Saturday, March 4, 2023

Happy Birthday Chicago


The Town of Chicago was incorporated in 1833, four years before the place became a chartered City.

It’s official.  Today is the 186th 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 for 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 legally fleece the citizenry within its boundaries.  In the good ol days, say back in the reigns of Jane Byrne or Daley the Younger the anniversary would be the occasion of a massive partyfireworks, light shows, parades, balls, celebrity stunts, the whole nine yards. 

In more expansive times Mayor Richard M. Daley cut a Chicago birthday cake with his mother Sis Daley looking on.

But these are days the city is in a much less expansive mood despite finally emerging from  Coronavirus pandemic shutdowns and isolation.  Street crime is rife with shootings, car jackings, and brazen gang robberies spilling out of the slums and ghettos and into previously “safewhite working class neighborhoods, the Mag Mile, hip new shopping districts, the gentrified neighborhoods filled with hipsters and young professionals.  Just this week a young Chicago Police Department patrolman was shot and killed in a shootout in public school playground with children present. 

Too familiar an image in 2023--Police conduct an investigation of a South Side homicide.

A bruising nine candidate mayoral primary ended with Lori Lightfoot ousted—a remarkable outcome for the mayor who swept all fifty wards  just four years ago.  Former school chief Paul Vallas, a corporatist technocrat who ran on crime scare and who struggles to convince voters he is really a Democrat, will duke out an April run-off against Brandon Johnson, a Black Cook County Commissioner and former Chicago Teachers Union organizer.  Vallas seems to be a heavy favorite gobbling up endorsements and campaign funds unless Johnson can unite the fractured Black vote, woo Latino voters who backed Congressman Chuy Garcia, and get the support of white liberals and progressives panicked by crime.

Sports mad Chicago usually finds solace in its favorite pro teams.   But all the major franchises are mired in mediocrity and rebuilding after dumping long-time heroes.

If you look hard enough, you can find events at Public Libraries, schools, and the Chicago History Museum.  As far as I can tell there will be not dancing in the streets.

The Chicago Portage by Edgar Spier Cameron.

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 a 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.

No one knows what Jean Baptiste du Sable looked like.  This guess is as good as any based on sketchy descriptions.

The first permanent settler that anyone knows about was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a 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 depending on their fluctuating fortunes.  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 Chicago flag.

The Ft. Dearborn Massacre became the first star on the Chicago Flag.  This dramatic but alarmingly grizzly monument was paid for by tycoon George Pullman but has been in storage for decades.  Attempts to restore it and erect it on the South Side near where historians believe the attack took place have been controversial.  Preservationists and art historians clash with those who believe it is racist propaganda.

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 occupationsland speculation.

The fort was abandoned on account of peace breaking out with the natives 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 surveyed 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 steamboats unloading in the village. Pretty soon the older inhabitants would groan for the first time that perennial Chicago complaint—“There goes the neighborhood.”

The original Chicago Seal was adopted in 1837 after the City was chartered.  The modern Seal flips the Indian and the ship, redesigns the shape of the American shield and has the sleeping infant hovering in a shell above the seal .  The Latin motto is still there but on a smaller ribbon. 

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 immigrantsIrish 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 the 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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