Let me tell you: I’m a huge Chicago history nerd, and I just gobbled up Benjamin Sells’s new book A History of the Chicago Portage: The Crossroads That Made Chicago and Helped Make America, newly published by Northwestern University Press.
You’re probably not as nerdy as I am, so you may not realize that Chicago is here because, back around 500 B.C., a tiny piece of land was created.
Chicago is Chicago because of that tiny piece of land, known to history as the Chicago Portage.
It was the result of something like 70 millenniums of movement by ice and water and debris across the surface of the earth, and, when all the movement was finished, the portage was left behind on the St. Lawrence Continental Divide which separates the Mississippi watershed basin from the Great Lakes watershed basin.
It was called a portage because it was the land between the DesPlaines River and the South Branch of the Chicago River, and, during the frequent times when water levels were low, Native American traders and then European and American traders would have to carry their canoes and trade goods on their shoulders — to “portage” them — to get from one water highway to the other.
The bigger importance, though, of this tiny piece of land for the Chicago that was to come was, as Sells explains, the vision that early French explorers and later many powerful people had of cutting a canal through that land and connecting the two rivers on a permanent basis in an easily traveled straight line.
“Half a league of prairie”
Picture a map of Chicago or the city when you look down from a plane making its approach to O’Hare. The St. Lawrence Continental Divide, also called the St. Lawrence River Divide, comes through the Chicago area as a modest ridge roughly along the city’s western border.
Rain that falls just east of the continental divide drains into Lake Michigan and then into the St. Lawrence River and out into the Atlantic. Rain that falls just west of the divide drains into the DesPlaines River and then into the Mississippi River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.
And the Chicago Portage was right there on a very low part of the ridge, down around what’s now the towns of Lyons, McCook and Summit McCook in southwestern Cook County and on a diagonal up to about 31st Street and California Avenue in Chicago.
Although the portage had been used for centuries by indigenous people, it wasn’t until the summer of 1673 that a band of French explorers, led by Louis Jolliet and the Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette and aided by a Native American, became the first Europeans to cross the portage. Within a year, Jolliet had sent word back to France that this tiny piece of land could open up the North American continent in a new and amazing way.
“It would only be necessary,” the explorer explained, “to make a canal, by cutting through but half a league of prairie” to create a water link between, on the east, the Chicago River and the Great Lakes and, on the west, the DesPlaines River and the Mississippi.
As things were, this spot at the southern tip of Lake Michigan was the farthest reach of two trading systems. The one was centered in Canada and the Atlantic. The other was at New Orleans and the Mississippi. It was only with great difficulty that trade goods moved from one side to the other.
However, if a canal were cut through this tiny piece of land, it would remake these two systems into one unified water route.
And this is the dream that made Chicago Chicago.
“Just like that”
The settlement of Americans at the southern end of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the puny Chicago River — the building and garrisoning of Fort Dearborn twice, the subdividing of the land, the concentration of businesses and residents in this location — was all due to the dream of a canal.
The land that became Chicago was sliced up in 1830 into real estate (what we now know as the downtown grid) in order to raise money to pay for a canal through the portage. But, for a variety of reasons, it took another 18 years before the Illinois & Michigan Canal was completed, finally creating a water link between the two trading systems. (The Canal operated for half a century before being replaced in 1900 by the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.)
As it happened, the rise of railroads and their use of Chicago as a hub between the east and west meant that the I&M Canal was less important when it opened than it would have been ten years earlier.
Nonetheless, the idea of a canal had done its job: It had focused development and business investment along the main branch of the Chicago River and then its south branch as well.
That idea and the portage that prompted it gave Chicago its start. And the city’s response? It wiped the portage off the face of the earth, as Sells writes:
“When the Chicago Portage was important to the fur trade, and then later to furthering western expansion, it was a spot worth fighting over. Colonial powers maneuvered to control the portage, and Native Americans were deceived and ultimately displaced and deprived of access to a spot they had used for centuries.
“Politicians manipulated state boundaries to keep the Chicago Portage firmly in hand, and entrepreneurs schemed to make the most of this singularly valuable location.”
Then, in the 1930s, with the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal doing the job that the I&M Canal and, before that, the Chicago Portage had done of linking east with west, the tiny piece of land that had been the portage was filled in to enable the development of that land with houses and stores and factories.
“And then, just like that, it was gone.”
The nuts and the bolts
The portage shows up in any in-depth history of Chicago, usually, however, no more than a mention or two. Sells is the first author to focus an entire book on that tiny piece of land.
It’s a very nuts-and-bolts book which pleases the nerd in me although readers seeking a breezy, anecdote-filled volume will be disappointed. In fact, its bland title — A History of the Chicago Portage: The Crossroads That Made Chicago and Helped Make America — is something of a tipoff.
It’s also a bit of a catchall. Anything having to do with Chicago has to do with the portage in a direct or indirect way, even though it has been gone completely for more than 80 years. And some of the subjects that Sells takes up in his book are more directly related to the portage than others.
The opening chapter goes into great detail about how the glaciers of the last Ice Age scoured the surface of this area of the earth and then, in their slow melting, continued to shape it by creating what became Lake Michigan and the area’s river system. Again, as a Chicago history dork, I found it wonderfully interesting. A less obsessed reader might not.
Most of the other 11 chapters closely examine the way the portage was used by traders and the role it played in the battles and wars that involved those with roots in Europe — the French, British and new Americans — and the Native Americans, and then how, finally, the I&M Canal came to be built.
To my mind, Sells goes a bit off track in his chapter on Fort Dearborn and the mystery surrounding a murder (or was it self-defense?) by early Chicago settler John Kinzie. However, he could easily argue that the fort was constructed at the mouth of the Chicago River because of the importance of the portage, and he’d be right.
Chicago in Wisconsin?
He has a nice chapter on the impact that intermarriage and other domestic relationships between traders, mostly French, with Native American women had on trade. These unions resulted in mixed-blood children, known as Metis.
Contrary to many earlier accounts, Sells emphasizes that a trader benefited as much or maybe more from his wife’s tribal connections as she gained from his access to European goods. Both, he makes clear, were equal partners in the enterprise.
Again, some readers might quibble about this chapter being a tangent from the main subject. Still, it is a fact that the portage worked so well for the European and American traders because of these Metis connections.
Anyone who really wants to know Chicago’s history has to read Sells’s chapter “Chicago, Wisconsin?” This details the machinations of some key Illinois politicians in the early days of the 19th century to get the area around and south of the mouth of the Chicago River included in the new state of Illinois.
And it was all to get the portage.
A History of the Chicago Portage is an important new addition to the shelf of key Chicago books, and it’s part of a wave of new works that look at the nature of Chicago — its fauna and flora, its waters and soil, its flatness and its modest ridges — and how it’s shaped the city and how it’s been used and abused by Chicagoans.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review initially appeared in Third Coast Review on 8.1.21.