History of Chicago: The Journey from Shikaakwa to Chicago

The city of Chicago, sometimes also known as ‘Windy City,’ was founded in the 17th century. Despite going through a lot of phases, both good and bad, the rise of Chicago is considered to be extremely astounding by observers, who believed that the sudden rise of the city must have been predestined by nature or God, a popular belief among people in the 19th-century known as ‘Manifest Destiny.’ Even at present, Chicago continues to grow as a center for international trade and commerce and a place where many people from diverse backgrounds come to pursue their American dreams.

Let us have a look at Chicago over the years:

Etymology of Chicago

According to popular beliefs, the name ‘Chicago’ was derived from the Miami-Illinois word  “shikaakwa” or the “smelly onion” because smelly onions grew around the watershed. Later, the French explorers turned it into “Shecaugo” for their reference, and at present, it stands at “Chicago.”

The Early Years from 1770 - 1854


Centuries before the establishment of Chicago as a city, the Miami, Sauk, Fox, and Potawatomi tribes inhabited the area. Years later, it was discovered by numerous indigenous as well as non-indigenous people,  many of whom called this their permanent home. The first long-term non-indigenous resident of Chicago was a black man from Haiti, named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a French sailor, and mother, an African slave. He came to Chicago in the 1770s with his Native American wife, and they built their home at the mouth of River Chicago. 

In 1803 the U.S. Army built Fort Dearborn on the south bank of the Chicago River, which was later destroyed in 1812 following the Battle of Fort Dearborn. It was rebuilt in 1816 but was finally demolished permanently in 1857.

From a Small town to World’s Largest Grain Port


Chicago was incorporated as a town in 1833 and later as a city in 1837. The population began rising, and soon after, in 1848, Chicago got its first telegraph and railroad.  Following this, the innovation of grain elevators and the board of trade's wheat grading standards transformed the way crops were sold. By 1854 Chicago became the world’s largest grain port and had more than 30,000 residents, many of whom were European immigrants. Chicago’s ideal location was in its advantage, as it created immense opportunities for trading, owing to its westward expansion.

The Great Fire of 1871

The Great Fire, 1871

As the city of Chicago started growing, its residents tried to keep pace with the growth. Most of the buildings, streets, and sidewalks were made out of wood, and unfortunately, most of them burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; the reason behind the cause is still a mystery. More than a third of the city’s population was destroyed, and the rest were left homeless. 

The Origin of World’s Columbian Exposition


Following this, everything was restored with lightning speed. Most of the debris was dumped into Lake Michigan as a landfill, which formed the base, for now, Grant Park, Millennium Park, and the Art Institute of Chicago. After 22 years, Chicago celebrated its comeback by hosting the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, with its memorable “White City.” 

Chicago city quickly grew as a national retail center by the late 1800s and produced many business tycoons like Philip Armour, Potter Palmer, and Marshall Field. Chicago became home to the world’s first skyscraper in 1885, which was a 10-story building. In later years, buildings kept getting added to the Chicago skyline. In the next fifty years, following the Great Fire, immigrants came to Chicago from all over the world to work in the factories and meatpacking plants. Many poor workers and their families found help in settlement houses operated by Jane Addams and her followers. Her Hull-House Museum is located at 800 S. Halsted St.

Nationwide Upheavals and Migration

In 1886, a large scale upheaval was also popularly referred to as the Haymarket affair, when the police fired on workers who were protesting against labor laws. This led to an era of large scale protests and reforms for the numerous workers who kept Chicago’s meatpacking, manufacturing, and shipping industries running. In 1894, the Pullman Palace Car Company factory's declining wages also triggered a national rail union boycott. Nationwide social upheavals surrounding World War I led to many African-American migrants migrating to Chicago from the South. This opened up new opportunities for people, and a vibrant cultural community emerged that soon after, giving birth to Chicago’s versions of blues and jazz. 

 However, tensions arose between the migrants and Chicago’s already established communities like the Irish, Polish, German, and other ethnic groups. This led to a string of bombings of African-American homes between 1917 and 1921 and an eight-day race riot in 1919. But by the 1930s, Chicago’s population reached 3 million, becoming the fastest-growing city in world history at that time. Chicago's flourishing economy attracted huge numbers of new immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, especially Jews, Poles, and Italians, along with many smaller groups.

Post War Years 1950 - the 2000s

Industries in Chicago started witnessing changes in their operations with the restructuring of the stockyards and steel industries. So, between 1950 and 1960, Chicago’s population shrank for the first time in its history, as factories began to lay off workers, who then moved to the suburbs. To improve housing standards, neighborhoods were destroyed and replaced by public housing societies that solved a few poverty and violence problems. Riots in 1968 led to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and violent police response led to protests at the Democratic National Convention that year. The U.S. Census of 2000 reported Chicago’s first decade-over-decade population increase since 1950. 

Chicago City Skyline, present day.

Today, Chicago is known for its significant contribution to the field of several performing arts, including improvisational comedy, house music, blues, hip hop, gospel, jazz, and soul. The city has always been and will continue to be the top artistic city in the world. Over the years, Chicago has grown to be one of the major financial hubs, well known for industrial, research, and design civil rights and a significant economic contributor to the overall US welfare. It is one of the few cities that have given rise to the democratic space that the nation enjoys today.

This post was published by Asmita Sarkar

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