By Juliette Augusta Magill Kinzie
Public Domain Books
Chapter XVII: Chicago in 1831
Fort Dearborn at that day consisted of the same buildings as at present. They were, of course, in a better state of preservation, though still considerably dilapidated. They had been erected in 1816, under the supervision of Captain Hezekiah Bradley, and there was a story current that, such was his patriotic regard for the interests of the Government, he obliged the soldiers to fashion wooden pins, instead of spikes and nails, to fasten the timbers of the buildings, and that he even called on the junior officers to aid in their construction along with the soldiers, whose business it was. If this were true, the captain must have labored under the delusion (excusable in one who had lived long on the frontier) that Government would thank its servants for any excess of economical zeal.
The fort was inclosed by high pickets, with bastions at the alternate angles. Large gates opened to the north and south, and there were small posterns here and there for the accommodation of the inmates. The bank of the river which stretches to the west, now covered by the light-house buildings, and inclosed by docks, was then occupied by the root-houses of the garrison. Beyond the parade-ground, which extended south of the pickets, were the company gardens, well filled with currant-bushes and young fruit-trees.
The fort stood at what might naturally be supposed to be the mouth of the river. It was not so, however, for in those days the latter took a turn, sweeping round the promontory on which the fort was built, towards the south, and joining the lake about half a mile below. These buildings stood on the right bank of the river, the left being a long spit of land extending from the northern shore, of which it formed a part. After the cutting through of this portion of the left bank in 1833 by the United States Engineers employed to construct a harbor at this point, and the throwing out of the piers, the water overflowed this long tongue of land, and, continually encroaching on the southern bank, robbed it of many valuable acres; while, by the same action of the vast body of the lake, an accretion was constantly taking place on the north of the harbor.
The residence of Jean Baptiste Beaubien stood at this period between the gardens and the river-bank, and still farther south was a rickety tenement, built many years before by Mr. John Dean, the sutler of the post. A short time after the commencement of the growth of Chicago, the foundations of this building were undermined by the gradual encroachment of the lake, and it tumbled backward down the bank, where it long lay, a melancholy spectacle.
On the northern bank of the river, directly facing the fort, was the family mansion of my husband. It was a long, low building, with a piazza extending along its front, a range of four or five rooms. A broad green space was inclosed between it and the river, and shaded by a row of Lombardy poplars. Two immense cottonwood-trees stood in the rear of the building, one of which still remains as an ancient landmark. A fine, well-cultivated garden extended to the north of the dwelling, and surrounding it were various buildings appertaining to the establishment–dairy, bake-house, lodging-house for the Frenchmen, and stables.
A vast range of sand-hills, covered with stunted cedars, pines, and dwarf-willow-trees, intervened between the house and the lake, which was, at this time, not more than thirty rods distant.
Proceeding from this point along the northern bank of the river, we came first to the Agency House, “Cobweb Castle,” as it had been denominated while long the residence of a bachelor, and the sobriquet adhered to it ever after. It stood at what is now the southwest corner of Wolcott and N. Water Streets. Many will still remember it, a substantial, compact little building of logs hewed and squared, with a centre, two wings, and, strictly speaking, two tails, since, when there was found no more room for additions at the sides, they were placed in the rear, whereon a vacant spot could be found.
These appendages did not mar the symmetry of the whole, as viewed from the front, but when, in the process of the town’s improvement, a street was maliciously opened directly in the rear of the building, the whole establishment, with its comical little adjuncts, was a constant source of amusement to the passers-by. No matter. There were pleasant, happy hours passed under its odd-shaped roof, as many of Chicago’s early settlers can testify.
Around the Agency House were grouped a collection of log buildings, the residences of the different persons in the employ of Government, appertaining to that establishment–blacksmith, striker, and laborers. These were for the most part Canadians or half-breeds, with occasionally a stray Yankee, to set all things going by his activity and enterprise.
There was still another house on the north side of the river, built by a former resident by the name of Miller, but he had removed to “Rivière du Chemin,” or Trail Creek, which about this time began to be called “Michigan City." This house, which stood near the forks of the river, was at this time vacant.
There was no house on the southern bank of the river, between the fort and “The Point,” as the forks of the river were then called. The land was a low wet prairie, scarcely affording good walking in the dryest summer weather, while at other seasons it was absolutely impassable. A muddy streamlet, or, as it is called in this country, a slew, after winding around from about the present site of the Tremont House, fell into the river at the foot of State Street.
At the Point, on the south side, stood a house just completed by Mark Beaubien. It was a pretentious white two-story building, with bright-blue wooden shutters, the admiration of all the little circle at Wolf Point. Here a canoe ferry was kept to transport people across the south branch of the river.
Facing down the river from the west was, first a small tavern kept by Mr. Wentworth, familiarly known as “Old Geese,” not from any want of shrewdness on his part, but in compliment to one of his own cant expressions. Near him were two or three log cabins occupied by Robinson, the Pottowattamie chief, and some of his wife’s connexions. Billy Caldwell, the Sau-ga-nash, too, resided here occasionally, with his wife, who was a daughter of Nee-scot-nee-meg, one of the most famous chiefs of the nation. A little remote from these residences was a small square log building, originally designed for a school-house, but occasionally used as a place of worship whenever any itinerant minister presented himself.
The family of Clybourn had, previous to this time, established themselves near their present residence on the North Branch–they called their place New Virginia. Four miles up the South Branch was an old building which was at one time an object of great interest as having been the theatre of some stirring events during the troubles of 1812. It was denominated Lee’s Place, or Hardscrabble. Here lived, at this time, a settler named Heacock.
Owing to the badness of the roads a greater part of the year, the usual mode of communication between the fort and the Point was by a boat rowed up the river, or by a canoe paddled by some skilful hand. By the latter means, too, an intercourse was kept up between the residents of the fort and the Agency House.
There were, at this time, two companies of soldiers in the garrison, but of the officers one, Lieutenant Furman, had died the autumn previous, and several of the others were away on furlough. In the absence of Major Fowle and Captain Scott, the command devolved on Lieutenant Hunter. Besides him, there were Lieutenants Engle and Foster–the latter unmarried. Dr. Finley, the post surgeon, was also absent, and his place was supplied by Dr. Harmon, a gentleman from Vermont.
My husband’s mother, two sisters, and brother resided at the Agency House–the family residence near the lake being occupied by J.N. Bailey, the postmaster.
In the Dean House lived a Mr. and Mrs. Forbes, who kept a school. Gholson Kercheval had a small trading establishment in one of the log buildings at Wolf Point, and John S.C. Hogan superintended the sutler’s store in the garrison.
There was also a Mr. See lately come into the country, living at the Point, who sometimes held forth in the little school-house on a Sunday, less to the edification of his hearers than to the unmerciful slaughter of the “King’s English.”
I think this enumeration comprises all the white inhabitants of Chicago at a period less than half a century ago. To many who may read these pages the foregoing particulars will, doubtless, appear uninteresting. But to those who visit Chicago, and still more to those who come to make it their home, it may be not without interest to look back to its first beginnings; to contemplate the almost magical change which a few years have wrought; and from the past to augur the marvellous prosperity of the future.
The origin of the name Chicago is a subject of discussion, some of the Indians deriving it from the fitch or polecat, others from the wild onion with which the woods formerly abounded; but all agree that the place received its name from an old chief who was drowned in the stream in former times. That this event, although so carefully preserved by tradition, must have occurred in a very remote period, is evident from an old French manuscript brought by General Cass from France.
In this paper, which purports to be a letter from M. de Ligney, at Green Bay, to M. de Siette, among the Illinois, dated as early as 1726, the place is designated as “Chica-goux.” This orthography is also found in old family letters of the beginning of the present century.
In giving the early history of Chicago, the Indians say, with great simplicity, “the first white man who settled here was a negro.”
This was Jean Baptiste Point-au-Sable, a native of St. Domingo, who, about the year 1796, found his way to this remote region, and commenced a life among the Indians. There is usually a strong affection between these two races, and Jean Baptiste imposed upon his new friends by making them believe that he had been a “great chief” among the whites. Perhaps he was disgusted at not being elected to a similar dignity by the Pottowattamies, for he quitted this vicinity, and finally terminated his days at Peoria, under the roof of his friend Glamorgan, another St. Domingo negro, who had obtained large Spanish grants in St. Louis and its environs, and who, at one time, was in the enjoyment of an extensive landed estate.
Point-au-Sable had made some improvements at Chicago, which were taken possession of by a Frenchman named Le Mai, who commenced trading with the Indians. After a few years Le Mai’s establishment was purchased by John Kinzie, Esq., who at that time resided at Bertrand, or Parc aux Vaches, as it was then called, near Niles, in Michigan. As this gentleman was for nearly twenty years, with the exception of the military, the only white inhabitant of Northern Illinois, some particulars of his early life may not be uninteresting.
He was born in Quebec in 1163. His mother had been previously married to a gentleman of the name of Haliburton. The only daughter of this marriage was the mother of General Fleming, Nicholas Low, Esq., and Mrs. Charles King, of New York. She is described as a lady of remarkable beauty and accomplishments. Mr. Kinzie was the only child of the second marriage. His father died in his infancy, and his mother married a third time a Mr. Forsyth, after which they removed to the city of New York.
At the age of ten or eleven years he was placed at school with two of his half-brothers at Williamsburg, L.I. A negro servant was sent from the city every Saturday, to bring the children home, to remain until the following Monday morning. Upon one occasion, when the messenger arrived at the school he found all things in commotion. Johnny Kinzie was missing! Search was made in all directions; every place was ransacked. It was all in vain; no Johnny Kinzie could be found.
The heavy tidings were carried home to his mother. By some it was supposed the lad was drowned; by others that he had strayed away, and would return. Weeks passed by, and months, and he was at length given up and mourned as lost. In the mean time the boy was fulfilling a determination he had long formed, to visit his native city of Quebec, and make his way in life for himself.
He had by some means succeeded in crossing from Williamsburg to the city of New York, and finding at one of the docks on the North River a sloop bound for Albany, he took passage on board of her. While on his way up the river, he was noticed by a gentleman, who, taking an interest in the little lonely passenger, questioned him about his business.
“He was going to Quebec, where he had some friends.”
“Had he the means to carry him there?”
“Not much, but he thought he could get along.”
It happened, fortunately, that the gentleman himself was going to Quebec. He took the boy under his care, paid his expenses the whole distance, and finally parted with him in the streets of the city, where he was, in truth, a stranger.
He wandered about for a time, looking into various “stores” and workshops. At length, on entering the shop of a silversmith, he was satisfied with the expression he read in the countenance of the master, and he inquired if he wanted an apprentice.
“What, you, my little fellow! What can you do?”
“Anything you can teach me.”
“Well, we will make a trial and see.”
The trial was satisfactory. He remained in the family of his kind friend for more than three years, when his parents, who, in removing to Detroit, had necessarily returned to Canada, discovered his place of abode, and he was restored to them.
There were five younger half-brothers, of the name of Forsyth. In the old family Bible, we find the following touching record of an event that occurred after the family had removed to Detroit:–
“George Forsyth was lost in the woods 6th August, 1775, when Henry Hays and Mark Stirling ran away and left him. The remains of George Forsyth were found by an Indian the 2d of October, 1776, close by the Prairie Ronde.”
It seems a singular fatality that the unhappy mother should have been twice called to suffer a similar affliction–the loss of a child in a manner worse than death, inasmuch as it left room for all the horrors that imagination can suggest. The particulars of the loss of this little brother were these. As he came from school one evening, he met the colored servant-boy on horseback, going to the common for the cows. The school-house stood quite near the old fort, and all beyond that, towards the west, was a wild, uncultivated tract called “the Common.” The child begged of the servant to take him up and give him a ride, but the other refused, bidding him return home at once. He was accompanied by two other boys, somewhat older, and together they followed the negro for some distance, hoping to prevail upon him to give them a ride. As it grew dark, the two older boys turned back, but the other kept on. When the negro returned he had not again seen the child, nor were any tidings ever received of him, notwithstanding the diligent search made by the whole little community, until, as related in the record, his remains were found the following year by an Indian. There was nothing to identify them, except the auburn curls of his hair, and the little boots he had worn. He must have perished very shortly after having lost his way, for the Prairie Ronde was too near the settlement to have prevented his bearing the calls and sounding horns of those in search of him, had he been living.
Mr. Kinzie’s enterprising and adventurous disposition led him, as he grew older, to live much on the frontier. He early entered into the Indian trade, and had establishments at Sandusky and Maumee. About the year 1800 he pushed farther west, to St. Joseph’s, Michigan. In this year he married Mrs. McKillip, the widow of a British officer, and in 1804 came to make his home at Chicago. It was in this year that the first fort was built by Major John Whistler.
By degrees more remote trading-posts were established by him, all contributing to the parent one at Chicago; at Milwaukie with the Menomonees; at Rock River with the Winnebagoes and the Pottowattamies; on the Illinois River and Kankakee with the Pottowattamies of the Prairies, and with the Kickapoos in what was called ’Le Large,” being the widely extended district afterwards erected into Sangamon County.
Each trading-post had its superintendent, and its complement of engagés–its train of pack-horses and its equipment of boats and canoes. From most of the stations the furs and peltries were brought to Chicago on pack-horses, and the goods necessary for the trade were transported in return by the same method.
The vessels which came in the spring and fall (seldom more than two or three annually), to bring the supplies and goods for the trade, took the furs that were already collected to Mackinac, the depôt of the Southwest and American Fur Companies. At other seasons they were sent to that place in boats, coasting around the lake.
Of the Canadian voyageurs or engagés, a race that has now so nearly passed away, some notice may very properly here be given.
They were unlike any other class of men. Like the poet, they seemed born to their vocation. Sturdy, enduring, ingenious, and light-hearted, they possessed a spirit capable of adapting itself to any emergency. No difficulties baffled, no hardships discouraged them; while their affectionate nature led them to form attachments of the warmest character to their “bourgeois,” or master, as well as to the native inhabitants, among whom their engagements carried them.
Montreal, or, according to their own pronunciation, Marrialle, was their depôt. It was at that place that the agents commissioned to make up the quota for the different companies and traders found the material for their selections.
The terms of engagement were usually from four to six hundred livres (ancient Quebec currency) per annum as wages, with rations of one quart of lyed corn, and two ounces of tallow per diem, or “its equivalent in whatever sort of food is to be found in the Indian country.” Instances have been known of their submitting cheerfully to fare upon fresh fish and maple-sugar for a whole winter, when cut off from other supplies.
It was a common saying, “Keep an engagé to his corn and tallow, he will serve you well–give him pork and bread, and he soon gets beyond your management.” They regard the terms of their engagement as binding to the letter. An old trader, M. Berthelet, engaged a crew at Montreal. The terms of agreement were, that they should eat when their bourgeois did, and what he did. It was a piece of fun on the part of the old gentleman, but the simple Canadians believed it to be a signal instance of good luck that had provided them such luxurious prospects. The bourgeois stuffed his pockets with crackers, and, when sure of being quite unobserved, would slily eat one. Pipe after pipe passed–the men grew hungry, but, observing that there were no preparations of a meal for the bourgeois, they bore their fast without complaining.
At length the matter became too serious–they could stand it no longer. In their distress they begged off from the bargain, and gladly compounded to take the customary rations, instead of the dainty fare they had been promising themselves with their master.
On arriving at Mackinac, which was the entrepôt of the fur trade, a small proportion of the voyageur’s wages was advanced him, to furnish his winter’s outfit, his pipes and tobacco, his needles and thread, some pieces of bright-colored ribbons, and red and yellow gartering (quality binding), with which to purchase their little necessaries from the Indians. To these, if his destination were Lake Superior, or a post far to the north where such articles could not be readily obtained, were added one or two smoked deer-skins for moccasins.
Thus equipped, he entered upon his three years’ service, to toil by day, and laugh, joke, sing, and tell stories when the evening hour brought rest and liberty.
There was not wanting here and there an instance of obstinate adherence to the exact letter of the agreement in regard to the nature of employment, although, as a general thing, the engagé held himself ready to fulfil the behests of his bourgeois, as faithfully as ever did vassal those of his chief.
A Story is told of M. St. Jean, a trader on the Upper Mississippi, who upon a certain occasion ordered one of his Frenchmen to accompany a party to the forest to chop wood. The man refused. “He was not hired," he said, “to chop wood.”
“Ah! for what, then, were you hired?”
“To steer a boat.”
“Very well; steer a boat, then, since you prefer it.”
It was mid-winter. The recusant was marched to the river-side, and placed in the stern of the boat, which lay fastened in the ice.
After serving a couple of hours at his legitimate employment, with the thermometer below zero, he was quite content to take his place with the chopping-party, and never again thought it good policy to choose work for himself.
There is an aristocracy in the voyageur service which is quite amusing. The engagement is usually made for three years. The engagé of the first year, who is called a ’mangeur-de-lard,” or pork-eater, is looked down upon with the most sovereign contempt by an ’hivernant,” or one who has already passed a winter in the country. He will not only not associate with him, but if invited by him to join him in a friendly glass, he will make some excuse for declining. The most inveterate drunkard, while tortured by a longing to partake his favorite indulgence, will yet never suffer himself to be enticed into an infringement of this custom.
After the first winter, the mangeur-de-lard rises from his freshman class, and takes his place where he can in turn lord it over all new-comers.
Another peculiarity of the voyageurs is their fancy for transforming the names of their bourgeois into something funny, which resembles it in sound. Thus, Kinzie would be called by one ’Quinze nez” (fifteen noses), by another ’Singé” (monkeyfied). Mr. Kercheval was denominated Mons. Court-cheval (short horse), the Judge of Probate, ’le Juge Trop-bête” (too foolish), etc. The following is an instance in point.
Mr. Shaw, one of the agents of the Northwest Fur Company, had passed many years on the frontier, and was by the voyageurs called Monsieur Le Chat. On quitting the Indian country he married a Canadian lady and became the father of several children. Some years after his return to Canada, his old foreman, named Louis la Liberté, went to Montreal to spend the winter. He had heard of his old bourgeois’ marriage, and was anxious to see him.
Mr. Shaw was walking in the Champ de Mars with a couple of officers, when La Liberté espied him. He immediately ran up, and, seizing him by both hands, accosted him,–
“Ah! mon cher Monsieur le Chat: comment vous portez-vous?” (My dear Mr. Cat, how do you do?)
“Et comment se porte Madame la Chatte?” (How is the mother cat?)
“Bien, bien, Louizon; elle est très-bien” (She is very well.)
“Et tous les petits Chatons?” (And all the kittens?)
This was too much for Mr. Shaw. He answered shortly that the kittens were all well, and turned away with his military friends, leaving poor Louizon quite astonished at the abruptness of his departure.
Cut off, in the manner described, from the world at large, with no society but the military, thus lived the family of Mr. Kinzie, in great contentment, and in the enjoyment of all the comforts, together with most of the luxuries, of life.
The Indians reciprocated the friendship that was shown them, and formed for them an attachment of no ordinary strength, as was manifested during the scenes of the year 1812, eight years after Mr. Kinzie first came to live among them.
Some of the most prominent events of that year are recorded in the following Narrative.