Kinzie: Chicago Pioneer? Part 2

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Last week we examined John Kinzie’s convoluted family tree and his early life.  Today we’ll focus on his life in Chicago.  Kinzie finally moved to the mouth of the Chicago River in 1804 when he purchased the home that Jean Lalime had purchased from our city’s first non-native settler, Jean Baptiste DuSable.  Many late 19th century historians dubbed Kinzie as “Chicago’s Father,” and DuSable’s cabin received a linguistic upgrade to mansion.   

The intriguing thing is that the man Kinzie purchased it from, Jean Lalime, would be killed by Kinzie about 8 years later.  Kinzie and Lalime worked in the same business circles and were connected to William Burnett, a successful trader at St. Joseph’s in Michigan.  In fact, the Dusable home was purchased by Lalime, but the transaction was funded by Burnett and his credit.  Ann Durkin Keating, a professor of history at North Central College, explains it best in her 2012 book, Rising Up from Indian Country, saying, “The sale of Point de Sable’s establishment at Chicago was a complicated one.  Point de Sable owed Burnett money from long years of trade.  In exchange for clearing this debt, as well as outfitting Point de Sable as he left the region, Burnett was able to arrange the sale with little or no exchange of money.  Complicating this transaction was the fact that Jean Lalime was the formal purchaser of the properties.  While Burnett funded the sale, it remains unclear why he chose this convoluted arrangement,” (47).  Whatever Burnett’s reasons were, this transaction linked Lalime and Kinzie together. 

At the mouth of the river Kinzie labored as a trader selling supplies to civilian settlers as well as working for a time as a sutler to Fort Dearborn.  A sutler runs and maintains the store at a military outpost such as Fort Dearborn and sells supplies to soldiers.  This was Kinzie’s role for a time until he lost it over disputes about selling alcohol to Native Americans.  Kinzie sold alcohol.  Captain Whistler at Fort Dearborn disagreed with this.  In his 2009 book, Chicago, Dominic Pacyga, a professor at Columbia College Chicago, explains, “…the two families’ feud divided the frontier community.  John Kinzie had various political connections through the American Fur Company, and in April Captain Whistler and the other principal officers of the fort were removed – the first known use of political clout in Chicago!” (14).   Almost 200 years later, political clout, patronage, and corporate manipulations now thrive in not just Chicago, but Illinois.  Kinzie certainly appears to be a pioneer in this regard.

That source of income, the selling of alcohol, was a controversial issue around the Fort.  A great text that addresses this is Joseph Kirkland’s Chicago Massacre of 1812 published in 1893.  Kirkland states, “Various circumstances tend to show that before 1812 considerable rivalry existed between the government fur-trading agency and the civilian dealers.  The former had certain advantages in the cheapness of purchase and transportation, but were restricted as to selling liquor.  The latter were nominally under the same restriction, but practically free, and the Indians, like other dipsomaniacs, hated every man who tried to restrain their drinking.  The short-sighted savages mistook their friends for their enemies, their enemies for their friends.  They loved the poison and the poisoner,”  (185-186).  In this scenario Kinzie was the poisoner.  Despite Kirkland’s antiquated descriptions of Native Americans, he draws some intriguing conclusions next when examining what happened to Fort Dearborn.  “Also that, though the garrison was massacred, no Kinzie was injured, the immunity even to Lieutenant Linai T. Helm, who had married Mr. Kinzie’s step-daughter.  Also that while the fort was burned, the Kinzie mansion was left untouched, and remained standing up to within the memory of living men.” (186).  This was the War of 1812.  The United States was fighting against the British and their American Indian allies.  What side does Kinzie appear to be on?

At this time Lalime was working as an interpreter for the Fort and was paid by the U.S. government.  Keating points out that, “Fundamentally, Jean Lalime cast his allegiances unambiguously with the United States.  He drew his salary from the federal government and worked to implement U.S. policies at Chicago.  In contrast, John Kinzie’s national allegiance was uncertain.  He and his half-brother, Thomas Forsyth, had married into families with deep British roots…While Kinzie and Forsyth were both American citizens, at times it appeared that they were working against, or at least not for, the United States,” (77). 

This brings us to Lalime’s death.  I’ve collected three accounts about his fight with Kinzie and I believe they reveal some of the ambiguity about what actually happened.  The first account I’ll begin with is by Kinzie’s own granddaughter, Eleanor Lytle Kinzie Gordon, who I mentioned in my last post.  I begin with this because although her John Kinzie: A Sketch has several inaccuracies (such as the wrong year of the murder) it does have one of the most unique father and son moments I’ve ever read.  She recounts:

“The killing of a Frenchman named Lalime by John Kinzie occurred about the year 1810, under the following circumstances: Lalime became insanely jealous of Mr. Kinzie’s success as a rival trader and was unwise enough to threaten to take Kinzie’s life…  He [Kinzie] accordingly took a carving knife from the house and started to sharpen it on a grindstone in the woodshed.  Young John stood beside him much interested in this novel proceeding.  ‘What are you doing, Father?’ he asked.  ‘Sharpening this knife, my son’ was the reply.  ‘What for?’ said John.  ‘Go into the house,’ replied his father ‘and don’t ask questions about things that don’t concern you.’  A few days passed.  Nothing happened but Mr. Kinzie carried the knife…
….One very dark night he sauntered over to the Fort, and just as he was entering the enclosure, a man sprang out from behind the gate post and plunged a knife into his neck.  It was Lalime.  Quick as a flash Mr. Kinzie drew his knife and dealt Lalime a furious blow and a fatal one.  The man fell like a log into the river below.”  (8).

I need to comment on a couple things in this account.  As I mentioned above, the murder actually took place in 1812 shortly before the Fort was destroyed.  Most of the other accounts mention that Lalime had a gun and that is what caused Kinzie’s wounds.  None of the accounts, however, have the flourish about the carving knife, grindstone and a little, wide-eyed John H. watching his father. 

The other two accounts I’ll share in my next post, part 3, which will be up shortly.  Then I focus on Bronzeville and Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, for the rest of October.

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