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Spoor-Harvey - Chicago: From Swamp to Metropolis: Home

Old Chicago

Brief History

Lakeshore Site Begins With Trading Post, Fort

The earliest known inhabitants of the area they called “Chicaugou” were Native Americans of the Illinois tribe. The meaning of the word “Chicaugou” is variously interpreted to mean great, powerful, or strong, depending on the dialect. In the Chippewa dialect the word “shegahg” meant “wild onion”; it is said that an abundance of wild onions grew in the region.

The first people of European descent to reach Chicago were the explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, who encamped on the Lake Michigan shore at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1673. A century later, in 1783, Jean-Baptiste Du Sable, the son of a French merchant from Quebec and a Haitian slave, left New Orleans and established a fur-trading post in the same area. The site was advantageous for transportation, because it afforded a short portage between the Chicago River, part of the Great Lakes waterway, and the Des Plaines River, connected to the Mississippi waterway via the Illinois River. Sable mysteriously vanished in 1800, and John Kinzie, the region's first English civilian settler, took over the trading post. Soon a United States garrison, Fort Dearborn, was built to defend the post. In 1812 angry Potawatomi killed most of the traders, except for the Kinzie family, and destroyed Fort Dearborn, which was rebuilt in 1816.

A survey and plat of the growing settlement were filed in 1830, at which time the area numbered 350 inhabitants. Chicago was chartered as a town in 1833 and rechartered as a city in 1837. The completion of the Illinois-Michigan Canal in 1848 turned the city into a marketing center for grain andfoodproducts. The first railroad arrived the same year the canal was opened, and within a decade Chicago was the focal point for 3,000 miles of track. The productive grain industry fed cattle and hogs, and Chicago emerged as the site of a major livestock market and meatpacking industry, surpassing Cincinnati as the nation's pork packer. Cattle merchants formed the Union Stock Yards and Transit Company.

Cyrus McCormick opened a factory in the city in 1847 to manufacture his reaper, leading the way for Chicago to become a farm implements hub. The city also became a leader in the processing of lumber for furniture, buildings, and fencing. Chicago industries outfitted Union troops during the Civil War, when the grain and farm machinery industries also experienced wartime growth. George Pullman began to produce railroad sleeping cars in Chicago in 1867. The next year the city's first blast furnace was built. At this time merchants Potter Palmer, Marshall Field, and Levi Leter began shipping consumer goods to general stores in the Midwest.  ---From U.S History in Context: Chicago

Welcome to the Library

You'll be working with members of your group to:

  • conduct research on an aspect of early history of Chicago
  • develop a captivating presentation for your classmates
  • produce an interesting and informative handout for your classmates
  • design and create an eye-catching visual that goes with your presentation
  • compile a list of references in APA format indicating the resources you used


  • The Quintessential American City
  • The Irish & German Immigrants
  • Movers, Shakers, and Innovators
  • Canals and Railroads
  • Early Explorers, the Native Peoples, Chief Blackhawk, and the Potawatomie
  • The First Non-Indigenous Settlers & Fort Dearborn 
  • Life in the Early City