Cover for the book A History of The Chicago Portage; red lettering on an old map
The Chicago Portage provides a link between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Courtesy Northwestern University Press

Conceptually, the words “Chicago, Wisconsin” are sure to baffle almost anyone reading them today. The idea that Illinois’s metropolis (and the nation’s third-largest city) could somehow be a part of the Dairy State seems laughable. Too bound to the long and sordid annals of Illinois politics, despite at times feeling a million miles away from anything happening “downstate,” Chicago is clearly wrapped up in Illinois history, and vice versa.

When examining the longer history of the colonization of the North American continent by white settlers, one can see that Chicago was originally intended to have been included in the Wisconsin Territory, per the rules laid down by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. That fate was averted due in large part to the Chicago Portage, a marshy, unpredictable site of passage that linked the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, and became the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848. When white settlers first came to the region and saw the portage’s potential to connect the continent, it spurred the actions of those like Daniel Pope Cook, namesake of Cook County, to both incorporate Illinois as a state and push the boundary line north to include the portage site for such commercial purposes.

That story, and plenty of other fascinating examples of the portage’s long significance in the history of the continent, are documented in Benjamin Sells’s new book A History of the Chicago Portage: The Crossroads that Made Chicago and Helped Make America. Sells, who served as a two-term village president of suburban Riverside until earlier this year, documents the longer geological becoming of the portage site, the region’s significance for generations of Potawatomi, Chippewa, Ojibwe, and other tribal groups, and the ways in which images of the portage’s ability to connect the continent spurred the development that made Chicago a major city. While the physical history of the portage has mostly been erased by land development and the creation of the canals, tracing the story back reestablishes its significance in the history of the region. The Reader caught up with Sells over the phone in early September.

Annie Howard: You note that Chicago likely wouldn’t have existed as a major city without the portage, yet it was quickly destroyed by the development that consumed the city in the 19th century. Why is that?

Benjamin Sells: I think it’s indisputable that if it hadn’t been for the Chicago Portage, it’s likely Chicago wouldn’t be here to start with. The Chicago River really has no significance because it didn’t go anywhere, but it was that connecting point—the portage is what made it important. That was exactly why Daniel Pope Cook and Nathaniel Pope worked to get the Illinois boundary moved north, because after the Northwest Ordinance, it should have been at the bottom of Lake Michigan. It was only the nephew and uncle that made that happen, and it was because of the importance of the portage that it was moved.

In the 1920s, much of the exact location of the portage was already gone. By then, the west fork of the south branch was already filled in, and when the Chicago Historical Society was founded, one of the first things they did was try to figure out exactly where the portage was, because it had been erased by the incredible population explosion and development in the city. The order of magnitude growth in the city’s population led to land development that erased the portage, which was created over a much longer geological time frame.

What made the portage so essential to Native peoples and those early French explorers who came to the area?

Most places of historic importance are places where people stay, like a fort. But the portage was significant because it was a place people passed through. There’s very little archaeological evidence of the early explorers in the area up until Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Still, it was important because it was the connection between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and especially during the time of the fur trade, it was the spot that connected the frontier back to the markets of the eastern seaboard. It was that trade route that first brought European settlers to the area. 

Interestingly, common sense tells us that Indigenous people used the portage for hundreds of years before Europeans ever came. But there’s only indirect evidence of that in the archaeological record. It’s worth remembering that until the introduction of the horse, you either walked or paddled somewhere. That waterway system was extremely important in terms of trade for Indigenous peoples, and it’s why they showed it to Joliet and Marquette when they first came to the area.

Though much of the portage land is unknowable today, we hold onto some of that space through the National Park Service’s Chicago Portage National Historic Site. Why is keeping that land accessible so important?

Today, the Chicago Portage National Historic Site is one of the few places where you can still walk on the ground that the early explorers and Indigenous peoples walked on. One of the powerful psychological benefits of the portage is that you’re standing where they stood—to my knowledge, that’s about the only place in Chicago that that’s the case. To lose that connection with both the history of the Indigenous people that were here, but also the connection to Chicago as a natural place, the historic site still offers that.

So many of the roads that we drive on were once footpaths and a lot of them converged at the portage. It shows the importance of the interaction between the ancient infrastructure, both the footpaths and portage, but also does a lot for the soul, for someone to have a fuller understanding of people that were here before us and how they lived. We’re on borrowed land, and a lot of sacred land. 

I live in Riverside, where the Old Calumet Beach was. We were putting a sewer system in the section of town I live in, and, lo and behold, you go down just a few inches in the sand where the ancient beach was found and find human remains: there were Indian burial grounds all through this area. Knowing that changes how you view your sense of place when you start to learn about who was here before.

A History of the Chicago Portage is available from Northwestern University Press.