the cession of reservations at Chicago, Peoria, and the mouth of the Illinois River on which forts might be erected to safeguard it.

A beginning was made to this end with the construction of Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1803. The purchase of Louisiana from France in the same year gave to the Illinois River route an added importance for the United States. Down it in the spring of 1805 came Colonel Kingsbury with a company of troops from distant Mackinac to establish Fort Bellefontaine opposite the mouth of the Illinois River, and Fort Dearborn thereupon became a link in a chain of outposts set to guard the frontier against Mackinac to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal is peculiar among the improvements of this character. In the fact that during the early years of agitation of the project no local constituency was concerned with it. On the contrary, it was visioned as a work of national interest and importance long before the territory of Illinois had acquired a corporate existence. The exertions made by General Wayne during Washington's administration to acquire control of the Illinois waterway have already been noted. Following the acquisition of Louisiana in 1803, the vision gradually dawned upon the country of connecting New York with New Orleans by one grand continuous internal waterway. To do this the Hudson must be connected with Lake Erie and Lake Michigan with the Illinois River.

The commercial demand for such a work was slight, but the disasters on land encountered in the War of 1812 served to emphasize anew the military importance of a safe and practicable highway from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. In concluding treaties of peace with the Northwestern tribes at the close of the war with England the opportunity was improved to secure for the United States a strip of land between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River through which the future canal must be built. Investigations of the route by army engineers quickly followed, and in January of 1819, John C. Calhoun, as secretary of war, submitted a report to Congress urging the construction of a canal across the Chicago Portage.

Meanwhile, Illinois had been admitted to statehood in 1818, and contrary to the evident design of the framers of the Ordinance of 1787 its northern boundary had been advanced from the "southerly bend" of Lake Michigan to the line of 42° 30', with the avowed purpose of giving the new state a northern trend through the possession of a commercial outlet on Lake Michigan. By this maneuver, local interest in forwarding the construction of the canal was created, and from this time forward until success crowned the enterprise thirty years later, local zeal and enthusiasm for the work took precedence over national interests. 
To the canal project, the birth of Chicago as a corporate entity was directly due. In 1827 Congress granted to the State the alternate sections of land in a five-mile strip along either side of the canal for the purpose of aiding its construction. After some delay, the state legislature in 1829 made provision for a canal commission of three members, with powers appropriate for the work in view. This commission proceeded to lay out the towns of Chicago and Ottawa at either end of the proposed route, and in the summer of 1830, the lots at Chicago were offered at auction to the public.

Under the sheltering walls of Fort Dearborn, there had gradually developed a tiny settlement composed of civilian employees of the government, the families of discharged soldiers, and the establishments of the fur-traders. Many of the settlers were Frenchmen who had taken married Indian wives or were themselves the offspring of such alliances on the part of an earlier generation. It is not possible to determine the precise population of this civilian community at any given time, but its approximate size and importance are clear. As early as the spring of 1812, when the Indians murdered two of its members on the South Branch of the Chicago River, Captain Heald was able to enroll a force of "Chicago militia" fifteen in number from the residents of the settlement without the fort. A fate as tragic as any in our military annals shortly befell this pioneering body of Chicago's soldiery. Three of them deserted to the Indians, indicating by this act their greater affiliation with that race, while the loyal twelve remainings perished in the Fort Dearborn Massacre of August 15, 1812.

A new Fort Dearborn arose from the ashes of the old in the summer of 1816, and contemporaneously therewith a second civilian settlement began to develop outside the fort. At the time of the Winnebago trouble in 1827 a second Chicago militia company was mustered, but its history, unlike that of its predecessor, is wholly comic. The fire which destroyed the Fort Dearborn barracks at this time is said by a contemporary to have been witnessed by about forty spectators; their number Included every person then present in the community. By 1830 the population was probably upwards of three or four score (a score equals 20).

The habitations of the settlement had been built at the forks of the river and along the mainstream running eastward to the military reservation and into Lake Michigan. This territory was a part of Section Nine of the United States land survey, one of the alternate sections which by congressional grant had fallen to the Canal Commission. In modern terminology, this section extended from State Street west to Halsted, and from Madison north to Chicago Avenue. On it the surveyor employed by the commission, James Thompson, proceeded to lay out the town plat; but since considerably more than half of the section lies north of the river, he chose to plat only that portion of it extending northward from Madison to Kinzie streets and westward from State to Des Plaines. Within this area of about three-eighths of a square mile, forty-eight blocks and fractional blocks were laid out on the familiar checkerboard plan with parallel streets running north and south and east and west, the only irregularities being such as were rendered unavoidable by the course of the river. East of the town plat, between State Street and the lake, south of the river, lay the Fort Dearborn reservation and north of it a fractional quarter-section which was entered the next year by Robert Kinzie on behalf of the heirs of his father, John Kinzie, the old Chicago trader. With the exception of Canal, Market, and Lake, and the several Water streets, the derivation of which is sufficiently obvious, Surveyor Thompson named his streets in honor of national or local characters. Running east and west were Washington, Randolph, Lake, South Water, Carroll, and Kinzie. North and south streets were Dearborn, Clark, Market, East Water, West Water, Canal, Clinton, and Jefferson.
The survey was completed and the town plat filed for record on August 4, 1830, which may be taken as the first definite date in Chicago's corporate history. The public land sale, held the following month, developed only moderate enthusiasm on the part of bidders over the question of real estate values. For 126 lots an average price of $35 was bid, while two eighty-acre tracts lying just beyond the limits of the town plat went for $1.25 ($59.50 today) an acre, and another similar tract for a few cents more. Many of the purchasers were, of course, residents of the place, who were simply buying in their homes which had been built on land to which they had no legal title. Aside from these, the purchasers, whether residents or outsiders, were evidently actuated by speculative considerations.

There is little to indicate that those most familiar with Chicago had any inkling of the revolution in real estate values which was soon to be witnessed here. A delightful story in this connection is preserved by Mrs. Juliette Augusta Magill Kinzie. [John H. Kinzie's wife]. A few months after the land sale of 1830, roused by such developments as had already taken place, Robert Allen Kinzie (1810-1873) journeyed to the land office at Palestine in Crawford County, Illinois, and there entered, on behalf of the Kinzie family, the fractional quarter-section lying north of the Chicago River and east of State Street which included the old Kinzie home.
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built a cabin just north of the Chicago River near Lake Michigan in 1779 (approximately where the Tribune Tower is today) where he established a trading post. (claimed to be the first house build in Chicago). Du Sable sold his property to Jean Baptiste La Lime, who in turn sold it to William Burnett, John Kinzie's business partner. In 1804 Kinzie buys the house and property from Burnett and keeps the property until 1828. The house of Antoine Ouilmette is seen in the background.  Illustration from 1827.
The tract, lying in the angle formed by the river and the lake, comprised but 102 acres instead of the full quarter-section which a claimant was entitled to enter. Kinzie, who might have entered 58 additional acres elsewhere, returned home without troubling himself to do so. His mother, on learning of this, urged him to claim the cornfield at the forks of the river. Although Kinzie was a businessman his response to her argument was a hearty laugh. "Hear mother," he said, "we have just got 102 acres, more than we should ever want, or know what to do with, and now she would have me go and claim 58 acres more!"

The additional acreage was not claimed, because, in the judgment of this man, who had spent his entire life at Chicago, it would be a mere waste of effort to do so. That he was not alone in his inability to see the future which Chicago held in-store, may be seen from a comparison of the prices paid at the sale of 1830 for certain tracts of land with the value of the same tracts twenty-three years later. Thus, the eighty acres which Thomas Hartzell acquired for $124 in 1830 might have been sold for $800,000 in 1853. James Kinzie's (son of John Kinzie and his first wife Margaret McKenzie) eighty acres, purchased for $140, was valued at $600,000 at the later date. The lot for which William Jewett in his excitement parted with $21 at the land sale of 1830 if retained until 1853 would have netted him $17,000; while John H. Kinzie's (eldest son of John and Eleanor Kinzie) larger investment of $119 multiplied itself in the same period to $163,000.

These figures imply a great growth spurt in population and a corresponding increase in commercial importance. For the first few years, however, the growth was exceedingly slow, and the speculators of 1830 may well have bemoaned, during this period, their recklessness in parting with good money in return for titles to town lots in the wilderness.

The season of 1831 witnessed little outward change at Chicago, which continued to present the aspect of a village of log huts, with not a single frame structure in the place. Yet the season was marked by two occurrences significant of the trend of future events. A number of settlers passed through the town, intent on finding homes in the valleys of the Des Plaines River and the DuPage River; while Cook County was created by legislative enactment, and Chicago became the county seat.

The season of 1832 was in every way abnormal. With the spring came the panic occasioned by the incursion of Black Hawk's warriors into Illinois. Fort Dearborn had been without a garrison since May of 1831, but its walls afforded the only shelter available to the settlers of the Des Plaines River and the DuPage River, and to Chicago, they fled in wildest terror. The normal population of perhaps 100 persons was quickly swelled to five times this number, and the confusion and crowding were intensified by the arrival of detachments of Michigan militia and regular soldiers. Housing accommodations were strained to the utmost in the effort to shelter the fugitives, and even the food supply soon became inadequate for the sustenance of the multitude which had so suddenly assembled.

In July of 1832 came General Winfield Scott, bringing several hundred soldiers from the East to the scene of the Indian war. With Scott came Asiatic cholera, and at the news of its approach, the Indian peril was forgotten. Townsmen and settlers alike took sudden flight before the dread presence, and overnight, as it were, Chicago was emptied of its civilian population. Only those remained who were compelled by the stern demands of duty, and for weeks the place was but a military lazaret (a building set apart for quarantine purposes) whose occupants were engaged in fighting the plague and giving hasty burial in the Cholera Cemetery also known as the Lake and Wabash burial site to those who died from it. 

Before autumn, war and cholera had alike departed. The townsmen returned to their abandoned homes, and life at Chicago resumed once more. Meanwhile, far away from the tiny Fort Dearborn community events had been preparing which were shortly to terminate, rudely and forever, Chicago's long slumber. For a generation, by Wilderness Trails and the National Road, settlers had been pouring over the mountains and down the Ohio River into the Lower West. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 was afforded for the first time a practicable highway connecting the settled East with the Great Lakes. Along these trails, it in the ensuing years, streamed an ever-increasing number of settlers, taking possession of western New York and northern Ohio, and pouring on into the wilderness of southern Michigan and northern Indiana. 

For Chicago, the Indian war had two results of exceeding the consequence. It brought about the extinction of the Indian title to the land between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, and the removal of the  Indians farther west. Of equal significance, perhaps, it caused hundreds of men to be taken upon an enforced excursion through the entrancing wilderness of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. The effect produced upon their minds we have already seen illustrated in the case of their commander, General Winfield Scott. They returned to their homes carrying marvelous tales of the country's surpassing beauty, and of the wealth in forests, mill sites, and farms which awaited the coming of the settler. In hundreds of eastern communities, these reports were absorbed with the keenest interest, and the ambition was kindled in the breasts of the hearers to become sojourners in this new land of promise.

The first wave of the tide of migration into the new Northwest reached Chicago with the spring of 1833. Most of the home seekers passed through the place to find locations farther on. Some, however, attracted by the commercial promise of Chicago, ended their journey here. In either event, they made their contribution to the city's upbuilding, for its growth depended upon the development of its backcountry, and every homestead established in the wilderness west of Lake Michigan involved the addition of another source of tribute to Chicago's permanent prosperity.

At the beginning of 1833, the place was still a village of log huts, the only frame building being the warehouse of businessman George W. Dole, which had been erected the summer before. The season was one of feverish activity, however, and at its close dozens of new frame buildings might be seen where but one had stood before. They were, to be sure, of flimsy construction, hastily thrown together in the cheapest and rudest manner, but their presence afforded convincing evidence that a vigorous, throbbing life had replaced the laid-back atmosphere of old at the forks of the Chicago River. 

Building developments aside, the season was marked by two other occurrences of note. A canal implied a harbor for shipping at Chicago. Congress had long since lent its countenance to the canal project, but as yet there was no harbor, by reason of the sandbar which blocked the mouth of the river. In March of 1833, Congress voted $25,000 ($656,350 today) for a harbor at Chicago, and on July 1st the work of construction was begun. By cutting a channel through the sandbar the river was afforded a direct outlet to the lake, and the work by the army engineers was completed in the spring of 1834 by the Des Plaines River, which sent its spring flood down the Chicago River with such force as to dredge the channel deep enough to permit the entrance of the heaviest vessels. Piers to north and south of the new river-mouth, extending five hundred feet into the lake, completed the work of the engineers, and for the first time shipping found safe and adequate harbor at the south end of Lake Michigan.

The other event of importance in the expanding annals of Chicago was its incorporation as a town on August 12, 1833. At a preliminary election held on August 5th to elicit the will of the townsmen on the question, twelve votes had been cast in favor of the measure and only one in opposition. The negative vote was given by a man who lived down the South Branch, several miles away; on what theory he was permitted to participate in the election, contemporaries have neglected to enlighten us. Evidently, the result of the preliminary election was a foregone conclusion, over which the majority of the electorate abstained from wasting valuable time. Far different was it in the election for town trustees, held five days later. The entire electorate, twenty-eight in number, came to the polls, and thirteen of them consented to appear in the role of candidates for office. The state law required at least 150 persons to form a corporate town, and it seems evident from this first election that Chicago's population was dangerously close to the minimum. The arrivals of 1833, however, were probably not eligible to vote.

The council and treaty held with the Potawatomi in the early autumn, one of the most picturesque events in Chicago's annals, brought together, in addition to several thousand  Indians, a motley throng of white men, government officials, fur traders, claimants, speculators, and rogues of varying degree. In October occurred the sale at auction of the "school section," lying immediately south of the town plat and embracing the land between State and Halsted streets, extending southward from Madison to Roosevelt Road. This area embraces today the greater portion of Chicago's Loop. The intersection of State and Madison streets at its northeast corner is popularly supposed to be the busiest street corner on earth. The land had been subdivided into 144 blocks of approximately four acres each, and these were sold, mostly on credit, at an average price of $6.72 per acre. 

The per-acre price is said by one chronicler to have been "beyond expectations." Although the price paid marks a considerable advance over the $1.25 an acre paid at the land sale of 1830, it is evident that "expectations" were still far from extravagant with respect to Chicago's real estate values. The blocks of the school section cut up into lots, afforded, together with the canal lots in Section 9, the lots on which the speculative craze of 1835 and 1836 originally fed. As the mania grew, however, fresh "additions" were hastily platted and thrown on the market to feed the flame.

A professional economist's task is to expound upon the forces which lead men to embark upon an era of hopeful speculation with its inevitable aftermath of financial stagnation and despondency. Here it will suffice to note that the middle 1830s saw the development of the wildest land craze the country has ever undergone, while 1837 ushered in perhaps its severest period of financial depression, commonly known as the Panic of 1837 [2].

At Chicago, the focal point of the western migration, the speculative mania raged with a peculiar intensity. Throughout 1834 the tide of settlers thronged the town, and under this stimulating influence signs of a real estate boom became evident. Confined within reasonable bounds, such a movement would have been justified by the substantial facts of the countries economic situation. But with the passing months, legitimate business transactions gave place to frenzied speculation for its own sake. Numerous tales of individual experiences have been handed down to us by contemporaries, but the underlying spirit of the time is perhaps best illustrated by the story, reported in the first issue of Milwaukee's first newspaper, of this conversation between two Chicagoans:
"I say," inquired one of the gentlemen, "what did you give for your portrait?" "Twenty-five dollars," was the reply, "and I have been offered fifty for it."
Nor was the speculative mania confined to Chicago real estate. All around the shores of Lake Michigan, on every inlet and creek, and for scores of miles inland, town-sites were platted with enthusiastic zeal, and lots in them were bartered with eager abandon at ever-mounting prices. The pioneer historian of La Salle County relates that he set out some small apple trees on his farm, and stuck a stake in the ground by each tree to mark the location. A passing stranger soon stopped to inquire about the name of the town he had laid out. On another occasion, he called at a log cabin where half a dozen farmers were assembled. They had evidently been engaged in high speculation throughout the day, for one of them, addressing the newcomer, said with a complacent slap of the thigh, "I have made $10,000 today, and I will make twice as much tomorrow." From further conversation, it developed that he had been the least successful of the entire company.

The pretentious scale of these paper towns may be illustrated in the case of Kankakee City, at the junction of the Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers. In its prosperous day, this city never contained more than seventy inhabitants; yet its promoters had provided ten public squares, with parks and avenues enough to have a fair nucleus for another New York City. The plat, with its many "additions," covered 2,000 acres, and in all the prominent centers of real estate speculation highly ornamented engravings of this city, beautiful with magnificent buildings and busy with the traffic of capacious warehouses and crowded wharves, were on display.

When, in 1837, the bubble burst it brought ruin to most of those who for a season had been reveling in paper fortunes. For many, this meant little loss of real wealth, but merely a return to the status from which they had before. An illustration may be seen in the case of John S. Wright, long a useful citizen of Chicago. He first landed here, a penniless boy of near seventeen, in 1832. Four years later, still a minor, he was worth $200,000. The panic ensued. Wright was unable to meet his extended obligations, and he became penniless as in 1832. Some, shrewder or more fortunate than the majority, turned their profits into cash in advance of the collapse. Thus Arthur Bronson, of whose arrival to Chicago we have already discussed, in the autumn of 1834 bought a tract owned by Captain (afterward General) David Hunter for $20,000. In the spring of 1835, he resold it to his friend, Charles Butler, for $100,000. Butler caused the tract to be subdivided, and offering it for sale within a month, realized the entire purchase price from one-third of the lots.

Although the panic brought ruin to numerous individuals and stunted the growth of Chicago for a season, it was of no significance in the tale of the city's ultimate growth. The conditions determining that growth cannot be better stated than in Charles Butler's account of the impressions he formed in 1833 with respect to the city's destiny. With paper fortunes vanishing like the morning mist, men awoke to a realization of the fact that something more than the art of the lithographer is requisite to the building of a city, and after a season of stagnation, they focused anew to the task.

The span of Chicago's existence as a village was four years, from the summer of 1833 to the spring of 1837. In this period the population increased from about 150 to 4,170. The village fathers entered upon their duties. One of their first public acts being the establishment of a free ferry across the river at Dearborn Street. A donation had been made by the state of certain lots in Section Nine to aid the new town, and a portion of these, set apart for a public square, still remains the seat of county and city government. On this square, the first prison, a log structure, was erected the first autumn, and on August 12, 1833, a code of ordinances for the government of the affairs of the town was adopted. The first financial obligation was incurred in October of 1834 when the sum of sixty dollars was borrowed to drain and otherwise improve State Street. In the autumn of 1836, under the influence of the expansive ideas of the period, a movement was begun to secure from the legislature a charter for a city. It was successful, and on March 4, 1837, the change to the new form of government was made. Although the population was little over 4,000 the corporate limits of the new city were drawn to embrace substantially all of the territory between Twenty-second Street (2200S) and North Avenue (1600N), extending westward from the lake to Wood Street (1800W), an area of ten square miles.

For three years, after its incorporation, the city stagnated. Vivid, indeed, are the recollections that contemporaries have put on record concerning this trying period. Of similar tenor is the evidence afforded by the census statistics of 1840. Only 300 residence had been added to the population in the three-year period. The city now resumed its onward march, and in 1843 the census revealed a population of 7,580, an increase in three years of 3,100, or almost 70%. Three more years saw the population of 1843 practically doubled, and in the ensuing four years, it doubled again, the census figure of 1850 was 28,269. By 1853 this figure had considerably more than doubled, the three-year increase amounting to 32,400. The next four years saw approximately the same increase and by 1857, the closing year of the period under review, Chicago had become a city of 93,000 persons.

In the light of more recent developments, this figure does not seem particularly impressive. Yet all human values are relative in their importance, and the significance of the achievement of these two decades in increasing twenty-three fold the population with which the city had started out in 1837 can scarcely be over-emphasized. Thereby Chicago had become the giant of the Northwest and had stamped the country west of Lake Michigan with the seal of her commercial supremacy.

The explanation of this achievement is not obscure or difficult. Commerce is the lifeblood of an industrial city like Chicago, and the city's highways are the arterial system through which it circulates. Eastward from Chicago stretched the waters of Lake Michigan, affording nine months of the year a natural highway of unlimited capacity. Westward, in the beginning, the highways remained to be created, and it was apparent to all that the future of the city was dependent upon her success in making a connection with the backcountry. The work of establishing this connection was begun within a few months after the laying out of the townsite by Surveyor Thompson in 1830. It continued throughout the ensuing years until in time a series of radial highways stretched out from the city in all directions connecting all points that lay within a practicable distance of Chicago. 

To trace in detail the evolution of these highways and describe the life that passed to and fro upon them is covered in my articles: The Green Bay Trail, aka "Old Jambeau Trail," and The Vincennes Trace.

The modern physician places a drop of blood under the microscope and from the examination of it derives important information with respect to his patient's welfare. Along Chicago's historic highways pulsated the commerce of the time, and from an examination of this traffic, we may draw a remarkably vivid conception of the life of that bygone period. 

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


[1] In 1832, President Andrew Jackson ordered Winfield Scott to Illinois to take command of the Black Hawk War conflict. General Winfield Scott led 1,000 troops, to Fort Armstrong, to assist the U.S. Army garrison and militia volunteers stationed there. While General Scott's army was en route, along the Great Lakes, his troops had contracted Asiatic cholera, before they left the state of New York; it killed most of his 1,000 soldiers. Only 220 U.S. Army regulars, from the original force, made the final march, from Fort Dearborn, in Chicago to Rock Island, Illinois. Winfield Scott and his troops likely carried the highly contagious disease with them; soon after their arrival at Rock Island, a local, cholera epidemic broke out, among the whites and Indians, around the area of Fort Armstrong. Cholera microbes were spread, through sewery-type, contaminated water, which mixed with clean drinking water, brought on by poor sanitation practices, of the day. Within eight days, 189 people died and were buried on the island. 

By the time Scott arrived in Illinois, the conflict had come to a close with the army's victory at the Battle of Bad Axe. Also known as the Bad Axe Massacre it was a battle between Sauk (Sac) and Meskwaki (Fox) Indians and United States Army regulars and militia that occurred on August 1st and 2nd of 1832. This final battle of the Black Hawk War took place near present-day Victory, Wisconsin.

[2] The Panic of 1837 was a financial crisis or market correction in the United States built on a speculative fever. The end of the Second Bank of the United States had produced a period of runaway inflation, but on May 10, 1837, in New York City, every bank began to accept payment only in specie (gold and silver coinage), forcing a dramatic, deflationary backlash. This was based on the assumption by the former president, Andrew Jackson, that the government was selling land for state banknotes of questionable value. The Panic was followed by a seven-year depression, with the failure of banks and then-record-high unemployment levels.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Neil. Lots of information here. Believe I'll need to read it a couple more times to really get my head around those times.

    ReplyDelete

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