Fort Chécagou, or Fort Chicago, was a seventeenth-century temporary fort that may have been located in northeastern Illinois. Though this fort was likely occupied for less than a year around the winter of 1685, the name has become associated with a myth that the French maintained a military garrison at a fort near the mouth of the Chicago River, the future site of Chicago. Some sources mention that the fort was built in 1685 and that Henri de Tonti sent his aide Pierre-Charles de Liette as Commander of the fort until 1702. Although this fort was marked on a number of eighteenth century maps of the area, there is no evidence that it ever existed. Most forts were made of untreated wood, so that traces of the fort could have easily disappeared by the forces of nature.
Before the arrival of the French missionaries, the area was inhabited by a small settlement of Native Americans on the southwestern coast of the Lake Michigan. Their locality was made up of Algonquian people of Mascoutens and Miamis which wandered this area. The French missionaries were therefore the first Europeans to come to this region. These settlements of Algonquian people were used as trading posts on the trade routes by the French fur traders and trappers. The word Chicago was probably coined from the French word shikaakwa, which means wild leek or skunk.
The Mission of the Guardian Angel was built in 1683 by the French missionaries to convert the local Amerindians. In 1685, the French built Fort Chécagou. In 1692, Henri de Tonti sent his aide Pierre-Charles de Liette as Commander of the fort until 1702. The fort was abandoned by the French in the 1720s during the Fox wars. It was a custom to burn down the forts by the Amerindians after their triumph, unlike Europeans who would take over the fort and often rename it. It was also a custom to incorporate other Amerindian people after their defeat instead of killing them.
In the early 1700s, the Potawatomis took over this region from the Mascoutens and the Miamis. The first foreigner who settled in Chicago, was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable who was a Haitian of African and French ancestry. In the 1770s, he settled down on the banks of the Chicago river and married a Potawatomi woman.
Seventeenth Century Forts in the Chicago Area
A number of temporary, small fortified trading posts were constructed in the Chicago area in the late seventeenth century. The exact location of many of these trading posts is uncertain, and, though they were sometimes referred to as forts, there is no evidence for a permanent French military fortification in the Chicago area during this period.
In a letter written by the explorer LaSalle dated June 4, 1683, he notes that two of his men had constructed a temporary stockade at the Chicago Portage in the winter of 1682. However, this structure was little more than a log cabin and was never garrisoned.
The earliest mention of a Fort of Chicagou, possibly located at the mouth of the Chicago River, appears in a memoir written by Henri de Tonty in 1693 in which he recounted an overland journey from Fort Michilimackinac to Fort St. Louis that he made during the winter of 1685/1686:
I embarked, therefore for the Illinois, on St. Andrew's Day 1685; but being stopped by the ice, I was obliged to leave my canoe and to proceed on by land. After going 120 leagues, I arrived at the Fort of Chicagou, where M. de la Durantaye commanded; and from thence I came to Fort St. Louis, where I arrived in the middle of January, 1686.
However, an account of the same journey written by Tonty in the summer of 1686 makes no mention of the fort, and can be interpreted to suggest that the fort he visited was actually at the mouth of the St. Joseph River on the east side of Lake Michigan. Further evidence that Durantaye's fort was not located beside the Chicago River comes from the journals of Henri Joutel. In October 1687 Joutel, and a party of LaSalle's men left Fort St. Louis bound for Canada, however, when they arrived at Lake Michigan poor weather prevented them from going any further. After waiting for eight days by the lake at the mouth of the Chicago River, they gave up and returned to Fort St. Louis. They set out again in March 1688, arriving at Chicago on March 29, and leaving on April 8. Joutel described their stay in Chicago, but made no mention of a fort.
The Myth of a French Chicago Fort
The myth of a French fort at the mouth of the Chicago River emerged following the publication of a map of Lake Michigan by Louis Hennepin in 1697. His map showed Fort Miami near the mouth of the St. Joseph River, however, he showed the river as emerging from the southernmost tip of the lake. Hennepin's map was widely copied, but cartographers, knowing that there was no river at the southern tip of Lake Michigan erroneously assumed that Hennepin had intended to show the Chicago River, and so it became widely accepted that there had been a French fort at the mouth of the Chicago River.
- Briggs, Winstanley. "Chicago's Mythical French Fort". The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 2009-07-01.
- Eccles, W.J" (1972). France in America.
- Mason, Edward (1901). Chapters from Illinois History. Chicago: Herbert S. Stone and Company. p. 144.
- Quaife, Milo Milton (1914). "Was There a French Fort at Chicago?". Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the Year 1912 (Springfield, Illinois: Illinois Historical Society): 115–121.
- Tonty, Henri (1693). The Journeys of Réné Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle.
- Joutel, Henri; Stiles, Henry Reed & Griffin, Appleton (1906). Joutel's Journal of La Salle's Last Voyage, 1684–7. Albany, NY: Joseph McDonough. pp. 191–198.