The World of Juliette Kinzie: Chicago before the Fire

The World of Juliette Kinzie: Chicago before the Fire

by Ann Durkin Keating

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When Juliette Kinzie first visited Chicago in 1831, it was anything but a city. An outpost in the shadow of Fort Dearborn, it had no streets, no sidewalks, no schools, no river-spanning bridges. And with two hundred disconnected residents, it lacked any sense of community. In the decades that followed, not only did Juliette witness the city’s transition from Indian country to industrial center, but she was instrumental in its development.

Juliette is one of Chicago’s forgotten founders. Early Chicago is often presented as “a man’s city,” but women like Juliette worked to create an urban and urbane world, often within their own parlors. With The World of Juliette Kinzie, we finally get to experience the rise of Chicago from the view of one of its most important founding mothers.

Ann Durkin Keating, one of the foremost experts on nineteenth-century Chicago, offers a moving portrait of a trailblazing and complicated woman. Keating takes us to the corner of Cass and Michigan (now Wabash and Hubbard), Juliette’s home base. Through Juliette’s eyes, our understanding of early Chicago expands from a city of boosters and speculators to include the world that women created in and between households. We see the development of Chicago society, first inspired by cities in the East and later coming into its own midwestern ways. We also see the city become a community, as it developed its intertwined religious, social, educational, and cultural institutions. Keating draws on a wealth of sources, including hundreds of Juliette’s personal letters, allowing Juliette to tell much of her story in her own words.

Juliette’s death in 1870, just a year before the infamous fire, seemed almost prescient. She left her beloved Chicago right before the physical city as she knew it vanished in flames. But now her history lives on. The World of Juliette Kinzie offers a new perspective on Chicago’s past and is a fitting tribute to one of the first women historians in the United States.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226664668
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/07/2019
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Ann Durkin Keating is Dr. C. Frederick Toenniges Professor of History at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. She is coeditor of The Encyclopedia of Chicago, the editor of Chicago Neighborhoods and Suburbs: A Historical Guide, and the author of Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt


Chicago and Middletown

Juliette Magill was twelve years old in 1818 when Chicago first influenced her life. President James Monroe appointed her mother's younger brother as Indian agent at Fort Dearborn. Dr. Alexander Wolcott Jr. was a keen observer of new places and a prolific correspondent. Soon Juliette's "highest delight" were her uncle's letters describing his home and his life in "Indian country." From nine hundred miles away in Middletown, Connecticut, she began to imagine Chicago long before she saw it.

In return, Juliette wrote lively letters to her uncle Wolcott. He thought of them as "really conversations" that reminded him of pleasant evenings he had spent at her "dear mother's cheerful fireside." He asked her to write "as often as you can afford." Letters became the lifeblood between family members, who shared gossip, news, and musings on the events of the day. They were read over and over, often aloud; many included humorous anecdotes, wordplay, and teasing references to moments shared. They kept the family circle strong.

Juliette began to envision Chicago from Wolcott's descriptions: it was a small village of a dozen or so houses surrounding Fort Dearborn, an outpost in Indian country that held about 160 soldiers. Wolcott's neighbors included Potawatomi families and many mixed-race households of fur traders. The Beaubiens, Chevaliers, and Ouilmettes were métis families of French traders and their Indian wives. Businesses and families were closely intertwined, with houses as the center of activity.

John and Eleanor Kinzie lived across the Chicago River to the north of Fort Dearborn. He operated a trading outpost from the house where they raised four children. John, their oldest son, was serving a six-year indenture with the American Fur Company at Mackinac Island, Michigan, but younger son, Robert, helped his father in the fur trade. Daughters Maria Indiana and Ellen were both at home. The family welcomed Wolcott into their sociable household. The Kinzies' circle also came to include John Crafts, an American Fur Company agent originally from New England. They entertained one another with good food and good company and looked after each other. In one letter Wolcott reported that they were all going to Crafts' outpost at Bridgeport "to eat roast goose with brandy sauce."

While Wolcott described Chicago as an "odd, out of the way place," he also admitted that he was "daily becoming more attached" to it and contemplated a more permanent life there. Wolcott set about establishing a household, planting corn, and raising cattle, chickens, and milk cows. He improved his rudimentary dwelling by adding a kitchen, a stove house, a blacksmith's shop, a council house, an office, a corncrib, a smokehouse, a poultry house, and a milk house. As he wrote to Juliette and other family members, "I intend to make it one of the most convenient and inviting little spots in the country."

Alexander Wolcott was fast becoming an unofficial settler at Chicago as well as a local representative of the federal government. He worked alongside the officers and soldiers at Fort Dearborn. As Indian agent, he was involved in negotiating cessions from area Indians, but he was also charged with protecting them from unscrupulous traders and settlers. These official duties often conflicted, especially because of his friendship with local traders like John Kinzie and his preparing for a permanent settlement at Chicago by making improvements and putting land into farming.

While he settled into Chicago, the Potawatomi and their allies were being pushed to cede millions of acres of land and move west. Wolcott looked forward to the time when all this land would be open for American settlement, but he also pitied the Potawatomi. Less with contempt than with dismay, Wolcott came to view them as "despicable wretches" who were fast losing their lands and livelihoods. Unlike some American officials in the west, he sought to protect the Indians under his agency as best he could while still promoting American conquest. He worried particularly about dishonest traders who sold liquor on credit in order to take advantage of their already harassed Indian customers through "mean and rascally tricks" like overcharging or watering down alcohol. Decades later, Juliette expressed a similarly sympathetic yet paternalistic view of "our native brethren" for the "wrongs they have received at the hands of whites," in language reminiscent of her uncle's letters.

Although Juliette came to know a great deal about Chicago, it was not well known to other Americans on the East Coast. This began to change in 1820 when Lewis Cass, governor of Michigan Territory, led an expedition officially charged with locating the source of the Mississippi River. Alexander Wolcott accompanied the group as its doctor. They gathered information to use in future treaty negotiations for further Indian cessions, as well as for American settlers who would then come into the region. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, tasked with geological and mineralogical surveying, sketched several of the places they visited. Wolcott wrote to Juliette about Schoolcraft's landscapes, encouraging her to continue her own sketching. Juliette must have pored over her uncle's descriptions as well as Schoolcraft's 1821 book on the topography, natural history, and mineral wealth of the region.

Schoolcraft's description of Chicago was particularly appealing to farmers and speculators looking for a new start in the west. He wrote that "the country around Chicago is the most fertile and beautiful that can be imagined" and that Chicago would become a "great thoroughfare" for the entire country. Wolcott agreed; he felt that the rich region would provide a new home for his eastern family as soon as the local Potawatomi were forced to relinquish their lands.

Indeed, the American government sought cessions from the Indians almost immediately. In 1821 Wolcott hosted Governor Cass, Schoolcraft, and Robert Forsyth (John Kinzie's nephew and Cass's secretary) in Chicago as they negotiated with more than three thousand Potawatomi. Though Cass opened the conference by suggesting that it would "probably be many years before the country will be settled by the Americans," he pressed the Potawatomi to cede their lands east of Chicago. Over the protests of many of those assembled, Potawatomi leaders turned over five million acres of "choice lands." The local market would soon extend beyond the fur trade into real estate.

During these negotiations, Schoolcraft was "seized with bilious fever," likely malaria, which Wolcott, the only physician in the area, treated. When Schoolcraft was well enough to travel, both men went east. Wolcott consulted with federal officials at Washington, DC, and made an extended visit to Middletown.


The heart of Middletown was a colonial-era common along the Connecticut River, surrounded by churches and the houses of the most prominent citizens, which included Juliette's grandfather Alexander Wolcott Sr. His daughter Frances, widowed and the mother of a young daughter, married Arthur W. Magill, the son of her father's business partner, in 1805. The couple's first child was Juliette, born September 11, 1806. Over the next sixteen years, six more children were born: William, Mary Ann, Arthur, Henry, Alexander, and Julian. Juliette's extended family was large and close; she later wrote about a fictional holiday celebration where "breakfast was hardly over before hosts of cousins and friends, to whom due notice had been given, began to arrive."

Juliette received her early education informally within these households. She learned the myriad tasks women were expected to perform, including cooking and preserving most of the food the families ate. She became a skilled baker, known for her cakes and muffins, and learned to cook over open fires as well as on stoves. Juliette also became a skilled seamstress who could make bedsheets, underwear, and infants' diapers as well as work pants and shirts. She also mastered finer work for women's dresses, sewing most of her own clothing by hand; like one of her fictional characters, Juliette had "the means of always appearing in a tasteful and appropriate manner" in her homemade wardrobe.

Juliette was part of a generation of literate New England women. In families like hers, where sons received advanced education, daughters often learned from their brothers' tutors. Women were educated to be good mothers and companionable wives. Juliette was especially privileged because during her childhood she had access to her grandfather Wolcott's large library. Her mother taught her early lessons there, and her uncle Wolcott tutored her in Latin. Juliette became fluent in French. She had lessons in art and became an accomplished pianist. Her family believed that the "expense of a piano" and a musical education prepared a young woman "to make her own living, should the necessity arise." Juliette was being readied not only to be a good wife and mother, but to be able to support herself as a music teacher if need be.

While much of Juliette's childhood was spent within the Magill and Wolcott households, Middletown, standing between New Haven and Hartford, was not an isolated village. Founded in 1650, by 1806 it was the largest city in Connecticut and a busy international seaport on the Connecticut River. Merchants and sea captains made their living by trading in rum, molasses, and enslaved people. So while the Magill and Wolcott households were largely self-sufficient, they were ensconced in a market economy defined by commercial capitalism.

Indeed, Juliette's other grandfather, Arthur Magill, was a sea captain. His sisters married "three Bermuda devils," the Williams brothers, who worked with Magill in the Caribbean trade. Captain Magill likely trafficked in enslaved people, since the slave trade was not entirely abolished in Connecticut until 1848. Juliette grew up in a world where bound labor, both enslaved African Americans and white indentured servants, worked within family households.

Soon after Juliette was born, Middletown's successful trade was threatened by federal policies, especially the 1807 Embargo and the end of the external slave trade in the following year. Both disrupted the Caribbean market, which never regained its previous prominence. As a result, Middletown's economy languished as nearby rivals grew rapidly. By 1820 Hartford and New Haven had doubled their populations while Middletown's lagged.

Middletown also underwent wrenching changes caused by a mix of religion, politics, and business. Both the Wolcott and the Magill families were Episcopalians. Juliette was baptized on December 28, 1806, at Holy Trinity Church, where her family rented a pew and supported the church's many activities. The families held Sundays sacrosanct as a day when "no business can be transacted." Beyond church attendance, family meals, and visits, writing letters was one of the few pursuits "wholeheartedly sanctioned for the day."

As Episcopalians, the Wolcotts and Magills dissented from the Congregationalism that was then Connecticut's state religion. They supported the local Congregational Church through tax dollars and the Episcopal Church through their donations. Religion and politics became intertwined when Thomas Jefferson and his supporters pushed for disestablishment of state religions across the new nation. Juliette's family joined the Jeffersonians in Connecticut and fought successfully for a new state constitution breaking the state's tie with religion. After 1818 all congregations relied on the voluntary support of families.

Disestablishment also "proved good politics" for the Magill and Wolcott families. Alexander Wolcott Sr., a Yale graduate who trained as a lawyer, was appointed by President Jefferson as the Middletown collector of customs. Middletown merchants, who were mostly Federalists, protested angrily to Jefferson, but Wolcott kept the post. His influence continued through the presidency of James Monroe into the 1820s.

During the trade disruption caused by the Napoleonic Wars, Wolcott invested in an early industrial enterprise with Captain Arthur Magill Sr., who had retired from the sea. In 1810 they founded a woolen mill, the Middletown Manufacturing Company, "one of the first, if not the first manufactory" in the United States to use steam power. They transformed a large brick sugarhouse along the river into an enterprise that produced forty yards of broadcloth each day. Juliette's father, Arthur W. Magill, joined the company too and took a leading role after his father died in 1812.

Juliette would later remember this shift to factory production with some disapproval, longing for a time when "women spun, and wove, and knit what they wanted to wear, without being beholden to their neighbors to do it for them." Yet the early success of the operation allowed Juliette a privileged childhood. The company prospered during the Napoleonic Wars, which kept cheaper British cloth from American consumers. With the end of war in 1815, the Atlantic trade resumed, and inexpensive British goods overwhelmed the US market, imperiling nascent American factories. The Middletown Manufacturing Company could not compete with less expensive woolen imports and faded away.

The family sought other opportunities tied to the federal government. Alexander Wolcott Jr. headed west to Chicago as a US Indian agent, intending to explore western places that were expanding. When President Monroe approved the charter of a Second Bank of the United States in 1817, Alexander Wolcott Sr. got Juliette's father the plum position of cashier at the Middletown branch. The appointment did not sit well with Connecticut Federalists, who were willing to destroy the town's enterprises rather than see them in the hands of their political enemies. They watched Arthur W. Magill carefully, waiting for an opportunity to bring him down.

As cashier, Magill managed the bank's daily operations. For his family, and for the nation at large, things went well for a time. Magill, buoyed by ready money, made unsecured loans to himself, family members, and friends. He began construction on a massive brick mansion.

The hope that the bank would help to keep capital and currency stable crumbled in 1819 as cheap British manufactured goods and declining agricultural exports led to a banking collapse and years of hard times. This downturn was felt particularly in cities and towns like Middletown that were tied to trade and manufacturing. To shore up the national bank, its directors forced the branches to redeem notes "issued to themselves and various insider friends."

Magill got caught short. Unable to cover the overdrafts he had allowed to himself and his friends and family, he was accused of embezzling $66,548.60 from the Bank of the United States. He lost most of his assets, including his house and the remnants of the woolen mill, while his Federalist opponents relished his spectacular fall. The Boston Daily Advertiser wrote in early November 1820, "Certain delicate facts have just been disclosed relating to the affairs of the United States' Branch Bank at Middletown, and that in consequence, the Cashier, A. W. Magill, is removed." Soon after, Magill was arrested and sent to the New Haven jail. There he wrote hopelessly that he expected "to remain confined up in this place til the day of Judgement."

Jailing debtors was not uncommon at this time. For the Magill and Wolcott families, however, it was an act of public shaming tinged with political retribution. Alexander Wolcott Sr. was furious with his son-in-law for embarrassing his daughter as well as his extended kin and business networks. He rewrote his will to exclude Magill from his estate, setting up a vehicle by which his daughter would inherit money that her husband could not control. Despite this, the Wolcott family did not disown Magill. They took care of his children, wrote him letters, and helped secure his 1821 release.

From Chicago, Juliette's uncle expressed deep dismay. Alexander Wolcott Jr., like his father, blamed Arthur Magill for deceit and misdirection. Long-simmering mistrust surfaced when Magill wrote accusingly to his brother-in-law, "you see how well I know you." His anger was most acute when thinking about his sister and her children, who lost their home and their standing in Middletown. Wolcott closed on an irate note, suggesting that Arthur might wish to move to Indian country, where "it is the law among these nations that every man shall have the privilege of throwing away (as they call it) his wife whenever it suits his pleasure."

Juliette was an impressionable young woman; she later created a fictional father who was ruined by the financial collapse in 1819. The character was seized by the economic panic that "brought blessings to many, but to some it brought ruin." Juliette wrote that her character, like her father, "struggled on for a while, collecting the shattered remnants of his fortune, and striving to make a new beginning." Her life would be shaped by recurrent upswings and subsequent downturns of the volatile American economy. Like many whose families had been deleteriously affected in 1819, Juliette came to see that a household economy and the support of extended family offered a safety net in an unpredictable world.


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Table of Contents

Preface: Tracing Juliette
Introduction: The Michigan Street House

Part 1 Building at Cass and Michigan, 1806–36

1 Chicago and Middletown
2 The West
3 Property

Part 2 Creating a Civic Culture, 1834–56

4 Culture
5 Industry

Part 3 Losing Home and Neighborhood, 1857–70

6 Uncertain Future
7 A Divided House
8 Losses

Epilogue: Erasing Juliette
Appendix 1 Selected Households of Juliette and John Kinzie
Appendix 2 Juliette Kinzie’s Published Works

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