A Brief History of Chicago!
Chicago's Roots & Origins
The city of Chicago, Illinois, traces its origin back to 1830, but Native Americans inhabited this area long before it was incorporated as a city. Tribes of Osage and Missouri people lived to the south of the Chicago area, and tribes living in the Chicago vicinity include the Fox, Sauk, Illinois, Iroquois, Miami, and Pottawatomi.
Chicago's natural waterways make for ideal trade conditions in early America.
A thriving trade center existed in this area thanks to the natural waterways. The Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage basins are situated in the Chicago area, with the Chicago River serving as a western portion of the Great Lakes basin and the Des Plaines River serving as the eastern portion of the Mississippi River basin. Native American people used these water routes for trade and transportation. But the Native Americans had a history of fighting among themselves, and once French and British traders arrived on the scene, they vied for control of the area. Both the French and the British tried to gain the support of the Native Americans as they fought each other for control of these lands.
A French map of the Chicago area waterways from 1718.
The First Settlers
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable arrived in the Chicago area during the 1780s. He was the first person of non-Native American descent to settle in this area, but he was far from the last. In fact, the U.S. Army built Fort Dearborn on the Chicago River in 1803. The site of Fort Dearborn is now the intersection of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue; a bronze marker marks this point for historical reference. Native Americans torched Fort Dearborn in 1812, and it burned completely. Later, it was rebuilt, but then it was destroyed by fire in 1857.
The United States gets their first piece of Chicago land.
In 1816, the Pottawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes gave the American government a narrow strip of land that connected Lake Michigan and the Kankakee River. The plan was to build a canal that would run between the lake and the Illinois River. In 1848, work on the Illinois-Michigan Canal finished. With this canal functioning, it successfully completed a full route between the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico via Lake Michigan, the Illinois River, and the Mississippi River.
The Black Hawk War + Chicago's incorporation.
The Black Hawk War began in 1832. Black Hawk was a warrior in the Sauk tribe. Numerous treaties were signed between the Native Americans and the United States in the early 1800s, but the onslaught of white settlers in the area threatened the Native American settlements. Soldiers and militiamen were stationed in the Chicago area in response to Native American unrest.
The war began in April of 1832, and it lasted for 15 weeks. Eventually, Black Hawk surrendered. Shortly thereafter, the town of Chicago was created. In 1837, the city of Chicago was incorporated.
The Great Chicago Fire
On Oct. 8, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire occurred. Patrick and Catherine O'Leary had retired to bed that evening when a neighbor, Daniel Sullivan, noticed a fire in their barn. Despite efforts to contain the fire with buckets of water, people in the neighborhood watched as the flames quickly spread. Fire trucks were called, but they went to the wrong location initially.
Within a short time, the fire was completely out of control and spreading quickly. The fire even jumped the river and began threatening the center of Chicago. The fire burned for three days, and hundreds of people died. In the end, four square miles of Chicago burned completely.
The city rebuilt quickly after this devastation.
Reversing the flow of the Chicago River.
In the late 1800s, engineers in Chicago devised an important change to the Chicago River that changed history. Chicago city geography featured the Chicago River, which flowed into Lake Michigan. As the city of Chicago grew, so did the amount of sewage carried along in the Chicago River. Chicago residents got their drinking water from the polluted river, and drinking tainted water led to widespread and potentially fatal disease outbreaks such as cholera and typhoid.
To resolve this safety issue, the city of Chicago devised a plan to reverse the flow of the Chicago River. In 1900, the city built a series of canal locks, which diverted the water to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
Learn more about Chicago history by visiting these online resources:
- Chicago: Facts and Summary
- Chicago History
- Chicago History Timeline
- Timeline: Early Chicago History
- Chicago History
- Chicago History Facts, Information, and Windy City Trivia
- Native Americans:American Indian Tribes of Illinois
- Historic Indians of Illinois
- The First European Settlement in Illinois
- Railroads and Their Influence on the Growth of Chicago in the 1850s
- History of the Chicago Portage
- Chicago's History: A Timeline of Choices and Changes (PDF)
- The Great Chicago Fire: Chicago Is Burning! (PDF)
- The Great Chicago Fire (PDF)
- Statement of Facts: Chicago Fire Mock Trial (PDF)
- Transportation in Illinois (PDF)
- The Illinois and Michigan Canal (PDF)
- Transportation History Videos
- Midwest Fur Trade
- Great Lakes Marine Transportation System (PDF)
- Early Chicago History Through Art (PDF)
- Illinois History and Agriculture Timeline (PDF)
- Timeline of Illinois History (PDF)
- What "Chicago" Means
- Do Descendants of Chicago's Native American Tribes Live in the City Today?