Names like DuSable, Marquette, and Joliet are cited in the history books. But it was Native Americans who first set the foundation for Chicago to develop into a major Midwestern metropolis.
By Jesse Dukes, contributing writer
Mark Liechty often finds himself wondering what Chicago was like hundreds of years ago, before the city was officially incorporated in 1837, when thousands of Native Americans were living in villages throughout the region.
“One of the ways I try to relate to the place I’m living is to try to understand what it was like in the past,” he says.
But Mark says he’s noticed that this part of the city’s history is often ignored. And he’s curious about the role Native Americans had in shaping Chicago. So he asked Curious City:
What impact have the region's Native Americans had on Chicago?
Mark is asking the kind of question that could easily occupy a historian for a lifetime. There are many ways to answer it. Lots of places in the region take their names from Native American words: Washtenaw, Skokie, Wabash, and of course, Chicago. An estimated 65,000 people of Native American heritage live in and around Chicago today, and are involved in city life.
But Mark is most interested in the Native Americans who were living in the region before they were pressured or forced to leave in 1833 after signing a series of treaties with the U.S. government. So we’re going to explore how Native Americans used trade, intermarriage, and their knowledge of the region’s geography to help lay the foundation for the city of Chicago. And we’ll consider an even bigger question: Would Chicago exist as we know it today — as a key Midwestern metropolis — without the Native Americans?
Native American trade routes become Chicago’s roads and highways
Europeans first explored the Chicago region in 1673, and by that time, Native Americans had long been settled in villages around the area. They had established a vast network of trails and portages, or places to carry and drag boats from one water system to another. Chicago was one of the best places to portage between two great water systems: the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.
The two water systems were only separated by a small ridge that [is/was] located in today’s Little Village neighborhood near 31st Street and Kedzie Avenue. By carrying boats a short distance over the ridge, Native Americans could in theory paddle to the St. Lawrence River or Allegheny River in the east, or to the Gulf of Mexico to the south or to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in the west.
The Native Americans understood the importance of this geography and took advantage of this portage system to trade goods for hundreds of years before European settlers arrived. According to historian and Potawatomi Indian John Low, the Algonquian language speaking tribes who lived in and around Chicago in the mid- to late-1700s considered this Chicago portage a shared resource that should be available for anybody to use. He says the Potawatomi believed “the land is Mother Earth. You can’t own it — it’s like owning air, owning the stars.”
These routes used by the Native Americans became essential to the early European traders and American settlers.
“(Europeans) could not have got to Chicago without Indian trails,” says historian Susan Sleeper-Smith.
“I don’t mean little trails. We have plenty of descriptions of people coming into the Great Lakes that are following Indian trails that are five or six feet wide.”
You might expect those trails to be long gone, but many eventually became important city streets. In 1833, the Illinois and Michigan Canal Commission sponsored the first plat of Chicago, a plan that established most of Chicago’s (and many suburban) street grids. But the grid plan made exceptions for important Native American trails that were diagonal and didn’t fit neatly into the grid. Those trails are now known as Ogden Street, Milwaukee Avenue, parts of Grand Avenue, and Vincennes Avenue.
Sleeper-Smith says other Native American routes stuck around in another way.
“The interstate highway system, it’s mostly old Indian trails,” she says. “The Indians marked the way, and we just follow, with the railroads and roadways. They created the blueprint for Chicago.”