Sunday, March 4, 2012

Happy Birthday Chicago

About the time of Incorporation, Chicago loads its first grain shipment for the east at its first dock. 

It’s official.  Today is the 175th birthday of the City of Chicago.  Must be.  It says it right there on the official seal, “Incorporated March 4, 1837.”  Well, that just makes it the birthday of an official municipal incarnation.  Other dates could also be the occasion of breaking out the birthday cake, depending on your taste.

The City, being the City, of course prefers the date when the Illinois General Assembly issued it official letter or marque granting it exclusive rights to fleece the citizenry within its boundaries.  In the good ol’ days, say back in the reign of Jane Byrne or Richard the Younger the anniversary would be the occasion of a massive party—fireworks, light shows, parades, balls, celebrity stunts, the whole nine yards.  

But these are the days of austerity and fiscal responsibility under the Bean Counter in Chief Rahm Emanuel.  No room for such frivolity when he needs money to equip the Imperial Storm Troopers and impress Mighty of the Earth who he is having over for tea later this Spring.

So as far as I can tell, the City is celebrating with a web site chocked full of suggestions for festivities like programs at your local library, if you can catch it before it’s closed.

Chicago exists as an accident of geography.  The area around the mouth of a short river feeding into a mighty lake was a particularly unappealing boggy mess.  The area got its name from a French attempt at a Miami name for the place which has been variously translated, most commonly as stinking onion, which is probably a good indication of what they thought of the place.  

None of the various tribes in the region seem to have made the inhospitable spot a permanent home.  They saw it as somewhere on the way to somewhere else.  The swamp, it turned out, was a short portage from streams connecting to the Father of Waters and great inland sea and thus at the crossroads of a trading system that encompassed half a continent.

This did not escape the attention of the venturesome French. Louis Jolliet and Père Jacques Marquette noted its usefulness.  The Jesuits 1696 even established one of their mission outposts in the area but were driven out by 1720 by tribal warfare while eastern Pottawatomi pushed the Sauk, Fox, and Miami west.

The first permanent settler that any one knows about was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Black man of murky origins—perhaps Haitian who had previously been living near what is now Crown Point, Indiana.  During the Revolutionary War he was suspected by both British and Colonial authorities of being a spy.  Indeed he may have worked for both.  In 1790 he built a cabin, cleared a small farm, and began a brisk trade with the natives for furs.  He stayed only 10 years, selling his land in 1800 and moving on to Missouri where he died.  Du Sable is thus credited with having “founded” Chicago.

In 1804 the U.S. Army constructed Fort Dearborn on the site, a remote and exposed outpost of the new nation in territory where the British were still stirring up local tribes.  How exposed became clear during the War of 1812.  The post was ordered evacuated but the most garrison, their families, and civilians with them were massacred in ambush by the Pottawatomi on August 15, 1812.  The event is commemorated as the first of five stars on the City flag.

After the war the Pottawatomi ceded their lands and the Army rebuilt the Fort in 1816.  Now secure, a minor village grew up outside its walls.  The chief character of the village was John Kinzie.  Kinzie had arrived as a trader/farmer in 1804 outside the original fort.  He escaped harm in the massacre by being on the lam at the time on murder charge.  He returned and was soon involved in the most American of occupations—land speculation.

The fort was abandoned on account of peace breaking out with the Indians for a while in the 1820’s, then re-garrisoned following the outbreak of war with the Winnebago.  In the Black Hawk War it was reinforced with troops from the east under General Winfield Scott.  The troops brought cholera with them not only decimating their own ranks, but ravaging the civilian settlers in the neighborhood.

None the less, the village, usually called after the Fort, thrived.  In 1829 the General Assembly, recognizing the potential ordered the area survey for a canal to link Lake Michigan with the Mississippi drainage and incidentally to platt a town around the fort at the mouth of the Chicago River.  Surveyor James Thompson filed his Platt on August 4, 1830, for the town of Chicago.

On August 12, 1833, the Town of Chicago was officially incorporated with a population of 350.

It would not stay that small for long.   Eastern investors quickly realized that with the opening of the Erie Canal, the town became the terminal port for a long, but functional water trade route from New York.  Sharpies began speculating on Chicago lots and ambitious men with an eye out for a fast dollar got off the first steam boats unloading in the village. Pretty soon the older inhabitants would groan for the first time that perennial Chicago complaint—“There goes the neighborhood.”

Three years later the state upped Chicago’s status to City.  By 1840 there were 4,000 residents jamming bustling streets and the first waves of immigrants—Irish laborers brought in to build the canal to complete the connection of the inland water way—were shocking the sensibilities of established good citizens.

For the rest of the century despite an epic fire and bloody class war, Chicago was he marvel of the world—the fastest growing city in the history of the planet.

So Happy Birthday, Chicago, warts and all.

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