Author Biographies Purchase the Book Comments

Back to Essays


by Philip E. Vierling; published in Chicago Portage Ledger; Vol. 13, No. 2 May/August 2012.

The first book reporting the early history of Chicago was Juliette Kinzie`s "Wau-Ban, The `Early Day` In The North-West" which was published in 1856. On page 221 in the Lakeside Press edition of this book there is the following entry relating the earliest event in Chicago`s long history:
"Point-au-Sable had made some improvements at Chicago, which were taken possession of by a Frenchman named Le Mai, who commenced trading with the Indians. After a few years Le Mai`s establishment was purchased by John Kinzie, Esq., who at that time resided at Bertrand, or Parc aux Vauches, as it was then called, near Niles in Michigan."

This statement, that the De Sable farm passed from De Sable to a man named Le Mai and then to John Kinzie, was an accepted fact in Chicago history for the next 65 years, but with the discovery of the so-called “bill of sale” in Detroit, in 1921, it was learned that De Sable didn’t sell the farm to a man named Le Mai, but to a man named Jean Baptiste La Lime—the same Jean La Lime that John Kinzie, Esq., murdered in 1812. Although the Wau-Ban statement on page 221 was a factual lie (fabricated by Juliette Kinzie’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Eleanor Kinzie, the widow of John Kinzie, Esq.), the part about De Sable owning the farm which became John Kinzie’s property was held to be absolutely true, and that this said farm was the only farm that De Sable occupied since coming to Chicago in c. 1784 and departing from Chicago in 1800.

The essay you are about to read is speculation that Mr. De Sable occupied two different farms at Chicago and that he didn’t own either one of them, but speculation based on both factual and historical information and a few new facts recently discovered by the author.

In the Volume 10, Number 3, issue of the Chicago Portage Ledger, a statement was made that the trading post known as the Kinzie Mansion was not the same building that was occupied by Jean Baptiste Point de Sable for the first ten years of his residency at Chicago—from 1788 to 1798. (Said statement is on page 5 of that issue, next to the last paragraph; and on page 6, paragraph five, last sentence.) Although actual written proof of this statement may be lacking, the proof of such depends on how we interpret the known facts. Let us begin with the claim that De Sable was Chicago’s first permanent resident. On page 41 of Gurdon Hubbard’s book, “The Autobiography of Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard,” Citadel Press edition, 1969, we find the following quote relating to Hubbard’s first visit to Chicago in 1818:

“What is now known as the North Branch (of the Chicago River) was then known as River Guarie, named after the first trader that followed La Salle. The field he cultivated was traceable on the prairie by the distinct marks of the cornhills.”

Further explanation appears in two of Milo Milton Quaife’s books, the first on page 138 of “Chicago and the Old Northwest, 1673-1835,” University of Chicago Press, 1913; and the second, on pages 30-31 of “Checagou, From Indian Wigwam to Modern City, 1673-1835,” University of Chicago Press, 1933:

Page 138 “The next tangible tradition of white occupation of Chicago is contained in a story told to Gurdon S. Hubbard by the trader, Antoine Des Champs. He pointed out to the youthful Hubbard the traces of corn hills on the west side of the North Branch, and related that as early as 1778 a trader by the name of Guarie had lived here, from whom the river had taken its name. Hubbard gives further details concerning Guarie’s trading house, taking pains to point out, however, that the statements are based on oral tradition. But this tradition is corroborated in one respect at least, for as late as 1823 the North Branch was called the ‘Gary’ river by the historian of Major Long’s expedition.”

Pages 30-31: “Another early resident, the print of whose remembrance has all but vanished, was the trader Guary or Guillory. Gurdon S. Hubbard, who first visited Chicago as a young fur-trade apprentice in 1818, was told by Antoine des Champs, then a veteran in the Illinois River fur trade, that Guary had lived at Chicago as early as 1778, and the remains of a cornfield cultivated by him were pointed out to Hubbard. Although this story rests on oral tradition, supporting evidence is not wanting. The government exploring expedition of Major Stephen H. Long passed through Chicago in 1823, and its historian designates the north branch as ‘Gary River.’ Since the writer was a professor in the University of Pennsylvania, with no local knowledge of Chicago, some informant here must have told him that this was the name of the river. The trader whose fame was thus celebrated was evidently a member of the Guillory (sometimes spelled Guyari) family of Mackinac. Joseph Guillory came from Montreal to that place prior to 1747, in which year he married Louise Bolon there. The Bolons were long residents of St. Joseph, and Jean Baptiste Guillory, who was probably a son of Joseph, was engaged in trade at both St. Joseph and the Illinois at the time of the American Revolution. In 1778 he was licensed to convey two canoe-loads of goods to ‘Illinois via St. Joseph’; the next year he became one of the proprietors of the general store at Mackinac; and a document of July 21, 1781, shows that he had been operating at St. Joseph in 1779-80. These facts, together with others which might be recited, suggest the probability that the trader whose story the aged Des Champs reported to Hubbard was Jean Baptiste Guillory, and inspire the hope that more definite record concerning this early settler of Chicago may some time be found.”

Contrary to Quaife’s first statement that Hubbard “gives further details concerning Guarie’s trading house,” in the Citadel edition of Hubbard’s book the Guarie trading post is not mentioned. Only the cornfield is mentioned as being on the property and this is identified by its residual corn-hills. In Robert A. Holland’s book, “Chicago In Maps, 1612 to 2002,” (Rizzoli Publications, 2005) page 43, John Whistler’s 1808 map of Fort Dearborn also shows no buildings to be on the west side of the river at the forks of the Chicago River.

In Ulrich Danckers and Jane Meredith’s book, “Early Chicago” (Early Chicago Inc., 1999) in an essay by John F. Swenson entitled, “Jean Baptiste Point De Sable, The Founder of Modern Chicago,” on page 388, column two, in the last paragraph, Swenson states that:

“Once Point de Sable settled in Chicago, in territory regarded by law as Indian-owned, at the end of the Revolution, he was mainly a farmer. His farm was known, as far away as the nation’s capital, as the only source of farm produce in the area until after he moved away in 1800.”

Again from Milo M. Quaife’s book, “Chicago and the Old Northwest, 1673-1835,” on page 286 we have the following notation regarding the De Sable farm:

“The first trading establishment at Chicago of which we have any certain knowledge was that of Baptiste Point du Sable in the latter years of the eighteenth century. Hugh Heward, who in 1790 passed from Lake Michigan by way of the Chicago Portage to the Illinois, tarried at Chicago a day to prepare for the further journey. He exchanged his canoe for a pirogue belonging to Du Sable, and bought from him a quantity of flour and pork, for which he gave in exchange thirteen yards of cotton cloth.”

Now we can ask the question, what was the location of this 1790 De Sable farm? Where in modern Chicago was it located? As per Juliette Kinzie’s book, the De Sable farm-house was the same as that later owned by John Kinzie, but was the Kinzie house of 1804 on the same ground as the De Sable farm-house of 1790?

Again let us go back to the Hubbard quote and interpret what it actually says. The site was shown to Hubbard by Antoine Des Champs, the man in charge of the “Illinois Brigade” of the American Fur Company, and it is he who identifies the west side of the North Branch as being the location of the first trading post in the Chicago area. Only Guarie is mentioned as being its resident, but what is not mentioned is who, if anyone, occupied the site after Guarie left. For certain, De Sable is not mentioned, but this doesn’t mean that he wasn’t there or that Des Champs had no knowledge of him or when he came and left—only the founding person, Guarie, is mentioned. Although there is no cabin on the site, there is a field of residual corn-hills which show that someone had tilled the ground here in the recent past. And it should be emphasized here that Hubbard described the corn-hills as being in a “field,” not a garden, and that the said field was on the “prairie.”

A garden may be planted by a trader, but a field is tilled by a farmer. Although Des Champs identified the site as having been founded by Guarie, clearing and tilling a field for growing crops was well beyond the ambition and abilities of a fur-trader. This field may well have been the site of the De Sable farm of 1790, but the proof of that assumption is not at this field’s site, but at the site of the Kinzie Mansion which was the site of a “stock-farm,” not a farm for growing crops.

In 1830 the shoreline of Lake Michigan was about 690 feet east of Fort Dearborn and about 596 feet east of the Kinzie Mansion (see “Howard-Harrison Map” on page 6 of the Volume 7, Number 2, issue of the Chicago Portage Ledger). In 1830 Fort Dearborn occupied a square of ground measuring about 196 feet on each side. On the Howard-Harrison Map the fort measures 25/40-inches from side picket-line to side picket-line, and is another 88/40-inches from side picket-line to the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Dividing 196 feet by 25/40 yields 7.84 feet for each 1/40 inch. Therefore, 88/40-inches equates to 690 feet for the distance from the fort to the lake, and 76/40-inches equals 596 feet for the distance from the Kinzie house to the lake. To put this in terms of what most people can understand, the average house-lot in Chicago is 25 feet wide and the length of a city block 660 feet in length, so the Kinzie Mansionwas slightly less than one-block west of the water-line of Lake Michigan. As per the Howard-Harrison Map there was also a sand and gravel beach between the lake and the Kinzie house, this being 110 feet in width, thus placing the house about 3/4 of a block west of barren, open ground.

On the J. Harlen Bretz 1930-32 geology map of the “Chicago Loop Quadrangle,” 7.5-Minute Series (published in 1943 as a supplement to Bulletin 65, Part II, of the Illinois State Geological Survey, and re-published again in 1955), the site of the Guarie trading post, the old corn field, Fort Dearborn, and the Kinzie Mansion, were all on ground which was former “Glacial Lake Bottom,” with a surface soil consisting of “lacustrine silt and sand.” And, on page 571 in Volume One of Rufus Blanchard’s “Discovery and Conquests of the Northwest with the History of Chicago,” (R. Blanchard & Co., Chicago, 1898) there is a letter written by R. J. Bennett describing the soil on which Fort Dearborn was built:

“The fort stood on a sand mound, some twenty feet above the river, and occupied a tract bounded by a line running along about River street to near the center of the river as it now is (May 11, 1880), and east, say 150 feet east of Michigan avenue to the lake beach; thence south, say a like distance south of the present intersection of Michigan avenue and River Street; thence west to the place of beginning. The inclosure was a stockade formed by setting logs upright and close together, the lower end bedded in the earth, and the upper sharpened like pickets or pikes. Within this inclosure and near the stockade was arrayed the barracks and the officers’ quarters; they were built of hewn logs. Within these and to the south side of the inclosure was the parade ground. In 1857 Mr. A. J. Cross, now connected with the C., B. & Q. R. R., but then in the employ of the city, tore down the fort and lighthouse and leveled the mound by carting the sand to fill Randolph street to grade. One of the buildings was moved, but still within the site of the fort (about the center of the store now owned by W. M. Hoyt, and occupied by the firm of which he is the head). That building stood till the fire of 1871 destroyed it, and thus removed the last of Fort Dearborn.”

It was because of the Fort Dearborn sand mound that the Chicago River made a horseshoe-bend just before entering the lake. Since the Kinzie Mansion was built directly opposite the fort, on the north side of the river, it is quite likely that this building too, was built on dune sands with the said sand-dune also extending northward from the house. To the contrary, the Guarie farm field is described by Hubbard as being on the “prairie.” Prairie soils are generally deep and rich and as per Chicago’s geologic history this particular prairie-land began developing about 2600 years ago.

A drawing of the Kinzie Mansion created by Mrs. Kinzie herself, is the frontispiece in her book, “Wau-Bun,” and a photocopy of such is printed below. Note the boat in the lake in the right-background and the height of the building above the river. The house can’t be more than five feet above the river’s waterline. Here the river’s elevation is the same as the elevation of the lake (which is 580 feet above sea level) thus making the elevation of the house about 585 feet above sea level; maybe less. On the 1963 “Chicago Loop Quadrangle” Topographic Map, 7.5-Minute Series, the elevation of the land surface on the west side of the Chicago River, near the mouth of the North Branch, is 593 feet above sea level. As per the geologic history of the Lake Michigan Basin, that lake-stage immediately prior to the creation of Lake Michigan was a lake of greater volume and elevation than Lake Michigan and named Lake Algoma. The existence of Lake Algoma began about 3000 years ago with a waterline elevation of 595 feet above sea level.[1] Presuming a steady decline in elevation as the water-level drained down to the present elevation of Lake Michigan, said rate of drainage was about fifteen feet in 3000 years for an average draining rate of one foot every 200 years. Thus the prairie soil on the Chicago lake-plain west of the Chicago River began forming about 2600 years ago, and in the dune sands behind the Kinzie house about 1000 years ago.

On October 3, 2011, a telephone call was made to the Illinois Department of Agriculture in Springfield, Illinois (telephone number 1-217-785-4789) where this author asked if corn and wheat could be grown on a sandy soil. The answer was affirmative, but only with frequent waterings, made possible in modern times by irrigation. When asking the same question to a friend who had been brought-up on a farm in Niles, Michigan, the reply was that six inches of good soil were necessary to grow corn and wheat, while sand by itself would only grow potatoes. During De Sable’s time near the end of the eighteenth century, frequent waterings do not seem to have been probable for a farm field, so the Kinzie site does not appear to have been the same site as the De Sable farm of 1790. Since residual corn-hills were only found west of the North Branch of the Chicago River in 1818, with none apparently were found east of that location, it seems probable that the North Branch site was the site of De Sable’s farm of 1788 to 1798.

In the so-called “De Sable bill of sale” in the library of the Chicago History Museum—the document is actually an affidavit by John Kinzie that a “bill of sale” did exist—the inventory of property for the farm located north of the site of Fort Dearborn, included a horse-mill 36 feet by 20, a pair of millstones of two feet, a plough chain, a plough, seven scythes, and eight good sickles. All the equipment necessary for a farmer to plant and harvest crops. Thus, it could be argued that this farm at the mouth of the Chicago River was the same farm that was visited by Hugh Heward in 1790. If such were true, then serious questions arise regarding the farming abilities of De Sable and the farm’s true ownership. If this farm at the mouth of the Chicago River was solely owned by De Sable, then why did he choose a site with poor soil over a site with better soil, as was that on the Guillory site? As a farmer, De Sable certainly should have known good soil from bad. However, if De Sable was not the true owner, but was assigned to this location, then that would explain why he was on a site with poor soil. It was either here or no-where. But, why did the true owner choose a site on poor soil when better soil sites were available and free for the taking? As with many real-estate deals the answer lies in “location, location, location.” But why was the poor soil location better than the good soil location? Because it was opposite the site of the government fort soon to be built here. Thus, the farm at the mouth of the Chicago River was not the first farm associated with De Sable, and not the same farm as that which was visited by Hugh Howard in 1790. That original farm was somewhere else, probably at a place with better soil.

How and why De Sable became associated with William Burnett is not absolutely known, but his role as a farmer in pioneer Chicago fits better on the Guillory site west of the North Branch of the Chicago River than it does on the sand dunes along Lake Michigan.

William Burnett was an American-born fur trader who settled at what is now St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1776 or 1777.[2] He apparently became the dominant trader there in 1782 when he married Kakima, the daughter of Aniquiba, the Potawatomi Indian chief at St. Joseph.[3] Burnett’s trading empire not only included the St. Joseph River (formerly known as the Miami River, so named for the Miami Indians),[4] but also the Wabash River, the Kankakee River, and the Illinois River.[5] Traders associated with him include John Kinzie, Point de Sable, Jean La Lime, Griffin, and Ducharme.[6] Since Guillory (first-name unknown)[7] was also a trader at St. Joseph who traded on the Illinois River in 1778,[8] it is not unreasonable to presume that when Guillory left in 1779 to become one of the proprietors of the general store at Mackinac,[9] his post on the Chicago River fell to Burnett.

Burnett’s association with Point de Sable began about 1784[10] with De Sable apparently farming at various locations, but by 1788 he was assigned to Burnett’s Chicago River facility at the former Guillory site.[11] Apparently whenever Burnett founded a post in the wilderness he also sought to clear and cultivate the land[12] and to build numerous outbuildings. As a result, said posts were often referred to as “mansions” because of the extent of their total holdings.[13] Such was also probable at the Guillory site as when Hugh Howard visited the farm in 1790, De Sable sold him wheat and pork.[14] Since wheat is produced by grinding wheat kernels in a mill, the De Sable farm of 1790 must have had a horse-mill on the property and a pair of millstones; and pork probably meant that hogs were kept in a wooden sty. But all this farming equipment did not appear overnight. Although Swenson gives De Sable’s arrival at Chicago as 1788, Anson has him moving permanently to Chicaho in 1790.[15] Apparently it took two years—1788 to 1790—for all the appurtenances to be built before De Sable could move permanently to Chicago in 1790. Then about 1798 Burnett apparently learned about the government’s intention to build a fort at Chicago,[16] to which he decided to move his farm and re-open it as the home of the fort’s civilian sutler. Everything was moved to the new site, nothing was left behind—except a field of corn-hills. Since said sutler would be keeping records and a book of accounts, illiterate De Sable could not fill that role so he sold his interest in the concern to Jean La Lime in 1800. Thus, quite possibly De Sable never occupied any part of the building later identified with John Kinzie.

De Sable’s part in Juliette Kinzie’s ownership history of the Kinzie Mansion, published in “Wau-Ban” in 1856, is totally fraudulent, although such was not known to its author who was given to believe that the story was true. Said fable was apparently a scheme devised by the author’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Eleanor Kinzie, to justify the deceased John Kinzie’s claim of ownership of the mansion after the true owner (William Burnett) disappeared in 1812.

The site of the noted corn-field and the Guillory trading post where De Sable presumably lived from 1788 to about 1798 is near where the Wolf Tavern later stood which today is within the intersection of Fulton and Canal streets in Chicago.

In conclusion the reader should note that there is no existing historical document stating that the De Sable farm of 1790 was located at the site of the Kinzie house at the mouth of the Chicago River. That site, like the author’s suggestion of the Guillory site, is based on speculation. However, because the Guillory site meets all the requirements of a working farmstead, while the Kinzie house does not, De Sable was probably at the Guillory site in 1790, not at the Kinzie site.


1 — Internet: Geology Fieldnotes, Sleeping Bear Dunes; Glacial and post-glacial history, paragraph three, lines six and seven.
2 — Cunningham, Wilbur M., Letter Book of William Burnett. The Fort Miami Heritage Society of Michigan, Inc., St. Joseph, 1967, page xvii.
3 — Cunningham, page vi.
4 — Cunningham, page iii.
5 — Cunningham, pages vii-viii.
6 — Anson, Bert, The Fur Traders in Northern Indiana, 1790-1850. Doctoral thesis, Indiana University, 1953, page 36.
7 — Danckers, Ulrich, & Meredith, Jane, Early Chicago. Early Chicago, Inc., River Forest, 2000, page 177.
8 — Quaife, Milo M., Checagou, From Wigwam to Modern City, 1673-1835. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1933, page 31.
9 — Quaife, page 31.
10 — Swenson, John F., “Jean Baptiste Point De Sable, The Founder of Modern Chicago,” pages 388-394 in Danckers & Meredith’s Early
. Essay copyrighted 1999, page 392, column two, paragraph four.
11 — Ibid.
12 — Cunningham, page xvii.
13 — Cunningham, page viii.
14 — Swenson, page 393, column one, paragraph three.
15 — Anson, page 23.
16 — Cunningham, pages 107-108.


  Copyright 2017 Early Chicago, Inc.    Copyright Information    Designed by Duffy Design Works, Inc.