Chicago Native American History for Thanksgiving

Our national holiday, Thanksgiving, reminds me of the Native American history in Chicago. Native Americans, of course, were the first settlers in this region. In school we don’t learn much about Native American history beyond Thanksgiving. But in Chicago there is much more to Native American influence on the city, beginning with its name.

What’s in a Name?

The word for the wild leek that grew in our river, used by the tribes of the Illinois and Miami, is said to have created the name “Chicago.” We know this from 17th century explorers like Father Jacques Marquette, who explored the lakes and rivers alongside the Illinois people in the late 1600s. His accounts mapped the area and recorded names of people and places.

His story is illustrated on the plaques and panels of the Marquette Building, built just before the turn of the 20th century by Holabird & Roche. While the entrance of this early skyscraper is impressive, don’t stop there! Step inside the lobby and you will be surrounded by a sparkling mosaic that depicts the life and travels of Chicago’s first European settler, Marquette. The mosaics were designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (see more of his work on our Loop Interior Architectural Tour) and tell the stories of Marquette, his contemporaries, and the Native Americans in the area around Chicago.

Visit the Marquette Building

The lobby itself is striking as well, a two-story central light court as pictured here. Also, walk through the Marquette Building lobby to check out the architectural exhibit installed by the very influential and awesome MacArthur Foundation. You’ll learn more about the mosaics, the entire building architecture, and its historic preservation.

We also give thanks to the Native Americans in Chicago for many of our diagonal streets. Clark Street, Lincoln Avenue, Archer Avenue, Elston Avenue, and Milwaukee Avenue are some of the most prominent.  Chicago’s first settlers built towns and forts along these well-established Native American trails. Their natives gave these trails names like “Woodstock Trail.” But those names are nearly lost to us nowadays. Settlers often changed the trail names to indicate destinations, like “Green Bay Trail” or “Road to Willow Brown’s.” As Chicago grew into a vast city, they had more descriptive names. Milwaukee Avenue was merely “Upper Northwest Plank Road.” Eventually, the city named most roads in honor or influential figures, nearly all early male settlers or leaders.

Fort Dearborn plaques native american history Chicago-min

The Battle of Fort Dearborn

The history of Native Americans in Chicago culminates at the federal Fort Dearborn of the early 1800s, located at the mouth of the Chicago River. The American settlers there interacted with natives. During the War of 1812, Native Americans in Chicago were forced to pick sides between the Americans and the British. When American soldiers at Fort Dearborn were ordered to retreat, a group of Potawatamis who favored the British attacked and killed much of the group. Historians disagree on the name of this event, calling it either the Battle of Fort Dearborn or the Fort Dearborn Massacre, though a rose by any other name would smell as…bloody. We delve into the history of this historic event on our Architecture Walking Tour for Design Lovers.

Plaques on the sidewalk along Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, pictured above, show the site of Fort Dearborn. The southwest bridgehouse of the Michigan Avenue bridge shows a stone relief sculpture that commemorates the massacre. Here we see the American Captain William Wells defending civilians from the Native American attack.Michigan Ave bridgehouse scultpure native american history Chicago-min

After the War of 1812, the American government began removing Native Americans from Chicago. The army sent them to reservations west of the Mississippi River. This disconnected the growing city of Chicago from its heritage. During the first half of the 20th century, many Native Americans came to Chicago from rural locations. Just like African-Americans during the Great Migration, they came in search of the opportunities. Today, the population of Native Americans in Chicago is strongest on the North Side and up into Evanston. It’s interesting to consider what Chicago would have been like if European-descended settlers hadn’t moved into the area. I prefer, however, to celebrate the vast history of and connection to our city’s native inhabitants. Perhaps I’ll add some stinky leeks to my Thanksgiving Day menu.

-Elizabeth Tieri, Tour Guide


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


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Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

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I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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