In less than two hundred years, industrious Americans in northeastern
Illinois have transformed an unlikely wasteland of marsh and ragged
woods into a mythic metropolis for the ages. At the convergence
of the prairie and the great lakes thrives an urban center of
more than eight million people, a cultural and economic Emerald
City to rival any in the world. Comprising ten counties in Illinois,
two in Indiana, and one in Wisconsin, the Metropolitan Statistical
Area of Chicago-Gary-Kenosha as defined by the U.S. Census bureau
could be a small nation in its own right, in part because it functions
as a linchpin of the most sophisticated inland economic infrastructure
in the Americas.
Americans of European descent did not first discover "Eschicagou",
the land of wild onions on the shores of Lake Michigan, but they
helped realize its potential as a crossroads capable of sustaining
thousands and ultimately millions of inhabitants. Native Americans
of the Mississippi Valley civilizations farther south had already
learned to nourish large permanent settlements in the Illinois
landscape, but their forays into the Chicago area apparently had
been limited. At the time of the French trading expeditions in
the 17th Century, the Lake Michigan shoreline was dotted only
by a handful of small Native American villages. The Jesuit priest
Francois Pinet founded the short-lived Mission of the Guardian
Angel in the area in 1696. At the site of what is today downtown
Chicago, Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, a Haitian farmer with French
and African ancestry, built a home with his Native American wife
in the late 1700s, prefiguring the later multicultural migration
to the region.
What would become Chicago had a developmental windfall when General
"Mad" Anthony Wayne secured the area for Western settlement
by means of a treaty with local tribes in 1795. The federal government
responded in 1803 with the construction of a "Fort Dearborn"
to mark and defend the area. The War of 1812 spelled unrest with
Natives sympathetic to the British cause, however, and the first
fort was abandoned, only to have its former inhabitants attacked
by hostiles shortly after their exodus. A second Fort Dearborn
of 1816 remained garrisoned until several years subsequent to
the formal founding of the town of Chicago in 1833. The prospect
of the eventual realization of a long-proposed waterway connecting
Lake Michigan to the Missippi River had prompted settlement, but
Chicago's boundaries at that time incorporated an area of less
than a square mile.
The town's population increased nearly tenfold in its first two
years, from 350 to 3,265, and its land area more than doubled.
Chicago became designated as a city in 1837, and its population
skyrocketed to a staggering 1,099,850 by 1890, making it the newest
major center of civilization of the 19th Century. The completion
of the Illinois & Michigan Canal in 1841, the evolution of
Chicago as a primary railroad hub, and the World's Columbian Exposition
of 1893 all brought tremendous cultural and economic prosperity
to Chicago, but it was plagued as well by fire, disease, and social
In 1889 and 1900, the city annexed several surrounding areas,
bringing into its boundaries a number of settlements including
Hyde Park, Rogers Park, Wrights Grove, Maplewood, Ravenswood,
and the whole of Jefferson Township. A jubilant spirit presided
in the 1890s, with a surge of development and an unmatched devotion
to the arts and sciences. By the turn of the 20th Century, Chicago
had evolved into a magnificently diverse and dauntingly prosperous
Its dwellers ranged from tireless industrial and agricultural
laborers to urbane philanthropists hoping to recast it in a gentile
neoclassical mold. Their combined efforts succeeded in bringing
to fruition the "City Gray" of "battlemented tow'rs"
described in the Alma Mater of the University of Chicago: reflections
of a place and a mindset that engendered such varied innovations
as roller skates and steel skyscrapers.
The early 1900s brought tougher times, though, and although the
rollicking 1920s were not without their revelry in Chicago, this
period also abounded with organized crime and in the 1930s, economic
despair. "The City of Big Shoulders", as local poet
Carl Sandburg dubbed it in 1916, was also the city of industrial
corruption, political scandal, and racial tensions. Repeated renaissances
blessed it, however, especially in the form of architecture; enjoying
at least three waves of stunning innovation, spearheaded by such
illustrious personalities as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright
and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Chicago remade itself every several
By the late 20th Century it had not only renewed its status as
a Mecca of sciences and letters, but also as business capital,
as college town, as transportation core, as convention center.
It became and becomes ever more a paradigm of the elusive but
distinctive identity that forged it: part trader, part builder,
part wild onion on the lakeshore, Chicago is and might well be
while our civilization endures the city that "ne'er shall
Text copyright ©2004
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