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!