At the beginning of recorded history, the Chicago area was inhabited by a
number of Algonquian peoples, including the Mascoutens and Miamis. Trade links
and seasonal hunting migrations linked these peoples with their neighbours, the
Potawatomis to the east, Fox to the north, and the Illinois to the southwest.
Chicago's location at a short, swampy portage between the Chicago River
(flowing originally into the Great Lakes) and the Des Plaines River (flowing
into the Mississippi), attracted the attention of many French explorers
travelling in the area, such as Louis Jolliet and Henri Joutel, who felt that
the area had a great potential as a transportation hub. In 1683, French Jesuits
built the Mission of the Guardian Angel to Christianize the local Wea and Miami
people, and for a time there was a French fort (Fort Chécagou), commanded by
Pierre de Liette. French and allied use of the Chicago portage was mostly
abandoned during the 1720s thanks to continual raiding during the Fox Wars.
During the mid 1700s, the Chicago area was inhabited primarily by Potawatomis,
who took the place of the Miami and Sauk and Fox who had previously controlled
the area. The name Chicago originates from "Checagou" (Chick-Ah-Goo-Ah) or "Checaguar"
which in the Potawatomi language means 'wild onions' or 'skunk'. The area was so
named because of the smell of marshland wild leeks or wild garlic that used to
The first non-native settler in Chicago was Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable, a
Haitian of African descent, who settled on the Chicago River in the 1770s and
married a local Potawatomi woman. In 1795, following the Northwest Indian War,
the area of Chicago was ceded by the Native Americans in the Treaty of
Greenville to the United States for a military post. In 1803, Fort Dearborn was
built and remained in use until 1837, except between 1812 and 1816 when it was
destroyed in the Fort Dearborn massacre during the War of 1812. The Ottawa,
Ojibwa, and Potawatomi ceded the land to the United States in the 1816 Treaty
with the Ottawa, etc.
On August 12, 1833, the Town of Chicago was incorporated with a population of
350. The first boundaries of the new town were Kinzie, Desplaines, Madison, and
State Streets, which included an area of about three-eighths of a square mile (1
Within seven years the town had a population of over 4,000. Chicago was
granted a city charter by the State of Illinois on March 4, 1837. The opening of
the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 allowed shipping from the Great Lakes
through Chicago to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The first rail
line to Chicago, the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad was completed the same
year. Chicago would go on to become the transportation hub of the United States
with its road, rail, water and later air connections. Chicago also became home
to national retailers offering catalog shopping using these connections like
Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Due to the geography of Chicago, early citizens faced many problems. The
prairie bog nature of the area provided a fertile ground for disease-carrying
insects. Early on, Chicago's population and commerce growth was stymied by lack
of good transportation infrastructure, though this problem was soon remedied.
During spring Chicago was so muddy from the high water that horses would be
stuck past their legs in the street. One dirt road was so hazardous that it
became known as the "Slough of Despond". Comical signs proclaiming "Fastest
route to China" or "No Bottom Here" were placed out to warn people of the mud.
To address these transportation problems, the board of Cook County
commissioners, decided to improve two country roads toward the West and
Southwest. The first road went west, crossing the "dismal Nine-mile Swamp,"
crossed the Des Plaines River, and went southwest to Walker's Grove, now known
as Plainfield. There is a dispute about the route of the second road to the
Early Chicago was also plagued by sewer and water problems. Many people
described it as the filthiest city in America. To solve this problem Chicago
embarked on the creation of a massive sewer system. In the first phase sewage
pipes were laid across the city above ground with gravity moving the waste. Then
in 1855 the level of the city was raised four to seven feet (one to two meters),
with individual buildings jacked up and fill brought in to raise streets above
the swamp and the newly laid sewer pipes.
In 1840, Chicago was the ninety-second most populous city in the United
States. It population grew so rapidly that twenty years later, it was the ninth
most populous city in the country. Thirty years after that it had grown to
become the nation's second largest city, and one of the largest cities in the
world. By 1857 Chicago was the largest city in what was then known as the
Northwest. In a period of twenty years Chicago grew from 4,000 people to over
The 1860 Republican National Convention in Chicago nominated home-state
candidate Abraham Lincoln.
During the election of April 23, 1875, the voters of Chicago choose to
operate under the Illinois Cities and Villages Act of 1872. Chicago still
operates under this act, in lieu of a charter. The Cities and Villages Act has
been revised several times since, and may be found in Chapter 65 of the Illinois
Great Chicago Fire
In 1871, most of the city burned in the Great Chicago Fire. The damage from
the fire was immense; 300 people died, 18,000 buildings were destroyed and
nearly 100,000 of the city's 300,000 residents were left homeless. One of the
factors contributing to the fire's spread was the abundance of wood; the
streets, sidewalks and many buildings were built of wood. The fire led to the
incorporation of stringent fire-safety codes that included a strong preference
for masonry construction. Unfortunately, the soft, swampy ground near the lake
proved unstable ground for tall masonry buildings, a situation which led
directly to the use of steel frames and the invention in Chicago of the
While at the time the fire damage was devastating, history has shown that it
proved to be a benefit to the city and surrounding communities. City planners
had wanted to implement a radical redesign of the city in a Beaux Arts tradition
yet politics and infighting stalled these plans as developers and citizens began
immediate reconstruction on the existing Jeffersonian grid. The building boom
that followed saved the city's status as the transportation and trade hub of the
Midwest. Massive reconstruction using the newest materials and methods
catapulted Chicago into its status as a city on par with New York and
established the city as the birthplace of modern architecture in the United
Other tragic fires have plagued Chicago. 602 persons died in the Iroquois
Theater fire in 1903. The LaSalle Hotel fire in 1946 claimed the lives of 61
guests. In 1958 a Roman Catholic elementary school, Our Lady of the Angels,
burned 18 minutes before the end of the school day, killing 92 children and
three teaching nuns.
The deeply polarized attitudes of labor and business classes in Chicago
prompted a strike by workers lobbying for an eight-hour work day. A peaceful
demonstration on May 4, 1886, at Haymarket near the west side was interrupted by
a bomb thrown at police; seven police officers died. A group of anarchists were
tried for inciting the riot and convicted; several were hung and others were
pardoned. The episode weakened the labor movement as it acquired a reputation
Between 1870 and 1900 Chicago grew from a city of 299,000 to nearly 1.7
Million, the fastest growing city in human history. Chicago's flourishing
economy brought huge numbers of new residents from rural communities and
immigrants from Europe. The growth in Chicago's manufacturing and retail sectors
came to dominate the Midwest and greatly influence the nations' economy. The
Chicago Union Stock Yards dominated the packing trade. Chicago became the
world's largest rail hub, and one of its busiest ports.
World's Columbian Exposition
In 1893, Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition. The constant
lobbying by the city's boasting lobbyists and politicians earned Chicago the
nickname "Windy City" in the New York press, although this etymology may be
erroneous. The city adopted the nickname as its own.
The Exposition was constructed on former marshland at the present location of
Jackson Park along Lake Michigan in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. The land
was reclaimed according to a design by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted
and the pavilions, which followed a classical theme, were designed by committee
of the city's architects under the direction of Daniel Burnham.
The World's Columbian Exposition drew 27.5 million visitors, and is
considered among the most influential world's fairs in history, with a wide
ranging impact in art, architecture and design. The fair also featured the
first, and until recently, largest Ferris Wheel ever built.
Lake Michigan — the primary source of fresh water for the city — was already
highly polluted from the rapidly growing industries in and around Chicago; a new
way of procuring clean water was needed. The city embarked on a large tunnel
excavation project and began building tunnels below Lake Michigan to newly built
water cribs. The water cribs were two miles (three kilometers) off the shore of
Lake Michigan. The cribs failed to bring enough clean water because spring rains
would wash the polluted water from the Chicago River into them. Beginning in
1855, Chicago constructed the nations' first comprehensive sewer system in the
U.S. Chicago's water and sewage systems were publicly managed, a model soon
followed by other cities. In 1900 the problem of sewage was solved by reversing
the direction of the River's flow with the construction of the Chicago Sanitary
and Ship Canal leading to the Illinois River.
The 1920s brought international notoriety to Chicago as gangsters, such as Al
Capone, battled each other and the law during the Prohibition era. Nevertheless,
this decade also saw a large increase in industry in the city as well as the
first arrivals of the Great Migration that would lead thousands of mostly
Southern blacks to Chicago and other Northern cities.
On December 2, 1942, the world's first controlled nuclear reaction was
conducted at the University of Chicago as part of the top secret Manhattan
Starting in the 1950s, many upper- and middle-class citizens left the
inner-city of Chicago for the suburbs, and the city itself shrank by nearly
700,000, leaving many impoverished neighborhoods in their wake. However, since
the early 1990s, Chicago has seen a turnaround from the decline common to
American cities following World War II. Many formerly abandoned neighborhoods
are starting to show new life and the city's diversity has grown with larger
percentages of ethnic groups such as Asians and Hispanics. In the 1990s alone,
Chicago gained 113,000 new inhabitants.
Mayor Richard J. Daley was elected in 1955, in the era of so-called machine
politics. During Daley's tenure (he died in office in 1976), the 1968 Democratic
National Convention was held in Chicago, four major expressways were built, the
Sears Tower became the world's tallest building and O'Hare Airport (which later
became the world's busiest airport) was constructed.
In 1979 Jane Byrne, the city's first female mayor, was elected. In 1983,
Harold Washington became the first black mayor of Chicago. Richard M. Daley, son
of Richard J. Daley, became mayor in 1989.
One new development under the younger Daley has sparked debate, the
destruction of the city's vast public housing projects. New projects during
Daley's administration have been making world headlines and have made Chicago
larger, environmentally friendlier, and more accessible. With a new skyline to
form in 2009, the city is growing faster with a denser atmosphere and a more
breathable one as well. The park district, which is committed to the
biodiversity recovery plan, is set to restore damaged natural areas of the city
as well as creating new ones, including the creation of rooftop gardens on most