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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Chicago Portage National Historic Site
Chicago Portage National Historic Site

Location: Cook County, Old Chicago Portage Forest Preserve, junction of Portage Creek with Des Plaines River, just west of Harlem Avenue on the line of 47th Street, River Forest, Ill.

Chicago owes its very existence to its strategic location on the Chicago Illinois River route, one of the natural arteries leading from the St. Lawrence River system to the Mississippi. In September 1673 Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet discovered the portage at Chicago as they returned from their voyage of exploration down the Mississippi River. Marquette, in failing health, spent the winter of 1674-75 near the portage, and passed over it on other trips, as did also Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, and his lieutenant Henry de Tonty, plus many other Frenchmen. About 1700 Indian hostility kept Europeans out of the area, but the Indians continued to use the portage extensively.

During the French and Indian War and the War for Independence, the portage acquired renewed importance. In the Treaty of Greenville (1795), the Indians ceded to the United States "a piece of Land Six Miles Square, at the mouth of Chickago River, emptying into the southwest end of Lake Michigan, where a fort formerly stood." In 1803 U.S. soldiers from Detroit erected the first Fort Dearborn at the river's mouth, considered to be a strategic location in Northwest Territory. Opposite the fort on the north bank of the river stood a number of cabins occupied by Frenchmen and their native wives. Trade continued actively until the beginning of the War of 1812, when the 140 or so inhabitants of the fort and settlement evacuated it, after the British and their Indian allies captured Fort Mackinac. They began the trip to Fort Wayne, but before they had gone 2 miles Potawatomi Indians murdered or captured most of them and then set fire to the fort.

restored lock
Illinois & Michigan National Heritage Corridor. Restored lock number six with locktender's house in Channahon, Illinois.

In 1816 soldiers reconstructed Fort Dearborn, new settlers arrived, and trade again resumed over the portage. It diminished in importance, however, as the Illinois fur trade declined, though it continued to have commercial value into the 1830's. On the site grew the city of Chicago. Work began in 1836 on the Illinois and Michigan Canal—finished in 1848—which followed the water-and-portage route, as does the present Sanitary and Ship Canal.

The western end of the Chicago portage route, where Marquette and Jolliet landed, is located in the Old Chicago Portage Forest Preserve, which is managed by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois. The two Fort Dearborns were located on the lakefront, outside of the commemorated area, at the eastern end of the portage route, on the north end of present Grant Park. In 1952 a cooperative agreement between the Cook County Forest Preserve District and the Department of the Interior authorized the designation of Chicago Portage as a national historic site.

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Last Updated: 29-Aug-2005