Your RDA of Irony

My Kind of Town

On this day in 1833,  200 zany optimists started a settlement on land mocked by the Indians,  shunned by the French and jinxed by the U.S. government.  If you looked on the map, you’d see the geographic hub of the Midwest, where the Great Lakes and the great rivers converge.  But if you had actually looked at the land, you would have seen a swamp.   The  Potawatomi tribe certainly did not entice realtors by naming the miasma “Wild Onions”: Checagou. 

Even if the Indians were too fastidious for Checagou, you wouldn’t think that the French would be.  New Orleans was built on a sandbar.   Vicennes, Indiana was founded for its strategic control of the Wabash River.  But a Fleur-de-Lys where the Rive Des Plaines meets Lac de Michigan?  The French had their chance. In 1673, their explorers landed on those shores, and ignored them. 

Between us, I blame Pere Jacques Marquette.  The man was Jesuit, and the local Indians probably just did not meet his standards.  A Franciscan would have been eager for converts:  “Jesus and I love you, but the armed contingent with me probably doesn’t.  So a little baptism might be prudent.”  And a Dominican would have insisted on a settlement, if only for the fun of using the Indians as slave labor.  But a Jesuit would have presented the Potawatomi a 15-page questionnaire, with the essays to be answered in Latin, and concluding  “I’ll let you know if we are interested.”  (Of course, most tribes could not pass; but if the Priest infected them with small pox, they received a complimentary conversion.) 

So someplace else was named for St. Louis.  As of 1763, the Potawatomi swamp became part of the British Empire, and it remained just as desolate.   The British could not colonize Illinois when they were preoccupied trying to civilize Massachusetts.  So the strategic miasma would not be named for a British cabinet member or one of his racehorses.  Finally in 1803, someone finally realized the value of this real estate. So, on behalf of Thomas Jefferson, let me introduce you to Fort Dearborn, Illinois.  The renown of Henry Dearborn, the Secretary of War, has not lasted; neither did the fort.   The Potawatomi did not appreciate it, and the result is known as the Fort Dearborn massacre.  In the War of 1812, it was one of the few battles that actually occurred that year.

Yet, the settlers kept coming, undeterred by the swamp but with a healthy superstition about the name Dearborn. Having taken the land from the Potawatomi, they took the local name, too.  Within four years of the town’s founding, the community had grown to 4,000.  Checagou now qualified as a city, however tenuously built over a swamp.  In its corporate charter, the city assumed a more dignified spelling:  Chicago.  

How many major cities are named for a vegetable?

  1. Michele says:

    So the serial killer in Erik Larson’s “Devil in the White City” was not the first demonic presence in the Chicago swampland. Figures.

  2. Michael says:

    Promoters of the new settlement of Chicago tried to interest the bankers of Illinois’s then most prosperous municipality, Shawneetown, in financing the development of the new community, but the bankers declined, noting that the new community was far too distant from Shawneetown to have much prospect of success.

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