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With an estimated 2.7 million residents, Chicago has become the third-largest city in America. Whether you prefer to call it The Windy City, The Second City, the City of Big Shoulders, The City That Works, or The White City, Chicago’s plethora of nicknames are a tribute to the metro area’s rich and fascinating history. Before transforming into the modern city we know today, Chicago experienced a number of historical events that helped shape the city into the highly sought-after destination it is now known for. 



When was Chicago Founded?

As one of the largest cities in the American Midwest, Chicago was founded in 1830. The region was incorporated as a town in 1833 and later as a city in 1837. As the popular 1916 poem by Carl Sandburg put it, Chicago grew to become the “Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.” Chicago’s name first appeared in 1688 as “Chigagou,” which is an Algonquian term for “onion field.”


In 1779, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a merchant, and trapper acknowledged for establishing the trading post that developed into Chicago, became the first permanent settler in the region. The Chicago region is located along a water route that links the Mississippi River with the Great Lakes, making the area home for many tribes who used the accessibility to water for travel, healing, and food. It became a traditional homeland to several Native American tribes, including the Illinois, Miami, Potawatomie, Ojibwa, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk.



What was Chicago Before it Became a City?

Prehistory and Early Years

In 1973, two French explorers and missionaries, Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet crossed the Great Portage, between Illinois and the Chicago River during their expedition. The first non-indigenous settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was a Santo Domingan with mixed European and African ancestry. In 1803, the United States Army built Fort Dearborn, located on the southern bank of the Chicago River. In 1812, however, it was decimated by an Indian raid during the Battle of Fort Dearborn. Four years later, it was rebuilt. Chicago remained a small settlement up until 1837 when it was officially acknowledged as a city. 


chicago history

Chicago as a Trading Center

The Black Hawk War of 1832 marked the end of the Native American resistance in the region. After being incorporated as a city in 1837, the population count reached about 4,000 people. It was the year 1848 when Chicago procured its first railroad and telegraph, helping the city become the transport hub for the U.S. Later two innovations surrounding the Board of Trade’s wheat grading standards and grain elevators revolutionized the way crops were sold at the time. By 1854, the city was recognized as the world’s largest grain port, with a population count of nearly 30,000 people. 



What Are Some Significant Historical Events in Chicago?

The 1886 Haymarket Affair

The Haymarket Affair, also commonly referred to as the Haymarket Riot or the Haymarket Incident, took place on May 4, 1886. At the time, strikes held by industrial workers occurred frequently, as workers fought to eradicate the dangerous working conditions, and low wages they were exposed to. On May 4th a labor protest rally near Haymarket Square took a turn for the worse when riots broke out and a bomb was hauled at the police.  


The violence resulted in at least eight deaths. While there wasn’t any concrete evidence, eight radical labor activists were apprehended and convicted of setting off the bomb. Four of the eight men were hung as a punishment. Instead of moving the agenda forward, the Haymarket Affair wound up being a major setback for America’s labor movement. It made fighting for rights, such as an eight-hour workday, arduous for organized protestors. 


The Great Fire in 1871 and its Rebuild

A fire that broke out in October of 1871 had left over 100,000 residents homeless, and one-third of Chicago destroyed. What sparked the initial fire remains unknown to this day, but drought, wooden buildings, and high winds helped fuel the massive flames. A majority of railroads and factories were untouched by the fire. 


World Columbian Exposition of 1893

In the late 1800s, the city of Chicago blossomed into a national retail center, producing a number of big business tycoons, like George Pullman, Philip Armour, Marshal Field, and Potter Palmer. In 1885, Chicago was introduced to its first skyscraper, which was 10-stories high. Later, architects like Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Louis Sullivan all contributed to the city’s expanding skyline. 


In 1893, Chicago held the World’s Columbian Exposition, attracting well over 20 million visitors. They dubbed it “White City” in honor of the Gilded Age buildings constructed alongside Chicago’s lakefront. The exposition buildings were so aesthetically striking that they inspired the launch of a new movement known as the “City Beautiful” movement. The focus was on incorporating Beaux-Arts design into American city planning.


chicago history


What Is the Status of Chicago Today?

Today, Chicago is still flourishing, with nearly 3 million people calling the city home. As the third-largest U.S. city, Chicago is replete with culture, sports, food, infrastructures, and many attractions suitable for all ages. One of the magical facets of this city is the 8,800 acres of green space and 600 parks speckled through the metro area. The Chicago Park District has earned the title of being the largest municipal park manager in the nation. 


The Windy City is also home to nearly 200 art galleries, 60 museums, and 20 neighborhood-sponsored art centers. It also houses one of the oldest zoos in America – the Lincoln Park Zoo, which still offers free admission into its facilities. Among the city’s attractions is The Museum of Science and Industry – the largest in its category, the Western Hemisphere. With all these sites to see, it’s no surprise that the City of Big Shoulders is a popular place for tourists and families alike. 


Chicago’s thriving economy and lively arts and culture scene are all a tribute to the city’s rich history. There’s nothing better than reflecting upon how the city was established, watching how certain events unfolded through the years, and seeing how Chicago has transformed into the beloved city we know today.