Saturday, September 29, 2012

Colonel Colbee Benton’s Sleepless Night on the Evening before Chicago’s Birth

On August 19th 1833 Colonel Colbee Chamberlain Benton (1805-1880) left Chicago with Louis Ouilmette, a young man of French and Potawatomi heritage, to inform local Indian tribes that their federal annuities would be paid in September of that year.[1]  Benton’s trip, recorded in “A visitor to Chicago in the Indian Days: Journal of the Far-Off West”, was taken one year after the end of the Black Hawk war which ended most tribal resistance to white settlement of the Chicago area.[2]  That same year the Potawatomis, a tribe that dominated in the lands that became Chicago since the 1690s, relinquished their rights to their lands in Illinois.  At that time the white settler population was little more than 150 people.  A few years later in 1837 Chicago was chartered as a city.  

That Benton’s journey was undertaken at time of tension between the indigenous and settler population is reflected in his descriptions of their trip.  On the night of August 24th the pair of travelers passed through some oak groves and arrived at a small stream in a little prairie in Southeast Wisconsin and they camped there for the night.  As night fell they heard Indians around their camp.  Benton hid beside a large tree and at Ouilmette’s suggestion he removed his straw hat since it was “a good mark to shoot at.”  Assessing the danger they found themselves in, Louis remarked that “there were occasionally some of the Sauks and Fox Indians wandering about in [that] part of the country, and from them [they] could not expect much mercy.” 

Benton didn’t sleep that night.  However, even if they had been “in danger of suffering from the power of their tomahawk and scalping knives” it was not fear that kept him awake.  He remarked, in fact, there was something about their circumstances “so novel and romantic about it that it dispelled every fear…” He was far from home, everything looked “wild and terrible”, he was surrounded by “savages” and yet it all seemed “lovely and romantic and beautiful”.  He felt happy.

So what kept Benton from his sleep?  It was the noise!  Some of the noise certainly may have emanated from the Indians who “mocked almost every wild animal.”  But also there were unfamiliar birds calling, as well as foxes and raccoons.  In the distance, wolves howled and owls hooted in concert with the wolves.  The mosquitoes added their part to “the music”.  A sleepless, noisy, vaguely threatening night, and yet Benton declared that never before had he “passed a night so interestingly, and so pleasantly…”


So here was Chicago on the eve of its 1837 charter.  A settler population numbered in the hundreds surrounded by a loud chorusing of people and wildlife.  Benton recorded the diversity of the vegetated landscape of northeast Illinois and southeast Wisconsin as they passed by on horseback.  Near Round Lake (Lake Country, Illinois) he noted that they ventured through little oak openings then out onto the prairie, alongside little streams with “heavy timber”, and, very muddily, across “tremendous marshes”.  The prairie grass were, as they often are in these early descriptions, so tall and wet that passing through on horseback was like “wading through water.”  They shot, usually unsuccessfully at any birds they could see: wild geese, ducks, loons, pigeons, a sand crane (successfully bagged), and a prairie hen (killed and roasted for the dog). Streams were home to “some monstrous pickerel and other large fishes.”  Dotted infrequently through this wilderness were the corn fields of Indians.  Thus it was a variegated landscape supporting a rich diversity of life, human and non-human.  A gloriously loud landscape it was then, one interesting and uncanny enough to keep a man awake and happy.

On the evening of Chicago’s birth Benton even found a moment for erotic thoughts.  The travelers stopped at a village where Louis was known to the chief.  Benton remarked him as “a tall good looking Indian about forty five years of age, and is a notable drunkard”.  There Benton spots a “very pretty squaw” who roasted some corn for them.  The next morning Benton reported himself to be a little grumpy not to have dreamt of her.  “Her tawny complexion”, he conceded, “only made her more interesting.”  When he glanced over at her he found that she was “looking serenely at the sky…”  Benton speculated that she “was some pure and sinless being whose noble spirit held converse with the angels in a brighter world, far above the mortal things of earth.”  It may be more likely, however, that she was solemnly preparing herself for departure from her home lands.  The village chief, called Warp-sa by Benton, was most likely Wapse who it is claimed sold the Potawatomi lands in Illinois and was responsible for the removal of the tribe to Kansas. 

And after the removal of the Indians, the landscape of the Chicago, under the influence of the vastly expanding population, turned to homogenous shit.  But that’s another story.    

[1] Of Prairie, Woods, and Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing.  Edited by Joel Greenberg.  University of Chicago Press 2008
[2] Benton, Colbee C. , Edited by Getz, James R; Angle, Paul M.; Caxton Club; Caxton Club; Prairie Press (Iowa City, Iowa). 1957; Prairie Press (Iowa City, Iowa)

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