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A Woman of Substance In Early Chicago

A Woman of Substance In Early Chicago

In 1844, Chicago publisher Ellis & Fergus published a book entitled Narrative of the Massacre at Chicago, an account of an attack on American soldiers and civilians by indigenous warriors of the region’s Potawatomi nation in 1812. It was a thin volume, presenting barely thirty pages of text, and uncommonly for the times, told the story from the perspective of two women who survived what became known as the Battle of Fort Dearborn. Just as uncommon for the times, the anonymous author was a woman – Juliette Magill Kinzie.

Kinzie’s own story brackets the rise and fiery destruction of Chicago in the mid-nineteenth century. Connecticut-born, she first visited the site of the future city in 1831, as a twenty-five-year-old newly married to John H. Kinzie, a US Indian agent and fur trader’s son who had grown up in the shadow of Fort Dearborn. The couple were among the city’s founders – the “grandfather and grandmother of Chicago,” as she immodestly put it – and witnessed its rapid transformation, in just four decades, from wilderness outpost to major transportation and manufacturing hub. Kinzie died in 1870, a year before the Great Fire swept away much of the Chicago she had known and had helped to build, making her life a perfect vehicle for exploring the city’s birth and early development.

Ann Durkin Keating, a professor of history at North Central College in Naperville, tells Kinzie’s story of struggle and achievement in The World of Juliette Kinzie: Chicago Before the Fire, which recreates the public and private lives of a woman who challenged the gender boundaries of her times.

“She provides an opportunity to examine early Chicago through the life of one woman and her household,” Keating writes, “offering a counterpoint to the prevailing male perspective on these years.”

While Kinzie was no proto-feminist – as she bluntly reminded her daughter when she married, “as an individual you have ceased to exist” – her writing, community activities, and business prowess gave her opportunities and a public profile that transcended the traditional, stifling domestic sphere.

Keating mines Kinzie’s fictional and historical works and hundreds of surviving personal letters to capture her subject’s thoughts and attitudes. “So large a cache of nineteenth-century correspondence is rare,” she notes. Kinzie was educated and articulate, having briefly attended the first school in America to offer higher education for women, and is best known for her 1856 book Wau-Bun: The “Early Day” in the North-West, a collection of family stories about frontier life published under her name (her married name, at least – “Mrs. John H. Kinzie of Chicago”). The Chicago Tribune judged it a work that “all classes of readers … will greet warmly.”

Kinzie proves to be a reliable but not always likeable guide to her lost world, sharing the nineteenth-century penchant for turning a blind eye to injustices and dispensing comments that reflect racist attitudes typical of the times. The Irish immigrants who flooded into the city, she observes, were “miserable” and “stupid.” She sympathizes with the plight of the Native Americans banished to “remote, desolate” and “worthless” tracts, even as her family built a fine home on their confiscated lands and profited handsomely from the insatiable demand for real estate. And when she wrote her histories of Chicago, she virtually ignored 1780s pioneer Jean Baptiste Point de Sable and the French and Métis settlers who followed him while inflating the exploits of the Johnny-come-lately Kinzie clan.

Keating makes no apologies for her subject’s shortcomings, and shows there is much to admire about Kinzie’s role in building Chicago. Her books offered a reminder, to Chicagoans and newcomers alike, of the city’s epic growth from a couple of hundred residents in 1831 to a population of almost 300,000 in 1870. She was active in the founding or work of a host of civic organizations and charities, from church groups and hospitals to the Chicago Historical Society. While she endured personal heartbreak (three of her children died in infancy) she lived an otherwise charmed life that included encounters with Abraham Lincoln – “a calm, cool, dignified man of just and comprehensive views,” she noted accurately – and the future King Edward VII, who visited Chicago during a North American tour in 1860. She even had a chance to disparage the carpentry skills of an army officer named Jefferson Davis; the future president of the Confederacy had built the rustic furniture in her quarters at a remote trading post.

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Kinzie’s home stood at the corner of what is now Wabash Avenue and Hubbard Street and her Chicago was disappearing long before the fire destroyed it and devastated her North Side neighborhood. As the population mushroomed and the economy boomed, new factories, railway lines, and grain elevators muscled aside the fine houses and farm-sized lots her generation had established. The battle over slavery and the Civil War further shattered her world, trapping her daughter Nellie (the wife of a Confederate Army officer) and granddaughters in Savannah. But this forced separation ultimately helped to preserve her story. The trove of letters Keating consulted for her book included hundreds exchanged between mother and daughter.

Keating is a co-editor of the indispensable Encyclopedia of Chicago and the author of an account of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, and her thorough knowledge of local history grounds Kinzie’s story in its time and place. Bessie Louise Pierce, who published her own history of Chicago in the 1930s, lamented that it was “preeminently a man’s city” in its early years, dominated by business tycoons and real estate speculators. The World of Juliette Kinzie challenges this narrative, shifting the spotlight from the exploits of a few prominent men to the lesser-known accomplishments of a remarkable woman.


The World of Juliette Kinzie: Chicago Before the Fire
By Ann Durkin Keating
The University of Chicago Press
November 7, 2019

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