On the north bank of the Chicago River, just east of the DuSable/Michigan bridge, the DuSable cabin and then “Kinzie mansion” once stood. As I mentioned in a previous post, if you walk east along the wall that flows eastward along Pioneer Court, you’ll series of plaques commemorating early Chicagoans. These people literally put Chicago on the map with their work at the Chicago River. I focused on Jean Baptiste DuSable in my previous blogs and in this one, I want to focus on John Kinzie.
For much of the early 20th century DuSable was overlooked and Kinzie was regarded as the original “English-speaking” pioneer. In fact the plaque for the “Kinzie Mansion” even goes as far to point out that Kinzie’s daughter, Ellen Marion Kinzie, was the “city’s first white child.” To the modern mind it seems an odd thing to commemorate. This historical marker dates back to 1937. The National Landmark plaque for DuSable dates back to only 1977.
Kinzie, like many other historical figures that are often considered pioneers, owns a background muddled with conflicting reports and legends. Even the last name, Kinzie, is muddled. Kinzie’s granddaughter, Eleanor Lytle Kinzie Gordon, wrote an account of her grandfather’s life in which she mentions that the Kinzie last name was misspelled. I’ll get to that in a moment because before we ponder how we got the odd spelling of “Kinzie” we need to look at the chaos that is his family tree. John Kinzie (1763-1828) was the son of Major John McKenzie (I’ve also seen a source call him Captain) and Emily Anne Haliburton. Her first husband, Haliburton, had died and then Major John McKenzie died making Emily Anne a widow for a second time. She remarried for a third time in 1765 to William Forsyth Sr. who was also a widower. Forsyth had originally served in the British military, but then worked as a fur trader and seller of liquor, two businesses that Kinzie would delve into later on in his life.
If John Kinzie’s biological father was named John McKenzie and his stepfather was named Forsyth, where did the last name Kinzie come from? Eleanor Lytle Kinzie Gordon recounted her grandfather’s life in John Kinzie: The “Father of Chicago”; A Sketch and in that text she mentions a family Bible saying, “In this old Bible the ‘Mc’ is dropped in recording the birth of ‘John Kinsey’ (so spelled), thus indicating that he was known as John Kinsey, (or as he himself spelled it, ‘Kinzie’) from early childhood.” So the name Kinzie emblazoned on street signs throughout Chicago should all actually be Kinsey. How come no one in the family corrected little John in “early childhood” when he was misspelling his name? Nobody knows.
To further confuse matters John Kinzie had a common law marriage to Margaret McKenzie. That marriage did not work out, but it does make researching his family tree a vexing affair. Kinzie’s second wife was Eleanor Lytle McKillip. Their first child was John Harris Kinzie (1803-1865). His first daughter was the aforementioned Eleanor Lytle Kinzie Gordon (1835-1917) who I quoted earlier. Her daughter was Juliette Magill Gordon (1860-1927) who would marry and then go by Juliette Gordon Low. And she is where we get delicious Girl Scout cookies from. Well, not quite. Juliette Gordon Low, the maternal great-grandaughter of John Kinzie, is credited as the founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA. The cookies came later.
Long before those cookies and our misspelled street signs though, John Kinzie was a little boy that wanted to learn about his biological dad, John McKenzie. When he was about ten years old sometime around 1773, little Kinzie ran away from home and made his way up to Quebec looking for his father’s family. While there he came under the care of an old and childless silversmith. If this sounds similar to a fairy-tale, then you have a good idea of what it was like reading Eleanor Lytle Kinzie’s Sketch of her grandfather. She recounts that the old silversmith, “taught him as much of his trade as the lad could acquire in the three years of his stay in Quebec,” and that in later years, after he had established himself near Fort Dearborn, the Native Americans there would call John Kinzie, “Shaw-nee-aw-kee or Silver-Man,” for his silversmithing skills.
This now brings us to Kinzie’s role at Fort Dearborn and his home at the mouth of the Chicago River. Initially, Kinzie worked for William Burnett, a fur trader with an outpost in St. Joseph, Michigan. Burnett traded goods and furs with Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, the subject of my first few posts. Kinzie had another associate he worked with named Jean Lalime. Before the War of 1812 broke out and Fort Dearborn was consumed by violence, Kinzie would end up owning the Du Sable property and Lalime’s demise would be caused by his hands. Was it murder or self-defense? Like so many other things in Kinzie’s life, there are conflicting reports and contradictory accounts. We’ll examine Lalime’s death, and Kinzie’s responsibility in my next blog coming out on Monday the 30th.
In October this blog will focus on the neighborhood of Bronzeville and the impact of the Great Migration. I am tying those posts in with the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program which has been focusing on Isabel Wilkerson’s oral history, The Warmth of Other Suns. The author, Isabel Wilkerson, is appearing at the Harold Washington Library downtown on Tuesday, October 1st. The library has already done a few other events for The Warmth of Other Suns. If you’re interested in seeing some photos of those events go to my Twitter or Instagram account @chicagogreys.
My November blog topic was suggested by a reader! Thank you Theresa! I’ll be examining the life of an Irish sculptor who created some well-known and beloved statues in Chicago. If you have any Chicago historical questions about figures or places let me know and I’ll do the research.
As always, thank you for reading.