John Kinzie’s tale is a convoluted one, full of corruption and intrigue, treason, multiple marriages, betrayal, and murder.
He was born in Quebec City in 1763, a British subject. His father died when he was an infant, and his mother, who had just lost her second husband, remarried within the year, and they moved to New York.
The history of his youth is a little sketchy: some stories say that he left New York on his own when he was ten, and then he made it all the way back to Quebec City and apprenticed with a silversmith (although silver apprentices at that time didn’t start until they were around 14). His mother and stepbrothers gave him up for dead, but they miraculously were reunited when they all happened to move to Detroit at the same time.
As a young man he married Margaret McKenzie, and it was said he had helped rescue the Virginian and her sister from the Shawnees. He had three children with her in Detroit, and then she left him and took them back to Virginia.
He spent the next few years trading along the Maumee River. In 1804 he arrived in Chicago with his new wife Eleanor Lytle McKillip and their son John.
He then purchased Jean Baptiste Point DuSable’s home from Jean La Lime, so Chicago’s first permanent white settler lived in the home of Chicago’s first permanent settler, period.
That same year, Kinzie was appointed the first Justice of the Peace of Chicago, even though he was pro-British and anti-American. He became the civilian leader of the burgeoning town at the same time Fort Dearborn was being built.
The next eight years were a period of growth for Chicago, and importance and prosperity for Kinzie and his own growing brood. Chicago’s reputation for corruption extends all the way back to this pioneer: he bribed to get Ft. Dearborn’s contract, and he smuggled liquor and Indian trade goods.
Then Kinzie killed a man: Jean La Lime.
The whole time he’d been trading with the Potawatami and had developed a decent relationship, so he fled to Milwaukee and joined the Pro-British Indians while they were planning attacks on Ft. Dearborn. While he was gone, he was cleared from the murder charges, so he came back to Chicago, shortly before the Ft. Dearborn Massacre. Of course Kinzie survived. It’s supposed that he was acquitted in an effort to get him to switch sides, which he did.
After the attack he and his family moved to British-held territory, and this time he was working for the US in enemy land. In 1813 he was charged with treason against George III for trying to turn Tecumseh against the Brits and the chief himself turned him in. Kinzie was shipped off to England, but a storm forced the boat to stop at Nova Scotia and the intrepid frontiersman escaped. He was back trading in Detroit by August of 1814.
In 1816 he and his family returned to Chicago, where he remained until he died of a stroke in 1828. His three kids from his first marriage also moved to Chicago.
This man of questionable character was honored with his very own street, while DuSable, who was considered an honorable and decent man, was not.
Sounds just like Chicago politics, doesn’t it?
- Important Chicago Firsts by the Kinzie Family
- Indiana Historical Collections, Vol. 7
- The Fort Dearborn Massacre, Mississippi Valley Historical Review
- Western Town Growth: A Study of the Development of Towns on the Western Shore of Lake Michigan, 1815-1843, Loyola University Chicago