Treaty Narratives

4 A Tour through—Chicago

From Patrick Shirreff's A Tour through North America (1835)

The author of this chapter, Patrick Shirreff, was a farmer from Scotland who was traveling in the USA to examine farmlands there.

At five the waggon and the rest of the party arrived, and at seven we again set out, and reached Chicago in time for a late breakfast; the countenances of all bore evidence of the fatigues of the preceding evening, and my limbs felt them. The old soldier had drunk too freely on his arrival at and departure from the hut, and his ravings while under intoxication in praise of republicanism and General Jackson, as well as in censure of England, were amusingly absurd. His wife seemed to feel for her husband’s conduct, and the influence both of the driver and Major W. was scarcely sufficient to keep him in order.

Soon after leaving Niles, we crossed by a ford the river St Joseph’s, which seemed to me to contain rather more water than the largest sized rivers in Britain. For miles on both sides, the country is uninhabited, and seems to combine the features of forest oak openings and prairie, the trees being small, thin, and standing in groups, so as to produce the best effect, often reminding me of the finest English parks. Six or seven miles from St Joseph’s river, the prairie country commences, and continues with little intermission to the west-ward as far as the country has been explored. On the southern margin of Lake Michigan, there is a range of sand hills, from 100 to 200 feet in height, apparently formed by the drifting of sand from the beach, and the same character is maintained up the west side of the lake, although the elevations are quite inconsiderable.

The country from the river St Joseph’s, round the south side of Lake Michigan, with exception of a small spot, belonged, at the time of my visit, to the Pottowatamy tribe of Indians. This tract, extending to about 6,000,000 of acres, was sold by the Pottowatamys to the United States Government a few days after I passed over it, and is now in the market.

The agriculture of the country from Niles to Chicago is limited to a few prairies in the vicinity of La Porte, on which wheat and Indian corn are cultivated in the most primitive manner. Here, as in the western part of Canada, the farmers seemed contented to live. There were no barns seen any where; and at Clavering the wheat was thrashed in the open air, on the bare earth, and the fanners were standing covered with a little straw. The Indian corn was still growing. In one instance, I observed wheat newly sown, and a field of this crop above ground. The crop of the year was in small, ill-built, unthatched ricks, resembling in size and shape the hay cokes of Scotland. At Clavering I examined the prairie wheat crop, and found the ears small in size, the straw short and slender; the grain was particularly small, but of fine colour and appearance.

The wood is chiefly oak. The summits of sand hills on Lake Michigan are crowned with a few stunted pines, a tree which, I believe, is not to be found farther to the south of this point, or west of the grand river in Upper Canada, although abounding in some districts on the north-west shores of Lake Michigan. Nearer the beach, and at a lower level than the pines, dwarfish poplars grow, two species of bent grass, and a thistle. A few vines were also on the sand hills, and when not growing in very exposed situations, were lying on the banks as if trained on a wall; but after a diligent search, I could not discover fruit on them. The sand hills were thinly clothed with vegetation, and every plant, with exception of the grasses, seemed stunted like those exposed to the spray and storms of a British ocean. In this part of the country, I made a large addition to my collection of seeds, which were wrapped in small folds of paper, dried in my pocket, and afterwards transferred to my knapsack.

I observed no animals that appeared new to me. In some parts squirrels were particularly numerous, and exclusively of the black variety.

While walking on the sand hills on the south point of Lake Michigan, I observed a small hawk pursue a bat, similar to that of Britain. The bat dexterously avoided three swoops of the hawk, seemingly without much exertion or concern, and both were hid from vision behind a bank in the fourth attack. I had frequent opportunities of seeing birds of prey attack their game while in America, without witnessing a successful effort.

Chicago is situated on Lake Michigan, at the confluence of Chicago river, a small stream, affording the advantages of a canal to the inhabitants for a limited distance. At the mouth of the river is Fort-Dearborn, garrisoned by a few soldiers, and one of the places which has been long held to keep the Indian tribes in awe. The entrance from the lake to the river is much obstructed by sand banks, and an attempt is making to improve the navigation.

Chicago consists of about 150 wood houses, placed irregularly on both sides of the river, over which there is a bridge. This is already a place of considerable trade, supplying salt, tea, coffee, sugar, and clothing to a large tract of country to the south and west; and when connected with the navigable point of the river Illinois, by a canal or railway, cannot fail of rising to importance. Almost every person I met regarded Chicago as the germ of an immense city, and speculators have already bought up, at high prices, all the building-ground in the neighbourhood. Chicago will, in all probability, attain considerable size, but its situation is not so favourable to growth as many other places in the Union. The country south and west of Chicago has a channel of trade to the south by New Orleans; and the navigation from Buffalo by Lake Huron is of such length, that perhaps the produce of the country to the south of Chicago will find an outlet to Lake Erie by the waters of the rivers Wabash and Mamee. A canal has been in progress for three years, connecting the Wabash and Mamee, which flows into the west end of Lake Erie; and there can be little difficulty in connecting the Wabash with the Illinois, which, if effected, will materially check the rise of Chicago.

At the time of visiting Chicago, there was a treaty in progress with the Pottowatamy Indians, and it was supposed nearly 8000 Indians, of all ages, belonging to different tribes, were assembled on the occasion, a treaty being considered a kind of general merry-making, which lasts several weeks; and animal food, on the present occasion, was served out by the States government. The forests and prairies in the neighbourhood were studded with the tents of the Indians, and numerous herds of horses were browsing in all directions. Some of the tribes could be distinguished by their peculiarities. The Sauks and Foxes have their heads shaven, with exception of a small tuft of hair on the crown. Their garments seemed to vary according to their circumstances, and not to their tribes. The dress of the squaws was generally blue cloth, and sometimes printed cotton, with ornaments in the ears, and occasionally also in the nose. The men generally wore white blankets, with a piece of blue cloth round their loins; and the poorest of them had no other covering, their arms, legs, and feet being exposed in nakedness. A few of them had cotton trowsers, and jackets of rich patterns, loosely flowing, secured with a sash; boots, and handkerchiefs or bands of cotton, with feathers in the head-dress, their appearance reminding me of the costume of some Asiatic nations. The men are generally without beards, but in one or two instances I saw tufts of hair on the chin, which seemed to be kept with care, and this was conspicuously so amongst the well-dressed portion. The countenances of both sexes were frequently bedaubed with paint of different kinds, including red, blue, and white.

In the forenoon of my arrival, a council had been held, without transacting business, and a race took place in the afternoon. The spectators were Indians, with exception of a few travellers, and their small number showed the affair excited little interest. The riders had a piece of blue cloth round their loins, and in other respects were perfectly naked, having the whole of their bodies painted of different hues. ‘The race-horses had not undergone a course of training. They were of ordinary breed, and, according to British taste at least, small, coarse, and ill-formed.

Intoxication prevailed to a great extent amongst both sexes. When under the influence of liquor, they did not seem unusually loquacious, and their chief delight consisted in venting low shouts, resembling something between the mewing of a cat and the barking of a dog. I observed a powerful Indian, stupified with spirits, attempting to gain admittance to a shop, vociferating in a noisy manner; as soon as he reached the highest step, a white man gave him a push, and he fell with violence on his back in a pool of mud. He repeated his attempt five or six times in my sight, and was uniformly thrown back in the same manner. Male and female Indians were looking on and enjoying the sufferings of their countryman. The inhuman wretch who thus tortured the poor Indian, was the vender of the poison which had deprived him of his senses.

Besides the assemblage of Indians, there seemed to be a general fair at Chicago. Large waggons drawn by six or eight oxen, and heavily laden with merchandise, were arriving from, and departing to, distant parts of the country. There was also a kind of horse-market, and I had much conversation with a dealer from the State of New York, having serious intentions of purchasing a horse to carry me to the banks of the Mississippi, if one could have been got suitable for the journey. The dealers attempted to palm colts on me for aged horses, and seemed versed in all the trickery which is practised by their profession in Britain.

A person showed me a model of a thrashing-machine and a churn, for which he was taking orders, and said he furnished the former at $30, or L.6, 10s. sterling. There were a number of French descendants, who are engaged in the fur-trade, met in Chicago, for the purpose of settling accounts with the Indians. They were dressed in broadcloths and boots, and boarded in the hotels. They are a swarthy scowling race, evidently tinged with Indian blood, speaking the French and English languages fluently, and much addicted to swearing and whisky.

The hotel at which our party was set down, was so disagreeably crowded, that the landlord could not positively promise beds, although he would do every thing in his power to accommodate us. The house was dirty in the extreme, and confusion reigned throughout, which the extraordinary circumstances of the village went far to extenuate. I contrived, however, to get on pretty well, having by this time learned to serve myself in many things, carrying water for washing, drying my shirt, wetted by the rain of the preceding evening, and brushing my shoes. The table was amply stored with substantial provisions, to which justice was done by the guests, although indifferently cooked, and still more so served up.

When bed-time arrived, the landlord showed me to an apartment about ten feet square, in which there were two small beds already occupied, assigning me in a corner a dirty pallet, which had evidently been recently used, and was lying in a state of confusion. Undressing for the night had become a simple proceeding, and consisted in throwing off shoes, neck-cloth, coat, and vest, the two latter being invariably used to aid the pillow, and I had long dispensed with a nightcap. I was awoke from a sound sleep towards morning, by an angry voice uttering horrid imprecations, accompanied by a demand for the bed I occupied. A lighted candle, which the individual held in his hand, showed him to be a French trader, accompanied by a friend, and as I looked on them for some time in silence, their audacity and brutality of speech increased. At length I lifted my head from the pillow, leant on my elbow, and with a steady gaze, and the calmest tone of voice, said, – “Who are you that address me in such language?” The countenance of the angry individual fell, and he subduedly asked to share my bed. Wishing to put him to a farther trial, I again replied, – ” If you will ask the favour in a proper manner, I shall give you an answer.” He was now either ashamed of himself, or felt his pride hurt, and both left the room without uttering a word. Next morning, the individuals who slept in the apartment with me, discovered that the intruders had acted most improperly towards them, and the most noisy of the two entered familiarly into conversation with me during breakfast, without alluding to the occurrence of the preceding evening.

On arriving at Chicago, I learned there was a mail-waggon which passed down the Illinois river once a-week, and had set off a few hours before, and was the only conveyance in that direction. I could not think of remaining a week waiting for the waggon, and not finding a suitable horse to purchase, I determined on walking. The passengers who had travelled together from Niles, lodged at the same hotel, with exception of the Major, who perhaps found shelter in the fort. The old soldier seemed to have commenced a regular fuddling fit; and his wife, who was a prudent sensible person, was in great distress, being thirty miles from the residence of her son, and her husband quite uncontrollable. Finding the destination of the old lady lay no great way out of my route, I hired a waggon to take the old people and myself there next morning, the soldier having been easily coaxed into the arrangement, and for which his wife expressed thankfulness. On the waggon reaching the door of the hotel, its owner, who was of French descent, insisted that he had only bargained to convey two, and that unless he received $2 from me, I must remain behind. After a noisy altercation on both sides, he offered to accept of $1 extra, but feeling indignant at his attempt at imposition, I shouldered my knapsack, and trudged off on foot. I have often looked back with regret on this proceeding, as it was improper to leave the old lady without seeing her fairly on her journey, and silly to have exchanged high words with an individual who would altogether disregard them. This was the only instance which occurred to me in the States, of experiencing an attempt at imposition, or which was calculated to ruffle my temper.

Patrick Shirreff. A Tour through North America; together with a Comprehensive View of the Canadas and United States, as adapted for agricultural emigration (Oliver & Boyd, 1835): pp. 224-230. Original Source: University of Michigan.