Perry Duis Historical Research and Narrative
But the frontier was not as vague a concept as we may think. In 1890 the U.S. Census Bureau defined it as a "moving line of settlement" that swept steadily across the nation during the nineteenth century. This definition may have been accurate in a narrow sense, but the notion that a frontier was an edge, a division between two things, also helps explain Chicago's unique role in the history of Illinois and the nation. During the age of exploration, Chicago was only beginning to become part of a frontier. Beginning with Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673, the assorted missionaries and adventurers who passed through the region differed from the native peoples in language, religion, and culture. But their contact was sporadic, temporary, scattered, and small in numbers.
Chicago's frontier age really began with the permanent settlement of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable at the mouth of the Chicago River in the late 1770s. For more than a dozen years this trader, who was of mixed French and Haitian descent, presided over an elaborate complex of buildings that totaled nearly 4,000 square feet. Although he spoke the Potowatami language and married one of their women, DuSable's presence represented a frontier edge between cultures. He kept livestock, milked a cow, and baked, while his trading activities brought such pieces of non-native culture as iron axes and hinges to the wilderness. From that point onward, Chicago would become the focus of a division, a conflict of cultures, and an interchange between urban and rural economies.
The first problem, however, was security. DuSable left Chicago a few years before the United States Army built Fort Dearborn. When it opened in 1803 it was the western-most military installation in the nation. Not only was the fort supposed to provide security for the new Louisiana Purchase, but it was also a sign that the frontier edge was passing through a struggle for military dominance. An attack by the Potawatomi destroyed the fort in 1812, and it was not rebuilt until 1816. The hesitance of American settlers to return left Chicago tiny and stagnant for the next fifteen years.
Just as settlers were beginning to drift back into the region in the early 1830s, doubts about security returned. Black Hawk of the Sac and Fox peoples crossed the Mississippi River at Rock Island in 1832 and began to battle his way up the Rock River valley. His hopeless effort to regain the lands that he had earlier ceded ended with the annihilation of his forces at the Battle of Bad Axe in southwestern Wisconsin. Fort Dearborn, which had functioned as a military staging area, was nearly a hundred miles from the military action, but the war left its imprint. Not only did the small village around the fort greet the first steam vessel on the Great Lakes, but the troops on board brought along the devastating scourge of cholera. Chicago, whose earlier isolation had kept it relatively free of pestilence, for the first time crossed a disease frontier and became part of an international epidemic.
As the trickle of goods turned into a flood, Chicagoans realized that their frontier town needed a government with more independent powers to respond to change. They turned to Buffalo, which provided the models for both the original town charter of 1833 and the city charter replacement four years later. The latter gave the booming place the authority to build streets and divide up the valuable wharf space along the river. In 1837 the first mayoral election contest symbolized the frontier division that still existed in the city. The loser, John Harris Kinzie, was part of a family that had dominated the settlement during its early fur-trading days. The victorious William Butler Ogden had been in town for only two years. He had been sent west to manage the land holdings of the New York land interests that included his family. His goal was to facilitate trade in grain, lumber, and preserved meat.
The city over which Ogden presided still bore many of the characteristics of frontier towns. Rude structures lined unpaved streets. There was also a particularly strong sense of impermanence. Young unmarried males made up a disproportionate share of the population. It was no surprise that violence and establishments catering to a variety of vices gave the place an unsavory reputation from the start. Land speculators, most of whom had no intention of staying, crowded the rooming houses and inns. The family home was likely to be a small log cabin, but many buildings were of lightweight balloon-frame construction, a building type invented in Chicago. The lightweight structures easily loaded onto a wide wagon and moved. And like many other frontier towns, the booming city also wholesaled increasing amounts of manufactured goods to retail merchants in what were referred to as "interior towns."
Chicago's growth seemed to have a momentum of its own, but in a period of less than two years things changed in a dramatic fashion. As the decade of the 1840s closed, the fertility of the farm and forest produced a bounty unlike anything imagined earlier and a dominant desire on the part of Chicagoans to do anything to go get it. Logs and rough-cut lumber were carried in ships from Wisconsin. Grain wagons numbering two hundred a day arrived from prairie farms. Northern Illinois witnessed cattle and hog drives worthy of a John Wayne movie; most of the carcasses were smoked or packed in salt brine for long-term storage and shipment. Intelligent Chicagoans realized that the opportunities for profit and urban growth could become the basis of a new economy; trade and processing represented a new frontier, a new dividing line between East and West in America. And Chicago was sitting on the border. What its merchants and political leadership needed to do was to reach out and ensure their grip on the prize.
Vague plans for one important trade toolthe Illinois and Michigan Canaldated back to suggestions made by Marquette and Jolliet when they passed through the region in 1673. Work finally got under way in 1836, then stalled during a severe depression that began the next year. In 1848 the "big ditch" was finally opened for traffic and immediately began carrying grain northeastward toward Chicago and boat loads of settlers in the other direction. That same year, the first plank roads began extending in several directions from the city into the farm lands to provide more stable roadways for wagons. The telegraph clicked into operation that year. During this same period grain buyers established the Chicago
Board of trade to provide regulation and a uniform operation of the market; its efficiency diverted grain away from St. Louis and other rivals.
Finally, Chicago also provided an informational frontier that divided ignorance and new ideas. The Chicago Chamber of Commerce began distributing statistics and "boosting" the city, and a new agricultural publication called the Prairie Farmer disseminated new ideas about farming, as well as subtle hints that Chicago buyers always provided top prices to sellers.
The railroad was the crowning achievement of these remarkable years. In October 1848 a third-hand locomotive appropriately named "the Pioneer" rolled off a ship from Buffalo. There to greet it was William Butler Ogden, the first president of the new Galena and Chicago Railroad. The line was built to the west, not the east, to service the farmers who provided much of its capital funding.
What did the changes mean? In some ways, one could argue that the opening of the first railroad was the beginning of the end for the frontier Chicago. The locomotive itself seemed to be a noisy invasion of progress, but the rapid development of railroading during the next few years was an even more impressive achievement. In 1852 the arrival of the Michigan Southern and Michigan Central provided Chicago with its first direct rail lines to the Atlantic. Within a few years rail lines fanned out in all directions. Chicago traded its status of frontier town for that of a major transportation hub. The city now joined national theater circuits, enjoyed seafood, and saw its more sophisticated citizens demand the kinds of restaurants, hotels, and fashion they had encountered in their travels to eastern cities. They also demanded paved streets and boasted that Chicago was now erecting business structures modeled after those in New York.
One might also argue that by the 1850s the population frontier that had passed through the region twenty years earlier was now in the Plains states. Newly arrived Chicagoans were more likely to be members of families rather than young single men, giving the place a greater sense of stability and an increased interest in education and culture.
But in many ways Chicago continued to function as a frontier town. The rise of mail order, as well as substantial wholesale trade for the new "interior" that extended to the Dakotas, perpetuated the city's role as an exchange point. Midwestern youth in search of their fortunes continued to pour into the Windy City, which proclaimed itself the "capital" of everything to its west. Chicago remained the edge, the dividing line between the urban and industrial East and the rural and undeveloped West. The spirit of frontier Chicago was still there.
Elizabeth H. Miller
From 1799 to 1850 Chicago was a frontier of many types. It was at the edge of population and settlement, transportation, economic and technical development, and a place of contact between the more urban East and rural West. Its location was critical to the exchange of products and information and gave it a unique chance to act as a bridge between these two sections of the country. In addition, its function as a meeting point for East and West gave entrepreneurial individuals opportunities for personal success and occasion for the city to become a major urban center.
Connection with the Curriculum
This material may be used to teach U.S. history, economics, social studies, or geography.
Materials for Each Student
Objectives for Each Student
SUGGESTIONS FOR TEACHING THE LESSON
Opening the Lesson
Developing the Lesson
Before proceeding with the activities, review the narrative portion of the article with the students to be sure that they understand both the factual text and the frontier concept. The narrative states, "Chicago would become the focus of a division, a conflict of cultures, and an interchange between urban and rural economies." Using this statement as a thesis, have the students work in small groups or as a whole to find the evidence in the article that supports the statement. Chart the answers on the board.
Activity 2 allows the students to learn details about the growth of Chicago and the skills to transfer that information to a map using directions, locations, and natural and manmade features as guides. Enlarge the copy of the map with Activity 2 to 11-by-14 inches, if possible.
Activity 3 requires students to synthesize the factual content into a convincing argument. It also introduces them to accounts and recollections of Chicagoans who lived during the frontier period.
Activity 4 presents an opportunity for students to creatively express and conceptualize frontier Chicago. It also requires the students to defend their choice of presentation and to think about the relationship of the mural's content and placement in the city.
Activity 5 places the students in the historical environment of frontier Chicago as they create the front page of a frontier-era newspaper. They must determine what they consider is newsworthy and must also understand the variety of news presentation and the format of a paper.
Activity 6 provides an exercise in critical thinking about how an event or condition can have both a positive and negative effect, depending on how the students evaluate the outcome in terms of short and/or long term results, personal experience, opportunity, etc. Point out that historical events and ideas are complex and that answers are not simple nor the same for everyone.
The students will benefit most if the narrative, map site descriptions, and personal recollections are read by each student, even if those activities are not required by everyone. The wall mural and newspaper activities lend themselves to small group production. The letter/poster activity should be an individual assignment. Give the students adequate time to plan, complete the activities, and present them to the class. Display the projects in the classroom or the corridor for everyone to enjoy.
Concluding the Lesson
Discuss whether the roles Chicago played as a frontier city and a center for the exchange of ideas, trade, and information are still part of the city's role today. Again, require the students to support their ideas with examples.
Extending the Lesson
Take a walking tour of downtown Chicago where the early settlers lived and where the students located the sites on the map activity. Have them imagine what it looked like during the first fifty years of the 1800s. Review how the space was used then. What kind of structures are at these sites today? How are the lake and river and their shores used today? Are there any historic plaques telling about what the sites were?
Have the students interview a new resident to Chicago. Have them describe their impressions of Chicago today. What challenges do they face as new arrivals to the city? What do they like best about the city? The least? What new opportunities does this city offer them compared to their former community? Have the students share their historical knowledge of frontier Chicago with the newcomer.
As a class, subscribe to one of Chicago's newspapers. Review and study local news issues in particular. From that news, have the students draw conclusions about the kinds of issues that are most newsworthy today. Are any of those issues similar to those that concerned frontier Chicagoans? What variety of views do people have about the current issues? What are the views of the students about these issues? Rank them in order of importance to the students. In small groups, have students discuss one issue and bring recommendations about the issue to the class. Invite guest speakers knowledgeable about current Chicago affairs to speak to the class. If your school has a service program for students, individuals might investigate volunteering in a program dealing with one of the studied issues.
Assessing the Lesson
Individual and small group assignments will be evaluated and graded by each teacher. Accuracy in the map, originality and creativity in the artistic presentation, and clarity in the writing assignments are essential. As the activities proceed, determine if all students are participating in group and class activity and assuming responsibility for their part. A quiz or test assessing the student's ability to reflect on the nature of Chicago as a frontier should include both factual questions and ones that require the students to express their own conclusions.
1. By 1790 Jean Baptiste Point DuSable built a 40-by-22 foot house and other outbuildings on the north side of the Chicago River near what would become the corner of Pine Street and Kinzie Street.
2. John Kinzie bought DuSable's property in 1800.
3. Antoine Ouilmette, probably a French Canadian, lived just west of DuSable (later Kinzie) on the north side of the Chicago River.
4. In 1803-1804 Fort Dearborn was constructed on the side of the river across from the DuSable property. A second Fort Dearborn was constructed on this site in 1816-1817.
5. In 1830 the boundaries of Chicago were surveyed to include the area within Madison, Des Plaines, Kinzie, and State streets.
6. In 1831 Mark Beaubien constructed a two-story frame addition to a log house on the southeast corner of Market and Lake streets on Wolf Point. This became known as the Sauganash Hotel.
7. Eliza Chappel taught classes in Chicago's first public school located in a store between State and Dearborn streets along South Water Street in 1833. There were twenty pupils in the school.
8. A post office was located in a log store near the corner of South Water and Market streets in 1833.
9. In 1833 there were several places of business including one belonging to P.F.W. Peck at the corner of South Water and LaSalle streets. Carpenter's drug store was south of Peck's store. Across the Lake Street bridge, on the west shore of the river, was W.W. Wattles's tavern.
10. A drawbridge was built across the Chicago River at Dearborn Street in 1834.
11. Chicago's first brick hotel, the four-story Lake House, was built on the northeast corner of Rush and Kinzie streets in 1835.
12. The home of William B. Ogden, Chicago's mayor in 1837, stood alone in a block bounded by Erie, Rush, Ontario, and Cass streets.
13. In 1838 Chicago had a public park located at the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street. It was called Dearborn Park after Fort Dearborn.
14. In 1842 on the public square at the southwest corner of dark and Randolph streets, stood the old one-story brick courthouse and the old log jail.
15. By 1843 there was small frame Catholic church on the southwest corner of Wabash Avenue and Madison Street. The Methodist church was on the southeast corner of Clark and Washington streets and the Baptist church was on the southeast corner of LaSalle and Washington streets.
16. By the mid-1840s there were several warehouses erected along North Water Street and South Water Street to store wheat, which came to Chicago by wagon and sleigh.
18. A three-story brick store near the northeast corner of Lake and Clark streets was for sale for $6,000 in 1845. The location was considered one of the best in Chicago.
19. There was a great demand for lumber in Chicago and on the treeless prairie west of the city. Shipments came into Chicago from Wisconsin and Michigan, and by 1847, more than forty lumber yards dotted the banks of the Chicago River and its two branches.
20. The Galena and Chicago Union Railway depot was built at the southwest corner of Canal and Kinzie streets in 1848.
Based on J.S. Wright's 1834 Map, the 1853 Map of Chicago, Surveyed and Published by Henry Hart, and the 1853 Map of Chicago, Published by A.H. & C. Burley.
Using the information from the narrative reading, the descriptive map sites, the population data, and the personal recollections of early Chicagoans written below, do one of the following: Write a letter "home" describing frontier Chicago, using arguments why others should move to Chicago or create a poster advertising Chicago as a destination, persuading others to migrate here. If you are studying a foreign language or are a native speaker of another language, use that language in the captions and information on the poster.
"Chicago, November 29,1837 ... The prairie takes fire every dry day that we have, and in the evening burns beautifully and lights up the whole sky The weather is very warm for the season, with more than the usual quantity of rain. The Indians predict an open winter."
"Chicago, June 20,1838 ... The trees and the earth are now clothed in their beautiful garment of green; the prairies are enlivened by thousands of beautiful flowers and the birds, insects, and the snakes (O, delightful idea!) are as lively as you can imagine, and I will renew my promise to get you some flower seeds if I can...."
"Chicago, January 11, 1839 ... On Tuesday evening there was a ball which I attended and danced until two o'clock among the elite of Chicago. Last night there was a party which I did not attend. For a few days the weather has been very mild, and the mud is up to one's knees nearly. The ladies ride out in onehorse carriages without any seat or top.... We have nothing to do but stand at the door and see people get into the mud."
"Chicago, December 15, 1845 ... Chicago's prospects never were so good, nor has it ever done so much business in the same time, as this fall. The receipts of wheat have been immense, varying from 20,000 to 25,000 bushels per day for weeks together, and some days reaching 28.000 bushels. The cash price now is 95 cents and $1.00. One house has made actually $30,000 in wheat operations, and have now on hand 100,000 bushels at an average cost say of 73c or 75c."
"The speculating mania is getting fast hold again of the people, there is no disguising it, and another season will see '36 reenacted in Chicago...."
"You may think my expectations extravagant and my picture highly colored, but it is not, and, could you see the immense strides of increase our city actually takes, and the business it does,.. .you would feel that any reasonable investment would repay many fold."
"Drainage at that early days was a difficult problem. The streets were the natural soil, and in continued rains or in the spring season when frost was coming out of the ground, they were, in places, seas of mud of unknown depth. One would frequently see an abandoned wagon in the mire and a sign board set up,
"No bottom here."
"They (buildings) were generally built of wood in the a 'balloon' style on account of cheapness and the speed with which they could be erected.... The dwellinghouses on the South Side were small frame houses, a story or a story and onehalf to two stories high,... convenient, snug and neat inside, and easily kept in good order. . . . Nothing but stoves were used for heating, and wood was the only fuel.."
"Society at that early date was very simple. It had to be, everybody being poor. The style of dress was plain and inexpensive; silks and satins were the exception among the ladies, and I doubt whether a lady's dress for a party cost more than from five to ten dollars. ... Everybody had just as good a time ... and enjoyed the entertainments as much ...."
"The only literary association in the city was the 'Young Men's Association and Library." It had a small room in the third story of the saloon building where its meetings were held and its few books were kept. This was Chicago's first attempt at a library."
"Before railroads began operating out of Chicago, there was quite a furore for plank roads to overcome the bad condition of the dirt roads, turnpikes, they were called, made from mud thrown up from the side ditches in the spring and during the rains. These new roads were made of planks about three or four inches thick and a foot or so wide, of the required length, laid on stringers and spiked down. There was the Milwaukee Plank Road, the Northwestern, the Southwestern and the Blue Island Pike roads, all toll roads. When railroads came into operation they were abandoned."
"... the homes were charming .... All had gardens with fruit trees, overflowing flowers, and an abundance of shrubbery. All had fences and gates, I do not know why, as all our cows were driven out to Twelfth Street, were watched and driven back at night.."
"I could ... swing on the gate and watch and count the 'prairie schooners,' or 'Fortyniners' go by on State Street. Trains passed of twenty, thirty, or even forty of the great ribbed wagons, drawn sometimes by mules, sometimes by horses, and sometimes by oxen often a mother and baby in the wagon and a troop of barefoot boys and girls trudging beside, all cheerful and full of enthusiasm. 'We'll get thar,' 'Pike's Peak or Bust,'... were familiar legends scrawled on the wagoncovers."
"From that same gate in the cholera year I watched eight funerals in one afternoon. ... It was a dreadful time. Everyone left the city who could, even some of the doctors fled. A member of our household, Miss Clara Martin, having an errand at a neighbor's, found all the doors open and the lower rooms deserted, and, hearing groans above, discovered the master and mistress of the house, alone and deserted, in the agonies of cholera. She stayed and nursed them until they were safe, and then devoted herself to that work...."
"Being a wooden city we had many fires. Our fire-engines were pumped by hand and we had a volunteer fire company.... Standing three or four on each side, they worked the pump, or else did valiant things with the hose. A fire was almost a social event. The first steam fire-engine was a marvel."
"We had many Indians in those days. They brought in furs for Chicago was quite a fur center also buffalo robes and maple sugar. There was always a fringe of them in the back of the church, and we saw them constantly about the streets, grave and silent in their blankets and moccasins."
Source: Caroline Kirkland, Chicago Yesterdays, Chicago: Daughadayand Co., 1919, pp. 16-17, 20, 24-25, 53-55, 58, 60-61, 66, 89, 93-94, 96-97
The City Council has authorized the creation of public wall murals depicting frontier Chicago from 1790 to 1850. You are a member of a committee that has been chosen to produce one of these murals and a plaque explaining the mural. Working together, your group must decide what your mural will show about frontier Chicago, the mural's size, and artistic presentation. Using the various readings as inspiration for your artistry, create the mural on large paper. Prepare a presentation for the class (the City Council) explaining the following: what does your mural portray about Chicago, why did your group choose this idea/event, and where in the city should the mural be placed and why. Place your mural and plaque in your classroom or school hallway for others to enjoy and to learn about frontier Chicago.
Create the front page of a newspaper with news from the frontier period of Chicago history. Look at a newspaper of today to see the types of articles and features that are included. If possible, research information about frontier Chicago in other sources in addition to the readings you have been given. Share your news with the class.
Your newspaper page should have:
A banner which includes the name of your paper and its frontier period date
Format presented in columns like a real newspaper
A realistic newspaper size
A lead article of local news with a large headline
Two to four additional local news articles with individual smaller headlines. These can also be special feature articles like an interview, review of a cultural event, and a description of fashion or frontier life in addition to standard news.
An illustration for one of the articles
A letter to the editor expressing an opinion about something reported in the paper
A political cartoon expressing a view about an issue or life in frontier Chicago
A weather report that is appropriate for the date of your paper
Using the narrative, descriptive map statements, and personal recollections, decide on a positive and negative aspect for the events or conditions listed below.
2. Frontier Chicago housing
3. Weather Conditions
4. Land Speculation of the 1830s
5. Arrival of the first steam vessel on the Great Lakes
6. Choosing Buffalo, New York, as the model for Chicago's town charter
7. Rapid Growth of Chicago's population