2018-09-08 / Columnists

A Look at History

Hubbard, Beaubien, LaFramboise Help to Found Chicago

Founding Chicago

In early September of the year 1818, exactly 200 years ago, a brigade of canoes pushed off from Mackinac Island’s busy harbor. The sounds of small boats and their cargoes crunching over the Island’s limestone gravel faded into the distance as the paddlers bent their oars toward Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and, then, the northern end of Lake Michigan.

About three weeks later, one of the canoes made landfall on a sandy shore laced with hardwoods. A 16- year-old boy scrambled out of the confining vessel and asked for permission to hike the final miles to their destination. Much later, he remembered:

“Arriving at Douglas Grove, where the prairie could be seen through the oak woods, I landed; and, climbing a tree, gazed in admiration on the first prairie I had ever seen. The waving grass, intermingling with a rich profusion of wild flowers, was the most beautiful sight I had ever gazed upon . . . . Looking north, I saw the whitewashed buildings of Fort Dearborn sparkling in the sunshine . . . . I took the trail leading to the fort and on my arrival found our party camped on the north side of the river, near what is now State Street. A soldier ferried me across the river in a canoe, and thus I made my first entry in Chicago, October 1st, 1818.”

Downtown Chicago today Downtown Chicago today The teenage Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard was one of the few Euro- Americans who had permission, in 1818, to enter the land of the Potawatomi. This tribal grouping, a member of the Three Fires Confederacy, at that time controlled much of the southern basin of Lake Michigan. Their leading families and clan members had close ties of language and spirituality with the Odawa and the Ojibwe of the Straits of Mackinac. The furs that Potawatomi trappers gathered, unless they needed the peltry for their own use, were sold to the whites through the trading network centered on Market Street at Mackinac Island.

LaFramboise historical plaque LaFramboise historical plaque The mouth of the Chicago River was one of the key points where furs were gathered and transferred. In the years following the War of 1812, Fort Dearborn at the river’s mouth was not what we usually think of as a fort - a strongpoint to defend an inflow of pioneer farmers and homesteaders. The U.S. government had built an earlier Fort Dearborn before the war to try to fulfill this role, but the Potawatomi had not liked the first stockade and, on August 16, 1812, their warriors had burned it to the ground. The two-year frontier War of 1812 that had followed this outbreak had left the federal government in Washington almost financially insolvent, with a desperate need for export cash income. The new nation ended the war with an abrupt change of course. Instead of encouraging white settlement in the upper Great Lakes, they would sign treaties with the Indian nations. The treaties drew lines around key patches of North American land as places where Natives would hunt for, collect, and gather furs and peltry without interference from the white man. A small number of federally licensed fur traders were allowed into “Indian country” to carry out the trade.

The second Fort Dearborn was not a friend to white strangers, it was a security checkpoint to enforce the federal license law. By no coincidence, most or all of the fur-trading licenses were issued to traders who were employees, or affiliated with, John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. As an employee of the Company, young Hubbard and his party were welcomed to the Chicago River.

American Fur Company figures like Hubbard were key figures in the founding of Chicago as a river port and frontier commercial city. From the late 1810s into the early 1830s, they were the people who were authorized to come to northern Illinois and buy and sell things. Many of these people had previously lived or worked on Mackinac Island as employees or helpers at the Fur Company’s operational headquarters on Market Street.

In fact, when Hubbard walked into his campsite in October 1818, he was not even the first person from these parts to spend the night in Chicago. The young Josette LaFramboise, who was connected with one of the leading families of Mackinac Island, had been trading furs here for a year with her husband, Jean Baptiste Beaubien. In 1817 Beaubien and LaFramboise built a large log cabin, later called a “mansion,” on what was then the lakefront and is now the corner of Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue. The Beaubien-LaFramboise trading venture was a success, and in the fall of 1818, as young Hubbard was setting up camp, the Company named Beaubien their lead Chicago agent. Hubbard was much younger than, and subordinate to, senior traders like Beaubien. He was sent southwest to a different trading post on the Illinois River and was told to buy or trade for as many furs as he could and bring them to Chicago next spring.

As time passed in the 1820s, furbearing peltry animals began to disappear from the wetlands near Chicago. The lands far to the south and southwest staked out by the “swift walker,” Hubbard, became the last major production territories of peltry from the Illinois country.

With the election of Andrew Jackson as President in 1828, the government’s pro-fur trading policies began to disappear and melt away. Throughout the lands around the Upper Great Lakes, federal agents began to pressure the Native Americans to sell and cede their lands. This pressure led to the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, and the fur-trading post at the mouth of the river became a frontier village with Hubbard as one of its leading citizens. In 1834 the former fur trader, now a real estate developer, raised a Chicago warehouse for the storage and shipping of local exports such as barreled salt pork. He and his fellow merchants put together a warehouse market to stabilize shipping and prices. Hubbard’s storage and shipping facility was built on what is now Wacker Drive and La Salle Street in downtown Chicago, and the CME Exchange, a distant descendant of Hubbard’s warehouse market, does electronic business on La Salle Street to this day. In his final years, Hubbard returned to Mackinac. In the 1880s, he was the owner and developer of the Island neighborhood, “Hubbard’s Annex.”

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2018-09-08 digital edition