Tuesday, October 18, 2016

John Kinzie

 (“Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – December 2015, No. 131)

John Kinzie

Anyone traveling in and about Chicago is likely to encounter Kinzie Street.  John Kinzie is reputed to be the “father” of the City of Chicago having earned the title as one of its early settlers. John Kinzie once lived in Miamitown, the site of present-day Fort Wayne and at the request of Father Louis Payet stepped in to play his violin for the small Catholic community gathered in December 1789 for the Christmas Eve midnight Mass.

It was during the early 1790s a few years before the U.S. fortress was dedicated as Fort Wayne. In the journal of Henry Hay, a visitor to Miamitown from Detroit, who on February 17, 1790, wrote that the frozen rivers created ice jams which, in turn, caused the water to rise partially flooding Miamitown. To get around, folks used canoes and pirogues and by February 24th the water had surrounded John Kinzie’s house forcing him to move out.

Eight months earlier when Harmer’s army came up from Fort Washington – now the Cincinnati area – suffering a defeat at the hands of the Miami Confederation, John Kinzie was in Miamitown along with George Sharp and Antoine Lasselle. Sharp wrote to Col. Alexander McKee from Defiance on October 17, 1790, before he heard of Harmer’s loss.  “I left the Miamies the 15th. The people in general had then saved a considerable part of their property but the village was burned to ashes by the Indians, lest it offer shelter to their enemies.  Messrs. Kinzie and Lacelle (sic) were to remain in the environs of the Miamis four days at last after my departure and promised to send me every intelligence of consequence to this place.” (

In 1792 Kinzie was described as “a Scot, who, in addition to merchandizing, followed the occupation of a silversmith, exchanging with the Indian his brooches, ear-drops, and other silver ornaments, at an enormous profit, for skins and furs.”

In 1804, Kinzie moved to Chicago, where Fort Dearborn had been constructed during the summer of 1803 making his home opposite the fort on the north bank of the Chicago River.  He was in his new town when General William Hull, governor of Michigan and commandant of the American force at Detroit, ordered Captain Nathan Heald at Fort Dearborn to abandon his command and take refuge back at Fort Wayne.  John  Kinzie also was there when William Wells and his band of Miami warriors arrived in 1812 to escort the occupants out of Fort Dearborn and return the garrison to the safety of Fort Wayne.  Among the caravan travelers were Well’s niece, Mrs. Rebekah Heald and Mrs. Margaret Helm the wife of Lt. Linai T. Helm. Mrs. Heald witnessed her uncle William Wells cut down by the mostly Potawatomi attackers as he attempted to escort some ninety-six officers, enlisted militia as well as women and children, many in covered wagons exiting the fort. American losses counted fifty-three dead along with many wounded, and about fifteen warriors were lost.

During the attack, Chief Black Partridge rescued Margaret Helm.  After the conflict the Potawatomi Black Partridge along with Waubansee, protected Mrs. Helm as well as John Kinzie’s family.   Mrs. Heald, Mrs. Helm and Sergeant Griffith, brother of Mrs. Alexander Ewing of Fort Wayne were saved through the good offices of Black Partridge, Sau-gan-ash and Topenebe. 

These were days of great importance. John Kinzie was one of the colorful characters who witnessed the struggles of the wilderness at places which grew to become the city of Fort Wayne and the mega city of Chicago.  Raids on Maimitown and the War of 1812 at Fort Dearborn – America’s second war of Independence from Great Brittan control – found John Kinzie as an eyewitness. He was at his home when he died in 1828 and is buried in Chicago, where he brought a piece of Hoosier with him to found the city of Chicago.


Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio. Ft. Wayne 106.3 FM and South Bend 95.7 FM.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog, “Our Stories,” at history centerfw.blogspot.com.

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