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LIFE IN CHICAGO SEVENTY YEARS AGO · September 20, 1903

by Mrs. Charles A. Taylor, Daughter of Mrs. Almira Willcox of Detroit, Mich., in 1832-`33-`34. Compiled from Her Diary by Mrs. Julia Willcox Tenney.

In May, 1832, we started for Chicago, the new frontier town. Mr. Taylor wanted to make a home in the west, and thought Chicago would become a city in time.
He bought a new covered wagon and horses, for the trip across Michigan was no easy matter in those days. Mother, thinking of my pleasure, loaned me my little sister Julia, whose delight at " going to the woods with sister Mary " was unbounded.
Our first day`s journey brought us to a fairly comfortable resting place for the night. The second and third days passed without incident. Julia begged us to gather so many of the wild flowers that our little wagon looked like an animated flower bed.
The fourth day Mr. Taylor lost the trail. Sunset found us miles out of our way, near the banks of a small river.
We must camp for the night; not a pleasant prospect. No human habitation in sight, and at the left of the prairie a wood where wolves howled at intervals through the night. Mr. Taylor built a fire, which was a protection. He only slept a short time. Then I remained on watch. A young moon gave light enough to bring out weird phantoms and people the shadowed windings of the stream with many eyed monsters. The night passed without actual danger.
At early dawn we retraced our steps. A few miles` drive brought us to a log cabin. The hospitable inmates gave us a cup of black coffee, with a plain breakfast. Thus refreshed, we went on our westward way before the sun was high.
The day was warm, the air perfect. The whole country seemed a well arranged flower garden, with here and there, amid the prairie grass, little hillocks covered with phlox, daisies, and buttercups; then a clump of wild shrubs, with anemones, violets, and other flowers clustering in the shade, gladdened the whole earth; and we, feeling the genial spring influence, made slow progress.
On the fifth day one of our horses showed signs of fatigue, and nightfall had not brought us to our haven of rest. Clouds gathered, thunder muttered, and the darkness became intense, but we pushed on, through mire at times, then jolting over a bit of soul trying corduroy road. No help was at hand. Mr. Taylor must seek it far afield.
Leaving Julia and me to guard the wagon, he went off into the night. The little girl curled herself up in my arms, said again her evening prayer, and went off to sleep. My nervous musings were soon interrupted by the musical notes of a far away bell. Were we in a fairy circle? A much more prosaic environment was ours.
Two men approached, driving a yoke of oxen. One of the oxen bore the bell. The man came to the wagon and looked in with a surprised and inquisitive stare. His uplifted lantern showed him clearly our little party. A nod of salutation, as he said:
" You hev`nt seen a yoke of oxen, hev ye, long this way? "
" No, sir. Did you meet a gentleman on the road going for help? "
" No. We hain`t ben on the road; going cross lots. "
" How far to the next house? "
" About three miles. I see ye`ve met a accident. Wall, it`s purty hard on a woman and child all alone in such a fix in dead of night. But cheer up, it`s soon sunup now. I must git along and find my oxen. Farewell, lady; I don`t know as I can help ye any. "
He lowered his light and tramped away, leaving us to long hours of waiting. I was sorry to hear the last note of that friendly bell fade away in the distance.
Faint indications of approaching dawn comforted us somewhat, when we again heard strange voices in the distance. Eyes and ears were on the qui vive. It might be a danger not so easily overcome. Fortifying myself with all the courage I could muster, I awaited developments.
Two or three figures became discernible in the deepening light. The voices became louder, but were strange to me. At last I recognized the familiar tones of my husband talking with two Frenchmen. He had tramped six miles and brought back with him two brawny men, who went to work and soon we were ready to start on again.
A few miles brought us to Mans tavern, on the Calumet. We found our new host was a French Canadian, with a half breed wife. Numerous children of all ages nearly filled this cabin. They were pushed aside for our comfort, as we were obliged to spend the night under their roof, which covered two rooms. One was used for a sleeping room, divided by a blanket. The woman shared my bed, with her infant. In spite of discomforts, we slept well.
Early the next morning a runner brought the disquieting news that Black Hawk was on the war path with his braves, headed for Chicago.
With this before us, we resumed our journey with fear and trembling. Our route lay for miles along the Calumet river and the shore of Lake Michigan.
A most glorious sunset greeted our arrival at our destination. There were two taverns at the Trading Post. We went at once to one kept by J. B. Beaubien. Glad to retire early, we were scarcely asleep before we were aroused by an alarm and told the Indians were really coming.
We took the children from their beds, dressed in a hurry, and rushed for Fort Dearborn. Col. J. V. D. Owen met us en route. Taking little Julia in his arms, he gave us a warm welcome to his own quarters. We were safe, but could not rest.
All was confusion, pandemonium let loose; the shouting of men trying to organize for defense—every man with a gun was expected to use it—dogs barking, children screaming, women fainting from fright; only the trained soldiers obeyed orders and knew what they were about. It was a trying and sometimes amusing experience, which lasted several days. The colonel made us all as comfortable as possible until it was deemed safe to open the gates for our return to the outer world. Then we heard a sad story of the depredations of the red men.
It was a trying welcome to our new home. No business opening presented itself, and no houses to rent.
At this time Mr. James A. Kinzie kept a store and a tavern on the west side, at the forks of the river, called Wolf`s Point. Mr. Taylor accepted his offer to take the tavern and board the Kinzie family until we could build a house.
With misgivings, I entered upon my new work. But youth is brave and hopeful. I exerted all my little skill in helping our half breed cook, and felt rewarded when two or three young men applied for board. One of them was the young Englishman, Mr. George Davis, a good friend, who later became our brother.
He was employed by the state as surveyer at a salary of $20 a month, and pork supplied. He had built himself a bark house on the prairie, but grew tired of living alone. We were glad to have the genial, gifted musician a member of our household.
The Indians were still restless, and alarms were frequent. Any day might witness an uprising.
We had two Indian chiefs among our citizens, Alexander Robinson, and Billy Caldwell (nephew of the great Tecumseh). They were good friends of the white people. When they advised extra precautions we must heed them.
The day came when they told us of a massacre on Indian Creek, a settlement sixty miles from Chicago. The news of the terrible slaughter of was carried to Ottawa by a boy 10 years of age, who was sent to trace some lost cows. As he approached his home on his return he saw the Indians, heard the cries of the settlers, and saw buildings in flames. He turned and fled for his life. After tramping all night across the prairie he arrived at Ottawa exhausted, but in time to give warning.
So Billy Caldwell said, " All women and children must go to the fort. " The men decided to arm themselves and divide forces between Wolf`s Point (which was exposed) and the garrison.
Mrs. Kinzie and other ladies with their children were preparing to go. With my first experience fresh in my mind, I begged to be allowed to remain at home near my husband, who was to stand guard at the point, rather than to make one of the heterogeneous crowd at the garrison. Billy Caldwell replied, " You are a brave little woman, and you shall be protected. "
That night he brought a Pottawatomie squaw, with her little boy. Rolled up in blankets, they slept at the foot of my bed, thus guarding us for several nights.
I made what preparations I could for safety. Under my pillow was a small steel stiletto, or poignard, a gift from a friend in Detroit, who playfully said, " You may need it, as you are going into that Indian country. " When I placed it under my head I thought his remark was not all romance.
I hung thick blankets around the bed, made peepholes through them, and with wakefulness and shivers waited for morning. Little sister said " Our Father, " and added her own little petition, " Please, dear Lord, take care of my sister, and send the naughty Indians away. "
After several such anxious nights and trying days my guard was relieved. When the dusky watcher left me she took both my hands in hers and said in her own tongue, " All is well, so far. " The tears came, and I have never felt more genuine gratitude toward a benefactor than when I heartily returned the embrace of this dark skinned watcher.
Many houses had been destroyed, fifteen people had been killed, and some prisoners taken to the woods. At the fort the refugees were supplied with food on the governor`s requisition. And Col. Owen was so kind to them many were loath to return to their isolated prairie homes.
One old lady was kind enough to say she " hoped Black Hawk would catch that Mrs. Taylor the first one, who pretended to be so brave, but was really too proud to come and live in the fort with the rest of us. "
The governor of Illinois had requested the governor of Michigan to send troops from Mackinac, but it was many days before they arrived.
Gradually quiet was restored, and we took up our old life. At last Gen. Winfield Scott arrived, commanding a body of soldiers.
Upon disembarking, Gen. Scott was directed to the tavern of the Wolf, where I had the pleasure of preparing a bowl of soup and other viands for the general’s first meal in Chicago, which seemed satisfactory. The courteous compliments paid the “ little landlady ” by the great soldier were never forgotten, and went far towards alleviating worry and fatigue. Years after, when we met Gen. Scott in Washington, he recalled vividly his first meal in Chicago and the subsequent events of the close of the Black Hawk war.
Glad as we were to have the troops to protect us, we soon found that with the soldiers had come a still more deadly foe. Asiatic cholera had made its appearance on the boat coming to Fort Dearborn. Good soldiers had died between Mackinac and Chicago and were buried without fife or drum, where “ old Michigan chants a requiem to their memory. ” Others died after landing and were at once buried in pits.
This third and most serious alarm affected everyone. Though pronounced “ a brave, ” I took wise advice, gathered up a few utensils, some food, warm clothing, and bedding, and with half a dozen other women Julia and I were rowed up the north branch of the Chicago River to the shanty which had been abandoned by a discouraged squatter.
That gruesome picnic lasted several days. Our hearts were full of fears for the members of our families at home. At last another boat arrived, bringing husbands and friends, with needed supplies.
In a week we returned to the old life, to find the disease had spread among the citizens. Several had been ill, a few died.
Our friend and fellow townsman, Mr. Philo Carpenter, who came in July, 1832, was nurse and doctor. He administered liberal doses of calomel, and his penknife as a lancet, and thus saved several lives.
Our minds were solemnized by these events. Many of us wished for the regular observance of the sabbath, to which we had been accustomed in our eastern homes. Julia longed for her Sunday school. So I decided to teach a class in the little parlor of our log tavern.
Father Walker, a worthy Methodist pastor, held service in the town once in a while. He upheld me in my plans, and the first Sunday eight children were gathered about me to study the bible and sing suitable hymns, which all enjoyed. Among these children where the two little daughters of Col. Richard I. Hamilton, commanding Fort Dearborn, the La Flamboise [LaFramboise] children, and little Julia Willcox. The music attracted to our windows many Indian and half breed women and youngsters, who, after a while, came in to study.
In a few months Mr. Philo Carpenter started the first fully organized Sunday school, August 19, 1832, in a log tavern.
Our hearts were gladdened by the welcome news that we were to have a settled pastor. We watched with eagerness for the ship which was to bring the Rev. Jeremiah Porter. On the landing Mr. John Wright grasped the minister by the hand and exclaimed: " I have written in vain for a minister. This is like the bursting of the sun from a dark cloud. ”
With Mister Porter came other good men, who were stationed at the fort. Maj. Willcox, Maj. Fowle and wife, and others were found who were interested in establishing a church.
The first Sunday service was held in the carpenter shop at the post. Dr. [Mr.] Porter began by saying: “ I have been led by these surroundings to take my text from words of the carpenter of Nazareth: ‘ Herein is my Father glorified that ye bear much fruit. So shall ye be my disciples. ’ John xv., 8. "
Following this service the business men gathered during the week in the tavern to organize the First Presbyterian church, of a dozen members. We then commemorated our first communion service. The wine was served in a silver cup, which Maj. Willcox brought from the fort.
From the log tavern the Sunday school migrated to the log schoolhouse; from there to Father Walker’s residence; then to the second story of P. F. W. Peck’s store (our first frame building), and in due time to the little church, built by the united efforts of practical Christian men, who often took the hammer in hand to help the carpenters hurry on the work of building.
The First Presbyterian church stood out in an open field. It was about 60x25 feet. It was roughly plastered, and seated with pine benches. It was often filled with an audience of 500 people.
We had serving societies which met at the log tavern and other homes. A young ladies’ mission society was organized at Fort Dearborn. In the summer of 1834 the young people held a fair in order to help the church expenses, and realized $140.
Our only school was kept in a small log house. Miss Chapell was the teacher, and was so successful that Mr. Wright put up a building for the school at his own expense. Soon there were 150 scholars. Miss Chapell asked to have a board of trustees elected. A fund for the payment of teachers was raised by the sale of government lands. Thus we had our first public school. Miss Chapell resigned the presidency of the school to marry the Rev. Jeremiah Porter.
In the fall and winter of 1832-`33 political excitement ran high. Many warm discussions were held around the big square stove in our log tavern, and there, in 1832, the polls were opened for the presidential election. Eighteen votes were polled in this first election in Chicago, held in Wolf’s tavern.
Our first newspaper was started by John Calhoun in 1833. It was the Chicago Democrat. It was afterwards sold to John Wentworth. We had a postoffice in a candle box in one corner of the grocery store. There we found letters once a week in summer. In winter we often waited weeks for our mail.
The winters were bitter cold, but our hearts were young and warm. Much gayety was abroad. The sleighing races on the river were attended by both men and women, muffled in bright hoods and gay robes. They made a merry scene.
A wolf hunt was the most exciting event. There were a few good English dogs in town. The officers from the post were fond of the sport. Hunters from town and garrison often mingled in the hunt. It was a gay scene to watch from our window the meet and the start—men in bright hunting toggery, well mounted. Shouts and joyous laughter, added to the crying of the hounds, kept us spellbound until the last halloo died away.
Then, too, there were balls in the big unfinished room over the store, and many tea parties. The Christmas holidays brought good cheer, and New Year’s day was devoted to making and receiving calls in the good old way. I well recall one happy day, when the sleighing was glorious, the air keen with frost. The whole town turned out to pay visits. Jingle jangle went the bells all day.
About noon a big cutter pulled up at our door. Mr. J. H. Kinzie called out: “ Mrs. Taylor, may we come? I told these fellows you made the best coffee in town. Just smell it, boys! ” As they all hurried in, shutting out the cold air. “ Here we are, with a happy New Year`s wish for you. ” I was glad to thus welcome Mr. Kinzie, Maj. Russell, and Mr. W. B. Ogden, with others. With jokes and many a bright repartee they enjoyed their refreshments. Then passed out to give room to younger and gayer men, for our sister Mira was visiting us then, and was the attraction to many who came that day, partook of a cup of hot coffee, a slice or two of cake, and left with a ringing whoop-la.
In the fall of ‘33 Mr. Taylor engaged in the mercantile business, and we moved to our little new home on the corner of Canal and Madison streets.
Mr. B. F. Raymond lived near us. Across the street George Davis built a house, and brought my sweet sister, Mira Willcox, to preside over it in 1837. She made a bonnie bride. Their house soon became the musical center of the town, as Mr. Davis was a thorougly educated, most talented musician. Having a rich, sweet voice, he was always ready to entertain his friends in his house with a merry song or story, or to get up a concert for every worthy object. His power of mimicry was great; his monologues were always received with hearty appreciation and applause.
In 1882 Mr. Charles Cleaver writes of the winter of 1834-’35: “ A piano had been brought from London by Mr. Brooks, then the only one in the place, or in the state, for what I know, was taken from the store, and Mrs. Brooks, assisted by George Davis and others, gave several concerts to the great delight and amusement of the citizens. What memories cluster around those names. George was the life and soul of any company he might be in. There are many old citzens in Chicago who will remember his comical songs, ` The Great Mogul, ’ and the ‘ Blue Bottle Fly, ’ for instance, that always would bring forth rounds of applause, while Mrs. B played ‘ The Battle of Prague ’ and other old fashioned pieces of martial music that were great favorites of the audience, who made the house ring with their plaudits. ”
In the same neighborhood lived our first music teacher, Mr. Lewis. He taught singing and the use of various instruments. He divided his time between teaching music and cultivating a large garden. He and Mr. Davis had much friendly rivalry over their gardens. Indeed, we each vied with each other in the cultivation of vegetables, luxuriant vines, and fine roses.
Thus we tried to make our little hamlet by the lake grow into an attractive town.

Chicago Sunday Tribune. Part Six. September 20, 1903

 

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