Conceptually, the words “Chicago, Wisconsin” today will astound almost anyone who reads them. The idea that the metropolis of Illinois (and the third largest city in the country) could somehow be part of the Dairy State seems ridiculous. Chicago is too tied to the long and filthy annals of Illinois politics, although sometimes it feels a million miles away from everything that is going on in the Downstate, but Chicago is clearly shrouded in Illinois history and vice versa.
If one examines the longer history of the colonization of the North American continent by white settlers, one can see that Chicago was originally intended to be incorporated into the Wisconsin Territory under the rules of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. That fate was averted in large part due to the Chicago Portage, a swampy, unpredictable passage that connected the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico and became the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848. When white settlers first came to the region and saw the potential of Portage to unite the continent, it spurred the actions of the likes of Daniel Pope Cook, Cook County’s namesake, to integrate Illinois as a state and move the border line north to include the Portage site for such commercial purposes.
This story and many other fascinating examples of the long history of portage in the history of the continent are documented in Benjamin Sells’ new book A History of the Chicago Portage: The Crossroads That Made Chicago and America Joined. Sells, who served two terms as village president of Riverside until the beginning of this year, documents the longer geological development of the Portage site, the importance of the region for generations of Potawatomi, Chippewa, Ojibwe and other tribal groups and the paths in which pictures of the ability of the Portage, connecting the continent, spurred the development that made Chicago a major city. While the physical history of the Portage has been largely erased by land development and the creation of the canals, tracing the history back restores its meaning in the history of the area. the reader caught up with Sells by phone in early September.
Annie Howard: You realize that Chicago probably wouldn’t have existed as a big city without the Portage, but it was quickly destroyed by the development the city took in the 19th century.NS Century. Why is that?
Benjamin sells: I think it’s undeniable that Chicago probably wouldn’t be here without the Chicago Portage. The Chicago River really doesn’t matter because it didn’t go anywhere, but it was that junction – the portage made it important. It was precisely for this reason that Daniel Pope Cook and Nathaniel Pope worked to move the border north from Illinois, because according to the Northwest Ordinance, it should have been at the bottom of Lake Michigan. It was only the nephew and uncle who made this possible, and because of the importance of the portage, it was relocated.
Much of the exact location of the portage had already disappeared by the 1920s. By this point, the west fork of the southern branch was already filled in, and when the Chicago Historical Society was founded, the first thing they tried to find out where exactly the portage was because it had been cleared by the Incredibles population explosion and development in the city. The magnitude of the city’s population growth resulted in land development that wiped out the Portage, which was created over a much longer geological time frame.
What made portage so important to the Native Americans and the early French explorers who came to the area?
Most of the places of historical importance are places where people hang out, like a fortress. But the portage mattered because it was a place that people passed through. There is very little archaeological evidence of the area’s early explorers until the Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Still, it was important because it was the link between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and especially during the period of the fur trade, it was the place that connected the border with the markets of the east coast. It was this trade route that first brought European settlers to the area.
Interestingly, common sense tells us that indigenous peoples used the portage hundreds of years before the Europeans came. But there is only indirect evidence of this in the archaeological records. Remember, you ran or paddled somewhere before the horse was introduced. This waterway system was extremely important for trade for the indigenous peoples, and that’s why they showed it to Joliet and Marquette when they first came to the area.
Although much of the Portage land is now unknown, we retain some of that space through the National Park Service’s Chicago Portage National Historic Site. Why is it so important to keep this land accessible?
Today, the Chicago Portage National Historic Site is one of the few places where you can still walk on the ground where the early explorers and indigenous peoples walked. One of the strong psychological benefits of portage is that you are standing where you were – to my knowledge, this is the only place in Chicago that does. Losing that connection with both the history of the indigenous peoples who lived here and with Chicago as a natural place, the historic site still offers.
So many of the roads we drive on were once sidewalks, and many of them converged on portage. It shows the importance of the interaction between the old infrastructure, both the footpaths and the portage, but it also does a lot for the soul so that someone has a better understanding of the people who were here before us and how they lived. We are on borrowed land and much holy land.
I live in Riverside, where Old Calumet Beach was. We laid a sewer system in the part of the city where I live, and lo and behold, you only walk a few centimeters into the sand where the old beach was found and you find human remains: there were Indian graves all over the place. Knowing this changes the way you view your place when you start learning who has been here before.
A History of the Chicago Portage is available from Northwestern University Press.