The Dark History Of The Treaty Of Chicago

This oration was delivered July 4th, 2008 at the Chicago History Museum

I thank you for the generous introduction.

The committee has allotted me ten minutes. I am reminded of the committee that asked Woodrow Wilson to make a speech. "That depends," Wilson said, "if you want a ten-minute talk, that will take me two weeks; but if you want two hours, I can start right now."

In preparing my talk, I stumbled across such a dark a page in Chicago's beginnings that I decided it deserved a talk. I refer to the Treaty of Chicago of 1833.

In 1833, The U. S. Government called for a Council with the Pottawattomie, Chippewa, Ottawa, and other Native American nations. The Council convened just south of the present location of the river. There were several thousand Native Americans; and hundreds of wigwams stretched from the shore to the forest. There was also a swarm of adventurers and traders with large stores of whiskey.

Fortunately an English writer, Latrobe, who was there, wrote a full account. On September 10, when the Council opened, the principal U.S. Commissioner then read, "as their Great Father in Washington had heard that they wished to sell their land, he had sent commissioners to meet with them."

The chiefs replied that "their Great Father in Washington must have seen a bad bird which told him a lie, for, far from wishing to sell their land, they wished to keep it." And the Council adjourned.

For 11 days the Native Americans received free rations from the government. There were squaws, with children, dogs, ponies, and horses. The agents and adventurers sold huge amounts of whiskey. There were constant war dances, races, whoops and songs. All day there was feasting and games and dancing, and brawls and noise all night.

Finally, on September 21, 1833, in an open shed on the north side of the river, the council signaled it was ready to talk. Ravaged by epidemics, inebriated by whiskey, threatened by diminished hunting losses, and weakened by firearms, the Council acceded. On the next day, September 22, the chiefs signed the Treaty of Chicago.

For paltry sums, some paid in silver half dollars and most others promised, the Native Americans gave in. Fifteen million acres were transferred to the U.S. government in exchange for equal acreage west of the Mississippi and north of the Missouri. Chiefs agreed that all Native Americans would leave Illinois immediately and move west of the Mississippi within two years.

As time went on, Native Americans were driven farther and farther away into confinement termed "reservations." Was this life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or even respect for it?

The misdeed was not committed by the City of Chicago. The City of Chicago simply profited by it. The misdeed was committed by the federal government.

Now, Chicago cannot restore 15 million acres or any acres, but it can be an engine of justice.

If I were alderman now, I would act by inquiry, resolution and perhaps with dramatic effect. We should learn the whereabouts of the victims' direct descendants. What do they now appear to lack? What do they say they need? How can we make certain that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are available to them?

This is an Independence Day task for the City of Chicago to consider.