Early History and Settlers

Lori Osborne is the Archivist at the Evanston History Center. This is the fourth and final post in a series on very early Evanston history, from millions of years ago to Evanston’s earliest settlers.

Archange Ouilmette and her husband Antoine had a presence in our area until the 1840s, long after European settlers began to arrive. Archange was from an influential Potawatomi family. Her mother was Potawatomi and her father was a French fur trader. Antoine was a French fur trader who first came to the area in 1790. Between Archange’s family connections and Antoine’s trading connections, they were well-known and influential in the early history of the Chicago area. The family had a cabin and small farm near Fort Dearborn when it was first established. They helped supply the fort with produce and livestock, offered guide services as needed, and were an integral part of the early community. Both Archange and Antoine Ouilmette were instrumental in saving American lives when tensions between the British and Americans escalated leading to the Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812. Because of their actions in support of the Americans, Archange was given the land as the Ouilmette Reservation in the Treaty of 1829.

imagesThe Ouilmettes built a cabin for their family of eight children at Lake Street and Lake Michigan in what is now Wilmette (named for them, though the spelling was changed). Their home was a well-known stopping place for traders and travelers, and their farm continued to supply the growing settlement in Chicago. Archange and Antoine lived on the reservation until about 1838 when they joined fellow Potawatomi that had been removed to Council Bluffs, Iowa. It was there that Archange died in 1840 and Antoine in 1841. In 1844 their heirs petitioned the U.S. Government to sell the reservation’s land. The government purchased the land (640 acres) for $1,000 and then gradually re-sold it to real estate developers.

The first European settlers who came to Evanston beginning in the 1830s thus lived in a place where the Indian presence was still strong. As U.S. government policies shifted and full removal was required, this presence was reduced though not entirely extinguished. In these years, the community was informally called Grosse Pointe Territory. The Ridge Road shifted from military to commercial use. Mail delivery, farm products, and commercial goods began to move up and down the road, linking the growing community of Chicago and the settlements north stretching into Wisconsin. It is not surprising that the earliest permanent settlers built log homes and businesses along this road and slowly began dotting the landscape on the high ground with small truck farms and taverns, a log school and community buildings used for political and religious gatherings. They were following a settlement pattern already established by the Indians.

By the 1850s when the community we now recognize as Evanston begins to take hold, the Indian presence could still be found in the trails that had by then become roads and the occasional discovery of remnants of Indian life, including village and camp sites, burial mounds and trail marker trees, and many artifacts found when digging foundations for new homes or plowing fields for growing crops. The township of Ridgeville was organized in 1850, marking the importance of those glacial ridges, Indian trails and early roads that now defined the community.


War Defines our Region


Lori Osborne is the Archivist at the Evanston History Center. This is the third in a series of articles on very early Evanston history, from millions of years ago to Evanston’s earliest settlers.

For more than 100 years our region was contested ground, due to the wars between the French and British empires over control of land and resources. When the eastern British colonies began to challenge French dominance in our region, local tribes were forced to choose their allegiances. Most tribes in the Great Lakes region allied with the French because of trade and family connections. The French and Indian War (between the French and the British) changed the landscape entirely. Ending in 1763, the lands in our area officially moved from French to British control. For several years, the tribes in our region dealt with the British, until the Revolutionary War and the Treaty of Paris in 1783 once again altered the balance of power, shifting control of the land to American hands.

In 1787 the new American government passed the Northwest Ordinance outlining the specific ways the Northwest Territory could be added to the new union. Though much of the land was inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Indians, the ordinance did not extend rights to them. In 1803, the American presence in our area grew dramatically with the building of Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River. Fort Dearborn was part of a large network of forts built to protect Americans moving into the new territory. The glacial Indian trail on the ridge in Evanston became a military road, linking Fort Dearborn to military outposts as far north as Fort Howard near Green Bay.

The need for an American military presence in the area had risen with continued conflict between the Americans and the remaining British troops and allied Indians in the area. By 1812 a full scale war had broken out between the Americans and the British and this war proved pivotal. Though most well-known for conflicts in the eastern U.S., the War of 1812 had a dramatic effect on our area, resulting in the land shifting to American control. Once the war was over, the American presence in the Great Lakes region grew substantially. First established in 1809, Illinois Territory then included all of what is now Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota. With its rapidly growing population, Illinois became a state in 1818.

In these years, Potawatomi Indians living in the Chicago area negotiated a series of treaties with the Americans that bit-by-bit removed tribal lands from their control. Often these treaties were negotiated under questionable circumstances making the outcomes unfairly biased toward the Americans. Most important to Evanston was the 1829 Treaty of Prairie Du Chien that ceded all land now within Evanston’s borders to the U.S. government, with one important exception, the land north of Central Street and from the lake west to almost Ewing Avenue that was granted as a reservation to Archange Ouilmette, a Potawatomi woman. The 1833 Treaty of Chicago, which concluded the Blackhawk War, forced the Potawatomi to sell all remaining tribal lands (outside those given in land grants) and outlined the forced the removal of all Indians from Illinois. Chicago was incorporated as a town soon after in 1833.

Indian Life and the Arrival of French Explorers

Lori Osborne is the Archivist at the Evanston History Center. This is the second in a series of articles on very early Evanston history, from millions of years ago to Evanston’s earliest settlers.

The people we now call Native Americans or Indians had a presence in northern Illinois from about 1600 AD. Different tribal groups or nations lived in the region in a semi-nomadic way, though most were connected to each other through a common language family called Algonquin. Scholars describe their lives as seasonal, shifting with the weather, changing climate and landscape. In the summer months, they lived in large semi-permanent camps, planting crops (generally corn, beans, and squash), foraging for berries and other native growing foods, and hunting game and fishing. In the winter months they dispersed into smaller family units and moved to winter hunting villages. In the summer months their dome-shaped wigwams were covered with mats of woven grasses, in the winter with more sturdy and protective bark. Their primary mode of transportation was on foot, on trails they made on the glacial ridges or the lakefront, but in the summer they also used canoes on the lakes and rivers, and in the winter they used snowshoes and toboggans. Their history was oral, with stories and legends passed down from generation to generation.

The written history of our area begins with the recordings of the journeys of the French missionaries and explorers who came to the Great Lakes region beginning in the 1640s. Traveling down the lake from their settlements in what is now Canada, the French were interested in converting Indians to Christianity and developing trading relationships with the tribes, seeking valuable furs to trade in Europe. Their presence altered the balance of power between the tribes, especially as the fur trade grew dramatically in the early 1700s. The French not only created trading alliances, but they often lived in tribal villages and married into the tribes, creating family connections. In addition to travelling for seasonal living, the Indians and French began to establish trading routes between missionary outposts and trading posts.

Trees like this were found throughout Evanston in the early years. It is thought that they may have been used to mark Native American trails or village sites.

Trees like this were found throughout Evanston in the early years. It is thought that they may have been used to mark Native American trails or village sites.

This was true in Evanston where the trails along the glacier ridges served to move people through the area but also link the trading settlements that were growing at the present-day locations of Chicago, Milwaukee and Green Bay. The earliest French explorers in the Chicago area were Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet in 1673. Later the French gave an early name to our area — Grosse Pointe — naming it after a long-gone geographical feature of land jutting out into Lake Michigan at what is now Lighthouse Beach. Though we cannot be sure that the explorers and missionaries had any lengthy presence here, it is certainly possible that in their travels north and south, especially along the lakefront, they stepped foot in Evanston.

Within the time of written history, the tribes that inhabited our region changed and shifted. It is estimated that in 1700 more than 100,000 Indians lived in the Great Lakes region. First encountered by the French were members of the Illinois tribe. The Illini were present through the late 1700s when increasing pressure and tribal conflict with eastern tribes led them to move south. It was at this time, around 1760, that the Potawatomi tribal presence grew in our area. The Potawatomi came south from Green Bay and were the dominant tribe in the region as the French presence decreased and the British presence grew. The first settlement at the Chicago River (called Checagou by the Potawatomi) where the city of Chicago is now centered, was a Potawatomi village and the site of their council gatherings, and other tribal functions. This village expanded with the increasing French presence in the region in the 1700s to become a fairly established commercial center with a diverse mixture of inhabitants.

The location and extent of Indian villages in Evanston is uncertain, most likely there were a changing number of small semi-permanent villages and hunting camps scattered throughout, especially along the ridges and the lakefront. Because the wet prairies of west Evanston were virtually impassable much of the year, that landscape may not have been much inhabited. The forested areas would have provided good hunting grounds, and certainly fishing in Lake Michigan was a major source of food. Burial mounds and trails would have been placed on the highest ground, while farming would have been done where there was a ready source of water. It is likely that some type of settlement was near the lighthouse and there are stories from the earliest settlers of a small village near Dempster Street and the lakefront. We know that a good-sized village was located along the lakefront in Wilmette and a very large village in what is now downtown Skokie. These villages were all linked by trails that are now well-known roads, including Ridge Avenue, Green Bay Road, Prairie Avenue, Skokie Boulevard, and Niles Center and Gross Point roads.

Research Note, Acknowledgments and Selected Bibliography

It should be noted that much of Native American history was erased from our landscape by the earliest white settlers. It was not considered important. They saw it as distant and separate from their own story. Later, when local historians began to show an interest and collect the stories of local Indian life, they did so with limited understanding and often a prejudiced point of view. Their early histories can provide important information, but researchers should be wary of their conclusions and turn to modern sources for confirmation. See below for a listed of sources that include up-to-date research.

Thanks goes to the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian and the Wilmette Historical Society for their time and research assistance. I also want to express my appreciation for the time and input of Frances Hagemann, Paul Friesema and Ed Lace.

Hagemann, Frances L. A History of American Indians of the Chicago Metropolitan Region and the Western Great Lakes. Hometown, Illinois: Floating Feather Press, 2004.

Hill, Libby. A History of Dwight Perkins Woods, and a Proposal for its Management. December 1991. Unpublished. In the Research Collection of the Evanston History Center.

Hudson, John C. Chicago: A Geography of the City and its Region. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Kallen, Stuart. Native Americans of the Great Lakes. San Diego: Lucent Press, 2000.

Markman, Charles. Chicago Before History. Springfield, Illinois: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 1991.

Ritzenthaler, Robert E. The Woodland Indians of the Great Lakes. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1991.

Tanner, Helen Hornbeck. Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Early Evanston: A View of an Ancient Landscape

Lori Osborne is the Archivist at the Evanston History Center. Over the next couple months, she’ll be publishing a series of articles on very early Evanston history, from millions of years ago to Evanston’s earliest settlers.

Our view of Evanston before history was recorded is limited by the layers of human civilization that have altered the natural world and removed many of the signs of human habitation over the centuries. But if we look hard enough, and tap into the right research resources, we can find details of the ancient landscape and trace the footsteps of the people that passed through it or called it home. This is the first in a four part series, in honor of the 150th Anniversary of Evanston’s incorporation, on the history of Evanston long before the community as we know it was even imagined.

Evanston once looked like this.

The best place to begin is with the geography of the land around us. For millions of years, a large inland sea covered our area. With the advent of the first Ice Age, 3 million years ago, this inland lake was replaced by glaciers that reached far into North America. Glaciers remained in our area until about 12,000 years ago and when they began to melt the subsequent movement of soil, rock and water shaped the land. Most prominently, the melting glaciers left us Lake Michigan, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world.

In Evanston, the effects of the melting glaciers can also be clearly seen in the ridges of land that are now Gross Point Road, and Ridge and Chicago Avenues. As the glacier receded it did so in stages, leaving glacial remains at each high point or ridge.  If you stand on Ridge Avenue almost anywhere along its length and look east toward the lake and then west, you can see that you are standing on ridge of high ground, running roughly north and south through the entire town.

The glaciers also left us our terrain and our soil. The land that makes up Evanston is commonly described as grassland or wet prairie with remnants of a natural forest, primarily oak, elm and hickory trees, in some areas. Much of the land near the lake is made up of sandy soil, the remainders of the dune landscape that used to exist along our lakefront. To the west, in between and to the west of the ridges, the land is thick with clay deposits and has drainage problems common to prairies. The remains of old growth forests are along the ridges and especially in northwest Evanston, with some 300 year and older trees still there.

Once the glaciers were gone and the climate had sufficiently stabilized to support plant and animal life, human beings began to populate our landscape. Scientists estimate that human life came to our area beginning about 12,000 years ago. The lives of these ancient peoples were ones of nomadic, subsistence-based living, gathering just what was needed at the time. The climate stabilized about 3,000 years ago, probably marking the beginning of continuous settlement in Illinois. Slowly the nomadic hunter/gatherer civilization gave way to a more settled, agrarian culture, culminating in one of the world’s most remarkable cultures in the mound builders of Cahokia in southern Illinois in approximately 1000 AD.

Keep an eye out for the next installment in Lori’s series, Indian Life and the Arrival of French Explorers, coming soon!


Matthew Zellner is an archival intern and a student at Northwestern University studying Radio/Television/Film. In honor of Evanston’s upcoming sesquicentennial, he’ll be publishing a series of articles on life in Evanston during its first incorporated year, 1863, as well as some other topics he thinks are particularly interesting. Ask questions and join the conversation by leaving comments below, and by tweeting at the History Center, @EvanstonHistory.

Officially, Thanksgiving has been a celebration in the United States since 1863, the same year that Evanston was officially incorporated as a town. In the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day to be held on the final Thursday in November.

However, any kindergartener can tell you that the real first Thanksgiving is the one that occurred back in 1621 when friendly pilgrims with buckles on their hats met some friendly members of the Wampanoag Tribe in New England. Similarly, Evanston likely celebrated its first, more Puritan than Rockwellian Thanksgiving much earlier when the first pioneers came to the North Shore.

Perhaps the most famous of these, the William Bradford to Evanston’s Plymouth Plantation, was Major Edward H. Mulford, the “gentleman pioneer.”

Major Edward H. Mulford

Major Edward H. Mulford, the Gentleman Pioneer of Evanston

After serving in the New York State Militia, Mulford moved to Chicago in 1835 to found the first jewelry store in the city. After some success with his shop, he took advantage of the opportunity to buy 160 acres of North Shore land near Grosse Pointe from the government at the reasonable price of $1.25 an acre. Mulford planned to sell off most of the land, but was required to build a house on the property to secure his claim.

Mulford moved up to the small (14 by 16 foot) cabin with his wife Rebecca and his children in 1837. His settlement (the precursor to Evanston) would soon be named Ridgeville, after the ridge above the swamp on which he built his home. Across the street he built Evanston’s first gathering place, the Ten Mile House tavern, on the land that would one day be occupied by St. Francis Hospital.

The Ten Mile House, so named for being ten miles from the Chicago Courthouse, is a likely location for Evanston’s first Thanksgiving celebration. Such a celebration would have featured travellers on the Green Bay Trail taking the place of the Native Americans, as the Potawatomi were all but gone from the area by the time the Mulfords arrived, the tribe forced to sign away the last of their lands in 1833.

Besides hosting Thanksgivings, the Ten Mile House served many purposes: not only was it a tavern, but also a courthouse, a post office, and even a medical center. Mulford hired a staff to run the tavern as he focused on other projects.

Mulford’s projects made him a many of many names. His most notable, the “gentleman pioneer,” came from his collection of books, which was remarkable for a man living in a “rude cabin ‘mongst the primeval forest trees.” Mulford was also known as Squire Mulford and Deacon Mulford, for his work with the courts and churches, but according to one Evanston historian, “he bore as his honors meekly, and notwithstanding this handicap became one of our prominent citizens.”

Much of this prominence came from his work to make Evanston livable for his fellow pioneers. Mulford not only founded the first church, the First Baptist Church, but also lead his neighbors in the creation of a long wooden box drain to carry water out of the space between the ridges and into the lake, changing the town from “a very wet town to a dry one.”

Mulford’s Ditch, or the Rubicon, as Northwestern students called it, allowed a “deep swamp” to become Downtown Evanston.

If you have time over your Thanksgiving holiday, stop by the site of Mulford’s second home, built in 1845 near Ridge and Harvard. The home was razed in 1963 to make room for Evanston’s first condominium, the Mulford House, however, a few timbers still exist today, converted into a nearby park bench.

Take a seat and thank the Major for his hard work.

EVANSTON1863: The Evanston That Wasn’t

Matthew Zellner is an EHC archival intern and a student at Northwestern University studying Radio/Television/Film. In honor of Evanston’s upcoming sesquicentennial, he’ll be contributing to a series of articles on life in Evanston in 1863, as part of our History Wednesdays feature. Ask questions and join the conversation by leaving comments below, and by tweeting at the us @EvanstonHistory, using the hashtag #Evanston1863.

2013 will mark the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary of Evanston’s incorporation in 1863. A century and a half have seen Evanston change drastically; the Evanston of 1863 would be almost unrecognizable to Evanstonians today.

Just how different was Evanston 150 years ago? It’s easier to grasp if you consider what wasn’t there, including: street lighting, electricity, telephones, running water, a high school, a fire department, and banks. Much of the north, west and south sides were not part of the original incorporated area of the town, which included only what we recognize today as downtown Evanston and the area around Northwestern University.

Here are three more modern luxuries that Evanstonians had to live without in 1863:

Half of a stereograph of the “hogswallow” that remained at Fountain Square in 1876.

1. Paved roads or concrete sidewalks

Evanston might have already had railroads in 1863, but it had yet to invest in modern roads or sidewalks (they wouldn’t become common until the 20th century). It was not uncommon in the first half of the 19th century to take a boat up the North Shore to avoid having to use the Green Bay Trail, as the roads around Evanston were treacherous, to say the least.

Much of Evanston was marshland that flooded often, and many of the roads were so well worn that they had sunk a foot or more into the ground. Margery Blair Perkins, in her book Evanstonia, recounts that early Davis Street, with a surface made of clay and gravel, became a “hogswallow” every time it rained.  Evanston was testing some pavement surfaces, such as Macadam pavement (a thin, elevated layer of small rocks), but most performed poorly. Perkins notes that one of the first somewhat successful pavements was a section of Chicago Ave north of Davis that was paved with “a double layer of brick laid on sand.”

Sidewalks, though originally “looked upon as frill,” existed in a few areas in 1863. The first sidewalk appeared outside Northwestern professor (and later president) Oliver Marcy’s house in 1861. Sidewalks were made of wood, similar to the Nicholson pavement(wood blocks) that was being championed in Chicago at the time.

The wooden sidewalks, while keeping early Evanstonians out of the hogswallow, had a terrible reputation for harboring “hordes of rats.”

2. A police department

Chicago’s police department was founded in 1855, necessary for a city that by 1850 had already gained the reputation of the “wickedest city in America,” according to Flinn and Wilkie’s History of the Chicago Police. Yet “Heavenston,” with its low crime rate, remained without a police department in 1863. It appointed one policeman, former butcher Robert Simpson, to deal with the few lawbreakers.

Many of these lawbreakers were not even human. A major focus of Evanston’s law enforcement through 1863 had been to deal with the problem of wandering livestock. The government of Ridgeville, as the township was first named, established pounds for animals on each side of the town.

Simpson did have some serious matters to address as well. Evanston had banned dueling, always a popular pastime, by 1863. The four mile limit on alcohol enacted by the first amendment to Northwestern’s charter was also in effect at this point, but it is unclear whether Simpson was needed to enforce the ban. Hurd and Sheppard’s A History of Illinois and Evanston mentions that by the 1880s, the Evanston Citizen’s League had dedicated itself to ensuring violators were prosecuted.

Perhaps because of the morality of the town of Evanston, it was able to exist somewhat peacefully (see Dowie Riot) over the next decade with the addition of only one more police officer. Evanston would not add a full police department until the 1890s.

3. A public library

Despite having been the home of Northwestern University since 1855 (when Old College Hall was built), Evanston, the city that would be called the “Athens of the Midwest,” still did not have a public library in 1863. The first would not open until 1871.

At the time, it was still a rarity to even have a personal library. Hurd and Sheppard mention that it was remarkable that one of Evanston’s pioneers, Major Edward Mulford, possessed a collection of books. It earned him the nickname, the “Gentleman Pioneer of Evanston.” For many years, Mulford’s collection was the largest library in Evanston.

In fact, even Northwestern still didn’t have much of a library. Northwestern University Library’s official history mentions that the University’s board of trustees had only approved the “commencement of a library” seven years earlier. In 1863, the University Library occupied only a single room on the third floor of the Old College. Not only was the library small, but it also wasn’t public. Northwestern’s library would not become semi-public until it became a government depository in 1876.

According to A History of Illinois and Evanston, the closest thing Evanston had to a public library in 1863 came in the form of Sunday school libraries. The first Sunday school library, eventually associated with the First Methodist Church, was located in a log schoolhouse on the corner of Greenleaf and Ridge, and had an enormous collection of fifty books!