Early Chicago, 1833–1871
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives


The use of local history to enhance the study of American history in the classroom has received considerable attention for the past several years. Students and teachers alike have often considered the subject of American history to be dry and of little relevance to their place in time. This has been true despite the fact that one of the chief purposes of the discipline of history is to provide one with a sense of continuity and perspective. The fifty document facsimiles provided in this teaching package are intended to provide intimate glimpses of life in Chicago over the period 1833-1871. Each forms a picture of a particular circumstance at a particular time. And each picture presents provoking questions. All of the circumstances described by these documents occurred in Chicago and should be of interest to those who now live there as well as those whose lives are largely affected by what happens there.


The primary objective of this teaching package is to introduce students to local history in a meaningful manner and thereby increase interest in history in general. Taken together, the fifty document reproductions offer a kaleidoscopic picture of Chicago history for the years 1833-1871. Individual documents describe very real historical occurrences, but each leaves unanswered questions which can be pursued by studying related documents in the packet, Chicago history in particular, and American history in general.

Subordinate objectives include teaching students how to read historical documents and exposing them to historical reasoning. Besides understanding the texts of documents, students should learn how to identify significant information. Such information will enable them to make specific statements about particular circumstances at particular times. By themselves particular events will have little significance. By studying additional sources broader images can be produced and generalized statements can be made based on previously isolated events. This process is designed to give meaning to historical interpretation and to broaden textbook narratives of consensus history.

Local history offers an excellent opportunity to make the study of history in general more real and meaningful. A focus on a specific locality with which students associate will heighten their interest. It also offers them a sense of how the community has evolved over time and thus gives historical perspective. But students of local history soon realize that the history of a locality cannot be treated as a separate entity because regional, national, and world events were of constant influence. It is hoped that this package will not only supplement the study of American history but also invigorate it. As well as providing information, primary source documents afford the opportunity to experience history on an emotive level because those documents were produced by the actual participants in history and describe events as those participants perceived them.

Use of Documents

The fifty documents in this packet were selected from 35,778 files of the Chicago City Council from 1833 through 1871. The bulk of these files includes petitions, resolutions, ordinances, committee reports, claims, plans and specifications, remonstrances, election returns, oaths, and bonds, concerning the public business of the city: fire and police protection, sanitation, public utilities, streets and sidewalks, wharfing privileges, public works, licensing, taxation and finance, schools, and elected and appointed officials. In selecting documents from this collection, care was taken to choose those which reflected the overall economic, political, and social conditions of the period. Documents 7, 8, 16, 20, 29, 38, and 50, reflect economic trends. The political climate is shown through documents 6, 13, 18, 19, 33, 36, 40, 43, 45, 46, and 47. Documents 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 37, 39, 41, 42, 44, 48, and 49, all relate to the social condition of the city. Several of these documents obviously relate to more than one of these somewhat artificial categories.

Each document has an immediate relationship to one or more other documents. For example, Document 5 (Communication Concerning Vocal Music in the Schools) relates to Document 11 (Petition Concerning School Teachers' Salaries), Document 31 (Communication Concerning Issuance of Bonds), and Document 42 (Order of the Committee on Schools Providing for Segregation). The instructor's manual provides suggested combinations of documents through which a student or students can produce syntheses. However, each document also stands alone as a statement of a particular circumstance in time. Research with additional sources, such as those found in the Suggestions for Further Reading portion of this manual, often will help clarify a document and place it in perspective. In fact, most of the documents were intentionally selected because they create questions which cannot be answered from their internal content alone.

Any Illinois educational institution can obtain a complimentary hard copy of Early Chicago, 1833-1871 teaching package by requesting the same on letterhead stationery. Please send requests: Illinois State Archives, Publications Unit, Margaret Cross Norton Building, Capitol Complex, Springfield, IL 62756.

Historical Background

Over the period 1833-1871 Chicago experienced rapid economic expansion and this growth with its accompanying prosperity was the central concern of the general population. Politically, the national issues of slavery and States' rights dominated, with the majority opposing the institution of slavery and its expansion. The social development of the city was many-faceted. Foreign-born immigrants came to equal the native-born population; abject poverty contrasted with spectacular affluence; and social order was unevenly imposed as a boom town evolved into a metropolis.

When Chicago was incorporated as a town by the state legislature in 1833, its population was approximately 300. By 1871, when only a quarter of the nation's population lived in urban areas and a little under nine percent lived in centers with populations over 250,000, Chicago had grown to 334,270. It then ranked behind only New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Its phenomenal growth was due to its geographical location, developments in technology, and the westward expansion of the nation in general.

The site of Chicago had long been recognized as a strategic one because it sat at the junction of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan and contained the best port on the southwestern end of the lake. Also, without undue effort, the Chicago River could be made to connect with the Illinois River and thus the Mississippi River. The potential for Chicago to be the center of an expansive water system connecting the East and the West caused the federal government to establish Fort Dearborn at the Chicago site in 1803 in order to protect it from foreign interests. When Illinois was admitted to the Union as a state in 1818, its northern border was extended forty-one miles to ensure that Chicago and the contemplated canal would be included in the boundaries of the new state. In 1827, alternate sections of land for five miles on each side of the canal route to be selected were given to the state by the federal government to help finance construction and land sales began in 1830. The menace of hostile Indians was ended by the defeat of Black Hawk in 1832 and in that year the village's population swelled to 200 persons. The following year, when the village voted to incorporate as a town, 150 to 200 new buildings were constructed, the population grew by seventy-five percent, and the federal government appropriated $25,000 for dredging the harbor. Actual construction of the much anticipated canal began in 1836.

In 1837, when Chicago was incorporated as a city, its population was over 4,000 and there were twenty-nine dry-goods stores, five hardware stores, forty-five grocery and provision establishments, ten taverns, and nineteen lawyers' offices. Chicago was the county seat and home to a federal land office and a branch of the State Bank. It was also a trading center for those residing as far as 200 miles into the hinterland. The Panic of 1837 and the subsequent national depression slowed the Chicago economy but did not stop it due to the large sums of state funds being laid out for the canal's construction. Chicago did hit bottom in 1842 after the State Bank failed and canal construction was suspended. By the late 1840s, recovery was made possible by the processing and shipping of a substantial surplus from the countryside. Before that time rural northern Illinois was only self-sufficient, but by the late forties an abundance was available to feed the city and to be shipped east by way of the lakes as well. Also, due to economic hardships during the forties and fifties, many of those who had settled in the Ohio Valley and on lands surrounding Lakes Erie and Michigan sold their cultivated lands and moved west to buy and settle attractively priced government lands. In this period as well an influx of immigrants came mostly from Ireland and Germany to escape economic distress and political oppression. Between 1844 and 1854 alone, over 3,000,000 left their old countries for the United States. Many settled in the East but many also ventured to the West to purchase and settle inexpensive government-owned lands. Virtually all who settled west of Chicago passed through the city as they arrived by ship and later by rail. Iowa was sufficiently settled to become a state in 1846 and Wisconsin in 1848. In 1837, John Deere began production of a plow to cut the prairie sod and by 1859, 13,000 a year were being sold. Cyrus McCormick moved his reaper manufacturing plant to Chicago in 1847 to take advantage of the market and the Board of Trade was formed in 1848. Flour mills, grain elevators, warehouses, and packing houses were established to process the surplus prior to its inexpensive shipment to the East by way of the Great Lakes.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed in 1848 and immediately the Illinois River Valley was open to trade through Chicago. In January of 1848 Chicago had no railroad but by 1852 it had a connection to New York City, and by 1854 it was the railroad center of the West. By 1856, when the Chicago Branch of the Illinois Central Railroad was completed, the city was the focus of ten trunk lines with 2,933 miles of track leading from it to all parts of the country. Fifty-eight passenger and thirty-eight freight trains were arriving and departing daily. Like most great cities, Chicago was located next to a large navigable water body which afforded inexpensive transport for bulk goods. Overland transport lines naturally gravitated to such a location.

The farmer of the 1850s was no longer the simple independent agrarian that Thomas Jefferson had admired. Besides the forces of nature, he had to concern himself with weighers, graders, storage elevator and warehouse operators, rail and water carriers, local haulers, insurers, moneylenders, and suppliers.

Illinois had a total population of 1,711,951 in 1860 and Chicago was its largest city with 109,260, followed by Peoria with 14,045, Quincy with 13,718, Springfield with 9,320, and Galena with 8,196. Overall Illinois had twenty-three urban areas which when combined contained 14.3 percent of the state's population. It was still very much a rural-dominated state. Nationally at this time New York City was a teeming metropolis with 1,174,799, next was Philadelphia with 565,529, Baltimore with 212,418, Boston with 177,840, New Orleans with 168,675, Cincinnati with 161,044, and St. Louis with 160,780. Pittsburgh had 77,923, San Francisco 56,802, Detroit 45,619, Cleveland 43,417, and Los Angeles 4,384.

During the late 1850s trade between Chicago and the South over the lines of the Illinois Central Railroad from Cairo was beginning to take off. In the United States Congress, Stephen Douglas was advocating a direct rail connection between the Gulf coast and Chicago. This would place Chicago at the center of a trunk line between the tributaries of the Mississippi River and the shipping lanes of the Great Lakes with the ultimate destination being the Atlantic seaboard. If truly effected, this would have diverted the trade of the Mississippi Valley from a southerly course to New Orleans by way of the Mississippi River to a northerly route by way of a railroad to Chicago. By early 1861 a substantial amount of cotton was being shipped to Chicago by rail from Cairo and many anticipated a very profitable partnership with the South. Although southern trade held great hope in the late fifties, it was clearly subordinate to the established corn and wheat market of the Midwest. When the Civil War erupted in April of 1861, trade with the South was viewed as treason and although contraband exchanges occurred throughout the war, they were never significant.

Besides closing the southern market, the immediate effect of the Civil War was the cheapening of the money supply because state bank notes in circulation were largely secured by deposits of bonds issued by southern states. However, the demand for war supplies and an increased demand for agricultural products in the East and abroad brought recovery. Immediately after the war, the prices of agricultural commodities sank by over fifty percent and the demand for war materials halted. But these conditions were only a temporary setback. Chicago had become industrialized and was manufacturing materials for building railroads, farming, and building and furnishing homes and businesses. The Burlington and Rock Island railroads made Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska dependent on the Chicago market and the Chicago and Alton Railroad took the trade of southern Illinois and eastern Missouri away from St. Louis. With the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the city had contact with the West Coast and thus the Orient. In 1865, six railroads centralized their stockyards by establishing the Union Stock Yards and Transit Company on the southern edge of the city at 39th and Halstead streets and meatpackers soon established in the area as well. Illinois bituminous coal which fed the growing steel mills passed to and through the city. Chicago wholesalers became aggressive and sent agents throughout the Midwest to market goods. The Great Fire of 1871 was a devastating but only temporary setback to the city's growth because Chicago's strategic position ensured that it would be rebuilt and expanded. New York City in particular, which had formed a strong bond with its partner in the West, would provide the needed capital.

From 1833 through 1871 national politics were dominated by the issues of slavery and States' rights. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise had been reached and under its terms Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Furthermore, slavery was excluded from all other territory of the Louisiana Purchase which was above the northern border of the Arkansas Territory. Abolitionist sentiments were growing in the thirties and William Lloyd Garrison began publication of the Liberator in 1831. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo concluded the Mexican War in 1848, and brought the United States enormous new lands in the far West. The Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state, fixed the western boundary of Texas at the 103rd meridian, created the territories of New Mexico and Utah and allowed their citizens to decide the slave questions at the time they became states, prohibited slave trading in the District of Columbia, and provided strict fugitive slave laws. By this time the South had become an extremely conscious minority which closely guarded its "peculiar institution." In 1854, after much debate the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed. It provided for popular sovereignty for both territories which were above the demarcation established in 1820 and therefore effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise. "Bleeding Kansas" followed. In the Dred Scott v. Sanford decision of 1857, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no right to deprive citizens of their property, including slaves, anywhere in the country. John Brown staged his raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. Abraham Lincoln was elected President as a Republican on November 6, 1860, and South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20. Tennessee, the eleventh and final Confederate state, seceded on June 1, 1861. The Civil War raged from the spring of 1861 until the spring of 1865, with a total of 360,000 Union and 135,000 Confederate dead. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and harsh reconstruction followed.

In the presidential election of 1860, Chicago citizens cast 10,697 votes for Abraham Lincoln; Stephen Douglas (Democrat) received 8,094; John Bell (Constitutional Union) had 107; and John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat) received 87. In the mayoral and gubernatorial races, Republican candidates defeated Democratic opponents by almost the same margin that Lincoln defeated Douglas. By 1860, the issue of slavery and its extension had become paramount in the city and Lincoln was seen as opposed to its expansion while Douglas was known to compromise. Although southern trade was becoming increasingly important at this time, longer-standing ties with the East and the Midwest were more important. And while most citizens did not believe in the equality of the races, most were opposed to the institution of slavery. Thus Chicago went Republican in 1860. Douglas had recognized the shift and did not put forth much effort in his home city during the election. His most loyal following in the city remained the Democratic Irish.

While national politics concerned Chicago citizens, especially as they affected economic conditions, of more immediate concern was the everyday life of the city. In its early history, Chicago was a boom town. Its population was growing rapidly and its economy was expanding at an equal pace. What had been little more than a trading post expanded into a town and quickly into a major city. While many several-story brick buildings were erected in the business center of the South Division, most structures were made of wood which had to be shipped in from Wisconsin and Michigan because Chicago's surrounding prairie was mostly grassland. Naturally, a city which was mainly built of wood was conscious of the danger of fire. Like all boom towns Chicago was boisterous and had a mix of people which included an element predisposed to vice and crime. Until 1850, when limited omnibus service was introduced, there was no public transit. Horses and carriages were expensive and were mostly used commercially. Therefore, most walked to work, to the grocery, and to the tavern. There were no residential suburbs as such and the rich and poor lived relatively close together. Consequently, the contacts were frequent and contrasts in living standards were apparent. As the population density increased so did the level of filth and resulting disease which was treated by crude medical practice hampered by an ignorance of germ theory. Unlike today, mortality percentages were high at all age levels and this left a large population of displaced widows, widowers, and orphans.

Urbanization required the imposition of social order. Government was gradually required to provide fire and police protection, sanitation for public health, common streets and bridges for commerce, schools for education, and a structure to collect revenue to pay for these services. Throughout the United States in the nineteenth century, poverty was viewed as a self-inflicted wound which was to be treated grudgingly and with minimal expense. In Chicago as well, charity for those who could not provide for themselves was not viewed as a primary government responsibility. Private impulse was the favored course.

The city was made up of a large native American population and also of an equally important foreign-born population which spoke different languages and held to foreign customs. Native-born Americans were often suspicious of immigrants and often condescending towards them. However, they were dependent upon immigrants to build the canals and railroads, slaughter animals and tan hides, and patronize their retail establishments.

Of those who came to Chicago, some achieved great wealth and property; others carved out comfortable circumstances; and still others lived on the fringe of society from one day to the next. Individuals and families were no longer self-sufficient. In most cases, they provided their labor to an employer and received a wage in return. This was used to purchase food, clothing, shelter, and whatever else could be afforded. Some grew vegetable gardens and kept milk cows and other livestock but by and large individuals were dependent on other individuals for the necessities and niceties of life in an increasingly complex society.

Suggestions for Further Reading

The most comprehensive bibliography available is Frank Jewell's Annotated Bibliography of Chicago History. It is divided into twenty-six subject categories and includes an author index and an index of important persons, organizations, and places, mentioned in the entries and their annotations. Bessie Louise Pierce's first two volumes of A History of Chicago offer a scholarly narrative of the city's development for the period considered. Alfred T. Andreas's first two volumes of History of Chicago, published in 1884 and 1885, cover the pre-fire period in detail. Although not documented, this account is generally reliable and reprints many primary source materials. One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago by Homer Hoyt gives an extremely detailed and insightful account of economic developments. Irving Cutler's Chicago, Metropolis of the Mid-Continent is a most suitable introduction for high school students. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade offers both text and an abundance of illustrations which describe urban growth.