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Chicago History for Kids
Triumphs and Tragedies of the Windy City, Includes 21 Activities
By Owen Hurd
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2007 Owen Hurd
All rights reserved.
Chicago Before Chicagoans
THE HISTORY OF CHICAGO goes back much further than the Chicago Fire, Chicago's World's Fairs, or the days of Al Capone. Many history books of Chicago start with the year 1673, when the first Europeans entered the area. This isn't one of those books. That's because the history of Chicago doesn't begin with the arrival of the European explorers and settlers. It didn't begin in 1492 either, when Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of the New World. By that time the American continents were already populated by millions of native peoples who had lived here for at least 9,000 years — probably much longer. The earliest migrants may have even arrived as far back as 20,000 or even 30,000 years ago.
But the history of Chicago doesn't begin 30,000 years ago, either. To understand the city that we know today, you have to look back even further in time, more than one billion years, to explore the area's ecology, then progress to its human history, starting with the technological, social, and cultural riches of Native American societies.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF A LONG TIME
For anyone who wants to know about Chicago and how it came to be the great city it is today, it helps to know a few things about the environment of Chicago and its surrounding area. Why is Illinois so flat? What makes it such good farmland? What created those slopes and ridges in the Chicago area? Where did Lake Michigan come from?
Did you know that the land that is now Illinois — miles upon miles of flat corn and soybean fields — was once made up of violent, spewing volcanoes? That was 1.5 billion years ago, before the American continents had broken free from the Eurasian land mass and drifted to their current positions. Over the eons, North America was periodically flooded by the oceans. Then sea levels would drop again, exposing the continent to air.
Now fast-forward a billion years. Believe it or not, the land that would eventually be Chicago — home of long, cold winters — was more like a tropical jungle 500 million years ago. The region's lush tropical plants would eventually die out and become covered with layers of soil and minerals. Over millions of years, this partially decayed material was compacted, and turned into coal.
About 200 million years ago, the continents began to break apart and drift away from each other. By about one million years ago the continents had reached the positions and shapes we recognize today, but the climate was still very different. This was the period of the Great Ice Age. From then until about 20,000 years ago, much of the northern Midwestern region of North America was covered by ice, as a series of ice sheets descended from the north down through Canada and into the northern Midwest. Each one of these glaciers — some up to a mile high — leveled the earth's surface like an enormous steamroller, which is why much of Illinois is so flat.
As glaciers pressed southward, a ridge of dirt and other materials piled up in front of it, like a crest of dough created by a rolling pin. When the ice stopped growing and began melting, piles of debris left a physical record of where it stopped. Geologists call the piles of material left behind by retreating glaciers moraines.
A series of moraines in Chicago run parallel to the coast of Lake Michigan.
As the last ice sheet began to melt and recede, about 20,000 years ago, it left behind the rich minerals that make Illinois' farms so productive. (The farms surrounding Chicago would eventually play a major role in Chicago's economic growth.) The melting glaciers also created a much more swollen version of what is now Lake Michigan. Referred to as Lake Chicago, this body of water covered most of current-day Chicago with water. About 1,500 years ago Lake Michigan's shorelines ended up pretty close to where they are now.
FROM FROZEN TUNDRA TO FIRE-PRONE PRAIRIE
When the glaciers came to Chicago, they wiped out a budding spruce forest. After the ice melted, the spruce trees made a partial comeback. Sparsely populated by trees and low-lying vegetation, the terrain looked much like tundra climates in northern Canada and Alaska today. As temperatures warmed, evergreens were replaced by deciduous trees. That's the name for trees — such as elm, oak, and maple — whose leaves change colors and fall off each autumn and return again each spring.
Deciduous trees need lots of water. So when the climate in Chicago became drier about 10,000 years ago, the first prairies sprang up in areas where these trees could no longer thrive. The warm, dry climate was perfect for numerous varieties of prairie grass. Late-summer prairie fires — ignited by lightning or, later, by Native American hunters and farmers — kept the forests from intruding on the prairies.
In addition to forests and prairies, Chicago's other main ecological characteristic is marshland. Much of the ground exposed when Lake Chicago shrunk to the Lake Michigan level was very low, and the soil had a spongy character to it. Frequent seasonal flooding, as the lake and river waters spilled over into the plain, created a habitat suited to cattails and other reed-like plants. Remnants of the marshlands can be seen in the Calumet River basin on the southern end of Lake Michigan.
THE FIRST AMERICANS
To understand who the first Chicagoans were, you need to look back in time and follow the progress and travels of the first American inhabitants.
It's not clear when or how, but the first humans may have arrived in North America as early as 20,000 years ago. They might have walked across the Bering land bridge that once provided an all-terrain crossing from Siberia to North America. It's also possible that they traveled by boat along the shorelines or after the crossing became submerged by rising sea levels. Others suggest that people arrived by boat from Europe.
These first pioneers to the Americas, called Paleo-Indians, encountered large prehistoric creatures, called megafauna: mastodons, woolly mammoths, musk ox, and other large land mammals that have since become extinct. Archaeologists have found evidence that Paleo-Indian hunters used spears equipped with razor-sharp stone points to hunt these large creatures. They heaved these spears using slings called atlatls. Stone points dating back nearly 14,000 years have been found at many sites in the Chicago area. Mastodon skeletons have been found in the Chicago area too, along with mammoth skeletons just over the border of Wisconsin.
The earliest inhabitants of North America were hunters and gatherers. They lived a nomadic lifestyle, which means that instead of settling in any one place, they moved frequently, often in time with the seasons, following game or in search of wild fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
"More than six thousand years before Christ was born in Bethlehem, at least four thousand years before Stonehenge was constructed in southwestern England, and more than three thousand years before the great pyramids were erected to honor the Pharaohs in Egypt, people had settled in the great river valleys of the American Middle West."
— FROM KOSTER: AMERICANS IN SEARCH OF THEIR PREHISTORIC PAST (1979) BY STUART STRUEVER AND FELICIA ANTONELLI HOLTON
It wasn't until thousands of years later when these early Native Americans learned how to farm their own land and grow crops for food that they could settle in one place year round. By about 9,000 years ago, in other parts of the world some humans lived in what could be considered cities, equipped with long-term housing structures, farmland, social classes, and religious customs. It was also at around this time that Native Americans, who were living in small villages, first used a flint woodworking tool called an adze to make dugout canoes. This new technology helped Native Americans travel to and trade with distant tribes.
THE FIRST ILLINOISANS
One of the most amazing archaeological sites in Illinois is the Koster site. Located in downstate Illinois, near where the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers meet, this area has been called the "Nile of North America." This nickname reflects the area's plentiful natural resources as well as the rich cultural developments that they nourished.
What makes the Koster site special is that each layer excavated reveals another era of human development in Illinois prior to European contact. Archaeologists working there and at other sites in Illinois have found spear points and other tools (6000 B.C.), some of North America's earliest house structures (5000 B.C.), and artistic creations such as pipes and masks (A.D. 1000).
Excavations at Koster have proven that the first organized societies in North America occurred about 4,000 years earlier than previously thought. Artifacts and other evidence indicate the presence of smart hunter-gatherers who worked together and learned how to find food in the wilderness. Anthropologist Stuart Struever says that early Illinoisans could get food "with almost as much confidence as we drive to the supermarket for ours."
Archaeologists have pieced together what these people ate and how they prepared their meals. Their diets included plenty of protein, which they got from fish, deer, birds, and nuts. These early Illinoisans enjoyed such plentiful wild food supplies that for thousands of years they did not need to learn how to farm. Instead, they made steady improvements in their fishing and hunting techniques. They did begin farming around 5,000 years ago and expanded and improved those crops over the millennia. They were cultivating squash, gourds, sunflower, marshelder, erect knotweed, maygrass, little barley, and lamb's-quarter. The multitude of seeds they produced could be ground into flour or used in cooking. The bow and arrow was invented around A.D. 400, greatly improving hunting strategies. At about the same time, Native Americans were making advances in processing, preserving, and storing foods.
Large-scale farming of corn and squash began around A.D. 800–900. This new advance was probably a result of population growth. In turn, it probably led to even more increases in population as food surpluses could be provided and stored to feed larger, more permanent communities. This period also marks a major shift in the relationship between Native Americans and the earth. Instead of just taking what nature offered, human beings were now changing nature to suit their needs.
THE FIRST "CAPITAL" OF ILLINOIS
Today, Springfield is the capital of Illinois, and Chicago is the state's largest city. But the first major political, economic, and cultural center in Illinois was located in Cahokia, Illinois, just northeast of present-day St. Louis. In A.D. 1050, Cahokia had a population of about 10,000–20,000, about the same as London at the time. Just like most big cities, Cahokia had big buildings, in this case built atop dirt mounds that could be seen from miles away.
The largest pyramid at Cahokia is called Monks Mound. It's the biggest dirt pyramid ever constructed in the Western Hemisphere. The only pre-European structures in the Americas that are larger are the stone pyramids of Mexico at Teotihuacán and Cholula.
In addition to the architectural and geometric knowledge needed to create this wondrous walled city, excavations of Cahokia show an advanced society complete with division of labor, political organization, religious customs, and business practices that would be familiar to modern people. These people traded raw materials and manufactured goods with faraway tribes. They produced art. They worshipped spirits and wondered about the possibility of an afterlife. They studied astronomy.
Cahokia society also shared something in common with all sophisticated societies: social class divisions — the idea that different people play different roles depending on their skills and stature. Social divisions make monumental building projects possible, but they also create tension between the rulers and the ruled. As you study the history of Chicago, you'll see how these same tensions play out over and over throughout the years.
Scientists have estimated the amount of labor required to build the Cahokia Mounds, as well as the individual homes built upon and around them. It would have taken a crew of 3,000 at least two years to build Monks Mound alone. However, it was not built all at once, but in a series of stages over about 300 years. Most mounds that have been excavated exhibit several construction stages.
Artifacts found at the Cahokia site give us a pretty good idea of how the people of that time lived. Spear points, arrowheads, knives, scrapers, and fishhooks indicate hunting and fishing. Hoes made from shells attached to the ends of sticks were used for small digging jobs. Bigger jobs, like tilling farmland or building mounds, were done with large flint hoes tied onto sturdy wood handles with rawhide. Bone needles were used for sewing clothes and other materials.
Nobody knows why, but the civilization at Cahokia Mounds died out around a.d. 1400. The cause may have been a war with other tribes, disease, failing corn crops, depletion of resources, or other environmental factors. Maybe the inhabitants divided into smaller groups and settled elsewhere, establishing new villages or going to those where they had relatives. Whatever the reason, Cahokia Mounds was the last major pre-European urban settlement in Illinois.
The Native Americans who inhabited the areas surrounding the future site of Chicago, in Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, did not create long-term settlements like Cahokia. Instead they lived in societies that some have called semisedentary. Sedentary means staying still or in one place. Various groups of Native Americans set up temporary camps or villages in the Chicago area, but also traveled to other areas throughout the year to hunt and trade.CHAPTER 2
The First Chicagoans
Surprisingly, we actually know less today about the more recent populations of Native Americans than we do about the people who lived here much longer ago. Partly, that's because of the different lifestyles they led. Long-term settlements, like the ones found at Koster and Cahokia, produced more artifacts to study. Houses, fire pits, cemeteries, and even garbage heaps provide clues to how the earlier Native Americans lived.
It seems as if Illinois's Native American populations from the 1400s to the 1670s adopted a more mobile lifestyle. They were frequently on the move, and so they left a more scattered record of their existence. Also, their culture produced no written records. For thousands of years Native Americans maintained an oral tradition. Instead of writing down their history and beliefs, they passed them along from generation to generation through stories told to each other.
But it seems there were a few substantial pre-European settlements in the Chicago region. A site northwest of today's Loop, called the Bowmanville site, was active from 900 to 1600. The Blue Island culture, to the southwest of modern-day downtown Chicago, was active from 1300 to 1600.
Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of sturdy houses and artistic relics such as pipes and masks, as well as pottery reinforced with crushed mussel shells.
With so little archaeological evidence to study, the only other information available about the Native Americans comes from oral history, the stories they told for centuries. Native Americans continue to pass along their stories today. Some of them have recently been written down.
There were about six different Native American tribes that resided in the area surrounding what would eventually become Chicago. The Illinois, Miami, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Fox, and Mascouten were all part of the larger Algonquin language family of Native Americans, sharing similar languages and customs.
The big question is, how many Native Americans lived in this area? It's impossible to know for sure, because estimates made by the first Europeans differ significantly. Some have estimated that there were as many as 100,000 Native Americans living in the entire Great Lakes region. In 1600 about 20,000 Native Americans were said to be living on the land surrounding the bottom half of Lake Michigan. Many of them were Illinois Indians, who had ranged north from central Illinois. The Illinois suffered huge losses in wars with the Iroquois. The next tribe to settle in the area was the Miami, followed by the Kickapoos, and finally the Potawatomi.
The earlier Native Americans who lived in this region split their time between Chicago, where they grew corn and then stored it in underground cellars, and the Western Plains where they moved to hunt buffalo in the autumn months. When they were in the Chicago area, they hunted deer, bears, turkeys, geese, ducks, and swans. They also fished the local rivers and lakes and supplemented their diets with wild vegetables, roots, berries, and nuts.
Excerpted from Chicago History for Kids by Owen Hurd. Copyright © 2007 Owen Hurd. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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