Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, the region around the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan was part of a trans-Atlantic network of commerce, colonial exploration, religious outreach, and military strategy. Native American residents, French fur traders, Jesuit missionaries, and European officials traveled through and, at times, settled in the area. They interacted with each other, while representing and responding to demands of distant consumers and governing authorities. Between 1754 and 1814, ongoing conflict between Native American residents, fur traders, and the imperial designs of the French, British and Americans held the region hostage. After 1815, the American government finally exerted control over a region that it had long claimed, ending decades of colonial conflict.
The Northwest Territory was a site of global contestation during much of the colonial era. Between the 1673 journey of Jolliet and Marquette and 1763, the French exerted colonial influence in the Illinois Country, an area that connected France's Canadian province with Louisiana, and that is shown in this 1795 map. At the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, France surrendered all of its North American claims. Britain had conquered Canada; Spain received Louisiana. The Illinois Country, although nominally part of Britain's holdings, was far from its control, except through the influence it exerted through the fur trade. As a part of the 1795 Greenville Treaty, the American government took land at sixteen strategic locations, including Chicago. Not until the end of the War of 1812, however, did the government begin to exert control over the region that would become Chicago.
Jean Baptise Point DuSable, who built this house near the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1780s, was Chicago's first resident of record as well as its first global settler. DuSable was an Afro-French fur trader, believed to have been born in Haiti. Evidence indicates that in the early 1780s he managed a British estate in Michigan, before settling here in the mid-1780s. While living in the Chicago region he socialized and conducted business with British, French, Métis, and Native Americans throughout the region. In 1800 he sold his holdings and moved to Spanish Upper Louisiana in present-day Missouri. John Kinzie moved into the home in 1804; this drawing appeared in A. T. Andreas's History of Chicago (1884).
During the colonial era, the fur trade linked the Chicago region to a global market. Native Americans exchanged furs for blankets, pots and other metal objects, produced in Europe and later in the United States. Merchants sent these furs to Europe, Russia and and China, where they were used to make items of high fashion, which in turn were sold to affluent customers in London, New York, Chicago and elsewhere.
The French, then the British, then the Americans tried to exert colonial control over the region that included the western Great Lakes. Native Americans in the region successfully resisted many of these incursions. However, after the success of the U.S. Army at the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, Native Americans in the region were forced to cede considerable lands and rights to the American government at the Treaty of Greenville in Ohio. It was through this treaty, that the U.S. government first took control of territory that would become Chicago.
Global exchanges during the colonial era included culture as well as trade goods. French missionaries brought Roman Catholicism to the region beginning in the seventeenth century. Even after the ouster of the French from the region after 1763, some Native Americans and local traders and trappers continued to practice Catholicism despite the loss of institutional support. Others were drawn to Native American leaders such as Tecumseh's brother, Tenskwata. After the American Revolution, the U.S. government supported Protestant missionaries who brought their own brand of Christianity into the region. Chicago trader John Kinzie made this silver cross in 1820--an artifact of both trade and culture.