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FRENCH CHICAGO DURING THE 18TH CENTURY

by Ulrich Danckers; published in Baybury Review, 1997.

Americans tend to attribute their national heritage to the thirteen British colonies established in the 17th and 18th centuries along the Eastern seaboard, and show little awareness of the simultaneous colonization of North America, especially in the Great Lakes region, by the French. As a consequence, remarkably little has been written about the long, turbulent, and fascinating French phase of Chicago as a village prior to Jean Baptist Point de Sable`s settlement near the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1780s. One reason for this blind spot in historical knowledge is that the people who made this history left very few written records. Most of them were illiterate, and almost everyone`s energies in those early days were absorbed by the never-ending task of assuring survival in the primeval and generally hostile wilderness. Initial and lingering discrimination may also be a factor; after all, in the early 1830s Chicago`s French population was quickly overwhelmed by the newly arriving English-speaking settlers, and overwhelmed not only in numbers. Considered by many a "miserable race of men," they were sorely disparaged for the company they kept and were ushered out of town almost as unceremoniously as were their friends the Indians, with whom many of the French had formed close family ties going back several generations.

The appearance of the French in North America began in 1534 with Jacques Cartier`s exploration of the St. Lawrence River, on a commission from his king, Francis I, who was seeking a northwest passage to China. Cartier did not find what we now know never existed, but on May 3, 1536, in a ceremony near what is now Quebec, he claimed the St. Lawrence River and its entire drainage basin for the French crown. When, however, it was learned that he had found neither the passage to China nor a source of precious stones and metals as had been anticipated, French authorities lost interest in further exploration. It was not until the end of the 16th century that efforts to colonialize North America were revived by King Henry IV of France.

From Quebec explorers easily proceeded up the St. Lawrence and then into the Great Lakes. In 1634, exactly 100 years after Cartier`s first landing on the Atlantic coast of the continent, the first white man, traveling with seven Huron Indians, entered Lake Michigan by way of the Straits of Mackinac. He was French explorer Jean Nicollet, agent for Governor Champlain of New France, who had been sent westward to explore the unknown territory. On the shore of Green Bay, believing that he had reached China, Nicollet dressed in colorful embroidered silk robes before landing. Encountering Winnebago Indians, he soon realized his mistake.

In the second half of the 17th century the progress of French colonization accelerated. Missions and forts were established in quick succession along the St. Lawrence and at scattered locations around the Great Lakes. The first mission in the Lake Michigan region was built by the Jesuit Father Claude Jean Allouez in 1669 on Green Bay, and in 1671 was moved to the site of the present town of De Pere, Wisconsin, the name referring to Father Allouez. Soon there was a village of traders, and it became the starting point for southern and westward travel via an important water route: the Fox-Wisconsin portage to the Mississippi. Marquette and Jolliet, in 1673, are among the better known French explorers who began their journeys here. (Thirty years later, when traders had established themselves in Chicago as well, overland traffic between the two settlements was maintained by way of the Green Bay Indian Trail. One of the major trails of early Chicago, it can still be traced in the city street pattern as Clark Street, where it follows a former beach ridge of ancient Lake Chicago. At Foster Avenue it angles northwest to Howard Street, where it becomes Chicago Avenue in Evanston, eventually becoming Green Bay Road in the northern suburbs.)

Also in 1671, Father Jacques Marquette founded the Mission de Saint-Ignace on the northern shore of lower Michigan at what is now called Point St. Ignace, where a small village of traders had already formed. For the protection of these missionaries and traders, French soldiers under the command of Louis de Buade, comte de Frontenac, were assigned to the region and built Fort De Buade in 1672, later relocated and named Fort Michilimackinac. One year later in September 1673, Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet canoed down the Chicago River on their return trip from exploring the Mississippi. Thus, not only did they discover the Chicago site, but they also recognized the strategic importance of the Chicago portage that linked the Great Lakes with the Mississippi, as documented in Jolliet`s report to the French government.

During the next 25 years many other missionaries, traders, and military men followed the pathways opened by Marquette and Jolliet, travelling south from their bases at the north end of Lake Michigan and leaving their footprints at Chicago and in the Illinois River valley. The early French exploration of North America and its penetration of the Great Lakes region were, however, but a prelude to the story of the extensive activity and settlement in the area that is now Chicago. By the year 1700, both a mission and a trading post stood on land that is now almost at the center of the city. And with the year 1701 begins the story as called for in the title.

La Mission de L`Ange Gardien [the Guardian Angel Mission] was founded in 1696 by Father Pierre François Pinet on the Chicago River. Here he served with Father Julian Bineteau, and later with Father Jean Mermet. It probably stood beside the river where Chicago`s Merchandise Mart is now located, and flourished until 1702 or 1703. At its peak, the mission was surrounded by a Miami Indian village of 150 cabins. In 1699, it was visited by three priests from the Society of the Foreign Missions of Quebec, conducted to Chicago by Henri de Tonti, the friend and faithful lieutenant of the great explorer René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, already dead by that time. One of the visitors, Father St. Cosme, supplied a vivid picture of the mission in his report, also indicating that French traders lived nearby. This comes as no surprise; missions and trading posts were usually found in close proximity to one another. Indians were attracted to the posts for the merchandise they offered, thus giving the missionaries opportunities to convert them.

The Chicago traders of that time, referred to by Father St. Cosme only in passing, are well known from other sources. The trading license was held jointly by Sieur Pierre de Liette, in charge of managing the post, and François Daupin de La Forêt. Both were men of noble birth. De Liette was a relative of Tonti, who was also a partner in the trading enterprise, and who visited and helped as often as he could. A fourth partner was Michael Accault, married to an Illinois Indian since 1695, and well known as a former traveling companion of the exploring French priest and author Father Hennepin. In addition to these rather illustrious and educated men there were living nearby, with their Indian wives, various associated traders and helpers, members of the working class, needed to perform the more menial tasks; the names of some are recorded in old notarial records in Quebec. The post was in existence from approximately 1696 to 1702, roughly concurrent with the Guardian Angel Mission. It is not known whether the traders or the missionaries arrived first. After thriving for a few years, the post suffered the same fate as did the nearby mission: it had to be closed because raiding Indian tribes made life in the area too dangerous - at least for a while. Indian attacks became the dominant problem for early French pioneers in Illinois, a problem that remained pathognomonic during most of the century that had just begun.

A war between the French and the Fox Indians started about 1700, and lasted for 40 years. An Algonkian language tribe originally near the western end of Lake Erie, the Fox were driven westward in the middle of the 17th century by the Huron-Iroquois wars. Initially friendly trading partners of the French, who referred to them as Renards, they allied with the Iroquois and turned against the French, severely restricting first the Wisconsin-Fox River portage and, around 1700, the Chicago portage. Their actions disrupted community development in the Illinois River valley, along the Mississippi, and in Chicago. For political reasons the seat of French regional government at Michilimackinac, and with it the protective military presence which during the two previous decades had at times extended as far as Chicago and St. Joseph, was transferred to the new Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (the founding of Detroit, Michigan), built in 1701 by Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac. Soon thereafter Indian raids began. Any French traders who held out in isolated Chicago during those most difficult years had to lay low.

In 1711 Joseph Kellog, of English background but a member of a Canadian trading party, traveled with his group by boat from Michilimackinac to the Mississippi River by way of the Chicago portage. In his diary he described the multiple villages he encountered on the trip, but said nothing about Europeans in "Chigaguea," although he reports on the land, vegetation, and game of the locale. Most likely the villagers had temporarily abandoned the place in favor of safer settlements such as Detroit, Cahokia, or Kaskaskia.

On his 1718 map, which he called Carte de la Louisiane et du Cours du Mississippi, the French cartographer Guillaume Delisle has printed the name "Chicagou" in its proper place along Lake Michigan, and he shows a settlement on the west bank of the north branch of the Chicago River near the forks, approximately the location where later in the century a trader by the name of Guillory - to whom this story will soon return - had his post. Delisle was a careful, reliable man working for the French crown. He probably used 1717 information to make this map. Nobody knows who owned this post. Perhaps it was an earlier member of the Guillory family [Simon?] of Michilimackinac. If the post was held by the same family for several decades, it would more plausibly explain why the north branch slightly later became known as Guillory`s River.

Not all of the French folks calling Chicago their home during the 18th century lived in what we now refer to as the downtown area. All, however, lived along waterways, usually the Chicago portage, also called Portage des Chênes. Overland travel with trade goods, because it was difficult and more hazardous, was uncommon, except if one was forced to portage. It is maintained by some historians, that an oak forest at the southwestern end of the Chicago portage harbored a French village from about 1740 on. It was called the "Point of Oaks" and is adjacent to today`s Chicago Portage National Historic Site at Harlem Avenue and 48th Street. It is believed that here lived the trader Jean Baptiste Amiot with his Ottawa wife Marianne, and that their son Louis was born here, although it is possible that their cabin stood further downstream on the Des Plaines River. The Amiots were a large French family with members in various parts of Canada. Louis`s grandfather, Sieur Charles Joseph Amiot, owned a house within the Fort Michilimackinac settlement, as shown on a contemporary map of 1749. We know about Louis and his parents from his baptismal record of June 14, 1746, at Michilimackinac, which reads as follows: "...the said child having been born at the Rivière aux plains near chikago at the beginning of the month of October last." Michilimackinac was the church home for most of the early French Catholic traders in the Chicago region, as it was for the family of Jean Baptiste Amiot. For the greater part of the 18th century no priests lived near Chicago, and contact with the clergy could be maintained only intermittently by traveling long distances. But maintained it was, as historians acknowledge with gratitude, because in an age of general illiteracy only the missionaries could be counted upon to create a measure of written vital statistics.

Of the next known Chicago settlers we have a somewhat mythical report from Governor John Reynolds of Illinois, who during his retirement wrote much about the pioneer history of the state. Reynolds tells of a remarkable woman, born in St. Joseph in 1734 as Marie Joseph Larche. According to Reynolds she lived to the ripe old age of 109, leaving behind four husbands in succession, and it was with her first husband, as Mme Marie Sainte Ange, that she moved from Mackinaw to Chicago in 1765, where they resided for fifteen years. It should be stressed however, that Governor Reynolds` recollections on this subject are in need of independent confirmation. They were, according to his own words, written largely from memory and are in conflict with documents created during Marie`s lifetime. For a well researched and more realistic account of "Marie," prepared by John F. Swenson, we refer the reader to the entry "La Compt, Madam" in the encyclopedic portion of this site.

In 1763 the French and Indian war ended. It represented the American phase of a worldwide nine year long struggle for supremacy in North America and elsewhere between France and England, and it was won decisively by England. In the same year the Treaty of Paris was signed, and Chicago became officially British. But it was already de facto British when, in 1761, the British Lt. Dietrich Brehm visited and mapped the "Chicago" village during his survey of the newly-won territory. He found several settlers there. They were still present in 1763.

In the writings of a later Chicago pioneer, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard (1802-1886), there can be found testimony to an early Chicago trader by the name Guillory. As a young man Hubbard hired on with John Jacob Astor`s American Fur Company, first came to Chicago in 1818, and in his later years relates that early on he was shown by several of Astor`s veteran traders the outlines of Guillory`s former farmstead and trading post, and he was told that it existed prior to 1778. Located strategically on the west bank of the north branch of the Chicago River near the Forks, where Fulton Street now crosses, it allowed for surveillance of all three parts of the waterway. No one knows when it was first established, nor when exactly it was abandoned, but it is likely to have been there for a long time, because, as we indicated above, it gave its name to the north branch, "Guillory`s River," a name that was used as late as the 1830s. The name Guillory is often found written in modified versions, such as Guilleroi, Garie, or Guarie. The historian Milo Quaife believes that Guillory`s first name was Jean Baptiste. According to Swenson he was of the family of Simon Guillory who died at Mackinac in 1744, and the trading post, while owned by the family, was often run by hired help. We can only speculate as to what doomed the post in the end. Certainly, trade could not thrive in times of warfare, and the American Revolutionary War began in 1775.

In May 1770 Jean Orillat, trader, merchant, land owner, and the wealthiest man in Montreal, financed the travel of two canoes licensed to go to Chiquagoux under the direction of Jean Baptiste St. Cyr with eight other engagés (a Canadian word from the time of the fur trade, meaning contract laborer). From surviving records we know their names and the merchandise they carried. Interestingly, they took no trade goods, but only their own provision, plus the surprising amount of 200 pounds of chocolate. This is the only license issued in more than a century in which Chicago is the specified destination. Presumably, it was a scouting expedition to size up the current Chicago potential for a new trading post and to gain the local inhabitants`s support for such a venture. Perhaps St. Cyr took up residence here, because his name does not appear on any subsequent list of engagés. But by 1778 Chicago was deserted. Records show that Col. George Morgan, Indian agent appointed by the Continental Congress, and a former prominent trader in Kaskaskia, issued safe-conduct passes in 1776 to "the French people in Chicago" to visit Pittsburgh. The names of these Chicago settlers are not recorded. We know, however, that in 1778 and 1779 Pierre Durand, a Cahokia trader, passed through Chicago en route to Point de Sable`s early trading post at Rivière du Chemin and encountered only Indians. The historian Clarence W. Alvord found records indicating that in 1782 Jean Baptiste Gaffé of Cahokia sent boatloads of trade goods to Chicago. From this we infer that he had a post there. Over what period of time he maintained this post, we do not know. It could not have been earlier than 1780. Among the preserved papers of the British General Haldimand there is a letter by Philippe François de Rocheblave, deposed last British governor of the Illinois country, who had been taken prisoner by George Rogers Clark at Kaskaskia in 1779, and transported to Virgina, while his wife and children remained behind. He wrote to General Haldimand on Nov. 6, 1783, that he would have to travel from Quebec into the Illinois country and "find Mrs. Rocheblave and the rest of the family at Chikagou." It is not known at whose cabin the Rocheblave family had found refuge at Chicago; it could have been Gaffé`s post.

Jean Baptiste Point de Sable is the best known of the early Chicago traders, and a man of many talents. (The "Du" of the misnomer Du Sable is an American corruption of "de" as pronounced in French, and first appears long after his death.) He earned the respect of his contemporaries, and for those who followed he became a legend, not all of which can be born out by historical research. Legends, however, have their own life, their inherent beauty, and their justification as poetic expressions of the soul`s yearning.

Point de Sable first appears in the records of Quebec province in 1768. From recent research by John Swenson, we know that he spent most of his early years traveling as an engagé for established Montreal traders in the northwestern Great Lakes region. In 1775 he teamed up with the experienced trader Pierre Durand, and both of them left Montreal for Cahokia in the Illinois country. By 1778 Point de Sable operated a trading post at Rivière du Chemin [Indiana], where the British Major De Peyster`s men arrested him in 1779, assuming he had French or American leanings and connections. Later the major came to know Point de Sable personally and changed his mind about him, attesting to his loyalty toward the British crown by introducing him to Patrick Sinclair, British lieutenant governor of the Province of Quebec and successor to De Peyster as commandant at Michilimackinac. Sinclair`s estate near Detroit, the Pinery, was subsequently managed by Point de Sable until 1784, when it had to be sold.

Once Point de Sable became his own man again, he made his home in Chicago, where the Tribune Tower now stands. His Indian wife Catherine came with him. It must have been between 1784 and 1788, and not in 1779, as earlier historians had concluded. Point de Sable may have built from scratch, or moved into an existing abandoned structure and remodeled it. For the first few years there were only the Indians for him to share Chicago with. In Oct. 1788, he and Catherine traveled to her church home in Cahokia and had their marriage of long standing solemnized. They had two children, Jean Baptiste fils [Jr.], and Suzanne, and in Chicago in 1796, they enjoyed the birth of their granddaughter Eulalie Marie Pelletier, child of Suzanne and Jean Baptiste Pelletier. Point de Sable was a skilled farmer, maintained good relationships with his Indian neighbors, spoke French, English, and Indian languages, and he stayed until the year 1800. By then his farm had become a valuable estate that he could sell to his neighbor Jean Baptiste Lalime for 6000 French livres[$1,200], a large amount at the time. While the bill of sale has been preserved and shows Lalime as the purchaser, it turns out that the trader William Burnett guaranteed the payment and was the real new owner. Burnett, of Scottish origin, had his main post at the mouth of the St. Joseph river, but had also maintained a trading post in Chicago since at least 1798.

In 1800, Point de Sable moved to St. Charles in present Missouri, and we will not follow him there in this account. Readers who wish to learn more about this fascinating man may read "Jean Baptiste Point de Sable - The Founder of Modern Chicago" for a more comprehensive essay about his life and time, prepared by John F. Swenson. Point de Sable left behind a small village of traders, where French and Indian languages were spoken and often mixed. There was Antoine Ouilmette, who says in recorded interviews late in his life, that he became Point de Sable`s neighbor in 1790 (the northern Chicago suburb Wilmette is now named after him). In 1792 they were joined by Lalime. Like Point de Sable, both men had Indian wives.

Three years after Point de Sable`s departure, the English-speaking element was added when Fort Dearborn was built and the trader, John Kinzie, came with his family in 1804 and bought Point de Sable`s old house and farm buildings from Lalime. The village grew slowly for the next three decades, maintaining its French cultural dominance until 1833, when an unprecedented population explosion began, so radically changing the face and fabric of Chicago that it was soon no longer recognizable by its original inhabitants.

 

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