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Chicago Basics: History

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 unrest.

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 regional nexus.

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 decades.

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 die".

Text copyright ©2004


census.gov - U.S. Census Bureau Online (2004)

chipublib.org - "A Chronological History of Chicago: 1673-"

chipublib.org - The Chicago Public Library Online (2004)

co.cook.il.us - Cook County Info Center (2004)

davidrumsey.com -- David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Sandburg, Carl. "Chicago". 1916. http://www.euronet.nl/users/jubo/poetry.html -"Timeless Poetry".

The Green Guide: Chicago. Greenville, SC: Michelin Travel Publications, 2001.

Johnson, Lorraine and John Ryan. Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guides: Chicago. London: Dorling Kidersley Publishing, Inc., 2001.

Lewis, Edwin H. "The University of Chicago Alma Mater". 1894

Loescher, Robert J. "Survey of Ancient to Modern Art and Architecture." Lectures delivered at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2002.

state.il.us/hpa - Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (2004)

uark.edu/depts/contact/prehistory.html - "Mississippi River Valley Prehistory" (2004)



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