White men, based on their position of power, wrote nearly all the early histories, like fat kids profiting off their gluttony to claim every last cereal-box prize. To plant her own family’s flag as Chicago builders, Juliette Kinzie defied that convention. She wrote two book-length historical accounts of early Chicago. The second, “Wau-bun: The ‘Early Days’ in the North-west” (1856), gained considerable popularity and importance.
Ann Durkin Keating’s “The World of Juliette Kinzie” does far more than revive Kinzie’s own published stories; it meticulously charts one woman’s course as she works within the confines of established norms to improve and build family first, church second and community third.
Keating retroactively shadows the author, housewife, philanthropist and institution builder as she ventures west from her comfortable New England existence to establish a home in the outpost known as Chicago. Through decidedly good and bad times, Kinzie uses all her resources to construct a better life for herself and those around her.
Kinzie’s own work provides Keating with good primary material: the two histories, plus two novels, including one published posthumously. Kinzie was also a prolific letter writer. Unlike so much of the city’s early correspondence, her treasure trove of missives was not destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. In addition, Kinzie was an amateur artist who drew buildings and landscapes, and she was a historian actively involved in the Chicago Historical Society’s inception.
Much of Chicago’s history pre-Chicago Fire got scrubbed clean due to the destruction of evidence, as Keating notes, with a masculine push to make politicians and businessmen, particularly real estate speculators, the folk heroes. Keating finds the voices and roles of women, particularly housewives, buried in that debris, and what Keating does best is recreate Kinzie’s time so the landscape comes into focus. Keating contextualizes that time and life to provide clarity on her subject’s accomplishments specifically and homemakers generally.
What Kinzie, a self-proclaimed grandmother of Chicago, did not know firsthand, she learned secondhand through relatives on the ground as Chicago made the transition from an Indian village and trading outpost to a small but rapidly expanding, town. When Kinzie first laid eyes on Chicago in 1831, it was not yet a city—just a couple hundred scattered residences near Fort Dearborn. Chicago, then and a few years later, when Kinzie began her married life at what is now Wabash and Hubbard, possessed no infrastructure of any kind—no streets or sidewalks, much less schools or churches or social service agencies. A solitary hotel stood as the only hint that Chicago remotely considered itself a destination.
Keating, one of the foremost experts on nineteenth-century Chicago, makes clear that Kinzie embraced much of what contemporary thinkers now consider racism, misogyny and class elitism. What makes Kinzie such a worthy subject is the fact that she was not remarkable in the way that usually draws attention. Her thoughts on women’s rights, race, poverty, and so forth bent toward rather than bucked the established power brokers. This did not make Kinzie meek or subservient, as though that were even possible in a woman who birthed and raised five children at home, all while making their clothes and food from scratch.
Keating captures powerful moments, such as when Kinzie persuaded old friend and now-president Abraham Lincoln to do her a large favor, in the midst of the Civil War, to aid her daughter, who’d become a Southerner by marriage. Kinzie worked relentlessly on her family’s behalf, and by extension the community that was so important to her family’s quality of life. The term “sewing circle” is used in a derogatory way today, like a bunch of old ladies crudely sharing gossip. Kinzie’s sewing circle, which she founded, raised money for “a substantial church building, rectory, organ and bell.” It made clothes for the needy, provided care for the sick, and brought supplies to a shipwrecked doctor and his family along the Chicago shoreline.
Keating’s research and writing about Kinzie allows readers to consider these women’s accomplishments in their proper perspective as the city transformed from Indian country to industrial center. Kinzie should be considered one of Chicago’s forgotten founders. Her work, often uncredited because she was a woman, helped build the foundation of what would become a sophisticated, international city. “The World of Juliette Kinzie” makes heard a voice long muted, from inside the parlors, kitchens and gardens that contributed to the rise of Chicago.
Kinzie died just before the Great Chicago Fire, a poignant ending for her history and that of Keating’s narrative. Though Kinzie’s writing career played a subsidiary role to that of home manager, the granite impression of a book on her Graceland Cemetery gravestone acknowledges the importance of writing to her legacy. “The World of Juliette Kinzie” succeeds because the author understood her subject’s accomplishments and made that evident without avoiding difficult, and often unheroic, truths.
Ann Durkin Keating will discuss “The World of Juliette Kinzie” at the Seminary Co-Op on January 27, 2020 at 7pm.
“The World of Juliette Kinzie: Chicago Before the Fire”
By Ann Durkin Keating
The University of Chicago Press, 280 pages
Donald G. Evans is the author of three books, most recently the story collection An Off-White Christmas, and Founding Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.