With one foot firmly planted on the prairie frontier and the other in the drawing rooms of her mind, Juliette Magill Kinzie wrote the first known account of life in early Chicago. Published in 1856, Wau-Bun: The ‘Early Day’ in the North-West is a hodgepodge of autobiography, social history, and travelogue chronicling the years between the Fort Dearborn massacre of 1812 and the Sauk war of 1832.
Born in Connecticut in 1806, Kinzie had her imagination fired as a child by letters from her uncle, the U.S. government’s Indian agent in Chicago, “that distant land,” she’d recall, “with its vast lakes, its boundless prairies, and its mighty forests.” Through her uncle, she met her husband, John H. Kinzie, who at the time was the Indian agent at Fort Winnebago in Michigan. Wau-Bun, which takes its title from the Winnebago word for “early day,” begins in 1830, three years after their marriage, on a Detroit steamboat headed for Chicago.
By the time she arrived in 1831, Chicago looked little like what she’d imagined as a girl. White settlers had been developing the area around the second Fort Dearborn, rebuilt in 1816, though there remained plenty of Winnebago. Wau-Bun enumerates the pioneer town’s inhabitants, describes its topography, and details the role of the Kinzie family in the area’s early history. John H. Kinzie’s father, John Sr., was a fur trader who had grown up in the area and was on good terms with most of the Indian tribes.
The story of the Fort Dearborn massacre is central to the book. After the fall of Mackinac Island to the British during the War of 1812, Fort Dearborn was ordered evacuated, with the soldiers and townspeople moving to Fort Wayne. Days of preparation and debate followed; it was decided the white settlers would distribute leftover provisions to the neighboring Indians in exchange for safe passage. Though they feared being double-crossed–at the time the British were buying the Potawatomi’s allegiance–Captain Nathan Heald commanded the soldiers to carry out the order. On the morning of August 15, John Kinzie Sr. received word from an Indian friend that the Potawatomi intended to attack the Americans on their way to Fort Wayne. Thinking that his presence might deter them, he put his wife and children on a boat and marched with the soldiers. Less than two miles from the fort, the Americans were attacked, their numbers were cut in half, and the survivors, including Kinzie, were forced to surrender.
Wau-Bun ends with an account of the Sauk war and its tragic repercussions for the Winnebago living near Chicago. The conflict began when Sauk warriors crossed the Mississippi River, attacking U.S. forts as they traveled east to reclaim land in Illinois. Kinzie describes the constant terror she lived with during that war. After seeing what she thought was a Sauk Indian doing a war dance in front of her home, she thought death “by the hands of savages is the most difficult to face.” But the Indian turned out to be a Winnebago dressed as a Sauk in order to frighten the white women. That “trick,” Kinzie realized, “would not be unnatural in a white youth, and perhaps since human nature is everywhere the same, it might not be out of the way in an Indian.” No longer regarding the Indians as savages, Kinzie would become sympathetic to their plight. During the war the Winnebago had allied themselves with the Americans, but afterward they were unjustly punished. The Treaty of Rock Island, which ended the war, forced them to give up their land in Illinois and Wisconsin and move across the Mississippi into eastern Iowa, pushing the Sauk even farther west.
Though not a polemecist, Kinzie doesn’t shy away from expressing her outrage at this brutal display of expansion at any cost, noting that unless the U.S. changed its policy, wars would continue until the Indians had vanished from this country.
Kinzie’s story is one of several that will be touched on during this Saturday’s Chicago Writers’ Tour, part of Chicago Book Week–City of Big Readers. The two-hour bus tour will pass through neighborhoods with literary significance–including Bronzeville, Hyde Park, and Washington Park–while highlighting the legacy of such local authors as James T. Farrell, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, Ben Hecht, and Saul Bellow. A 30-minute stop at the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts will feature a brief reading by “contemporary Chicago writers.” The tour will depart at 10:30 AM from the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. It’s free, but reservations are required. For more information on the tour, call 312-742-1190, or check out the sidebar in Readings and Lectures in Section Two for more information on Chicago Book Week.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Chicago Public Library, Special Collections & Presentation Division.