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The Early Days of Chicago

Native Americans and white settlers lived on the Chicago River in 1833. Published by V.O. Hammon Publishing Co. of Chicago.

In the year 1491, just one year before Europeans landed in the New World, everything in the Americas was still pristine, including the southwestern tip of the Lake Michigan shoreline with its rolling sand dunes and swales. The tallgrass prairie that began west of Chicago must have also been an amazing sight, as it seemed to stretch out as far as the setting sun.

And just south of the lake, the Grand Kankakee Marsh, known in later years as the Everglades of the north, contained an abundance of wildlife, including birds and plants that are now extinct.

The area was first home to Native American tribes like the Potawatomi, Miami and Illinois peoples. The city got its name from the Algonquin word “Shikaakwa,” or “Chicagou, meaning “skunk” or “smelly onions.” Historians believe the plants with this unique aroma were actually wild garlic that grew along the Chicago River.

The first European to explore Chicago was Jacques Marquette in the 1680s. A Black Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable was the first person to settle in the area. He established a trading settlement in the 1790s near the mouth of the Chicago River.

Fort Dearborn was built in 1803 on the river for white soldiers and their families. Nine years later, the fort was ordered to be evacuated due to hostilities between the Native Americans and whites. Many whites were killed during a surprise attack after evacuating the fort. The fort was then burned down. A second fort was built at the site in 1816. Native American populations around this time began to decrease due to warfare and disease. Others were forced to move west by the U.S. government.

A replica of Fort Dearborn was built at the Chicago's World Fair in 1933. Published by Curt Teich Co., Inc., of Chicago. Postcard image provided by the Newberry Library in Chicago.

While the early days of Chicago may be gone, they are not forgotten, as historians produced some really cool postcards showing artistic renderings of the time. A replica of the Fort Dearborn site was also built at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. It was a very popular attraction, and many postcards of the Fort Dearborn replica were produced.

One of my favorite postcards resembles a Christmas card. There is snow on the ground, and little people stand next to a sleigh in front of the Sauganash Hotel, the first inn that opened in Chicago in 1833. The bright moon in the night sky allows one to see tiny houses near the river. And it’s the same river that now has skyscrapers along it that reach high into the clouds.

The Sauganash Hotel, Chicago's first inn, among tiny houses along the Chicago River in 1833. Published by the Chicago Historical Society. 

A farm with a girl and ducks at 47th Street and Cottage Grove Ave. in 1888. Published by V.O. Hammon Publishing Co. of Chicago. 

A postcard from the Indiana Dunes taken in the 1950s looks similar to the original Chicago coastline. Published by Harvey's Studio, Lebanon, Indiana. 


  1. The Fort Dearborn was not a surprise attack. They had plenty of warning, that's why they were leaving. I present an In-Depth Analysis of the Fort Dearborn Massacre on August 15, 1812. The likes you've never read about before.


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