Indian and French Fur Traders

Chicago’s maritime history begins with the American Indians.  Many different native people’s called Chicago home, including the Illinois, Miami, Ottawa and Potawatomi. All of these people were masters of the craft of canoe building.  The most adaptable and useful canoe made by the Indians were the birchbark canoes. Rolls of birchbark were peeled off of trees and sewn together over a wooden frame and the seams were sealed with pine pitch. The finished product was lightweight, highly maneuverable and capable of bearing heavy cargoes. Best of all, such canoes could be repaired during the course of journey with materials readily available in the Great Lakes region.

By the 1600s French fur traders in Canada had begun to adopt the canoe as a mean of exploring the interior of North America. Canoes provided the means of transportation for Father Jacques Marquette, the Jesuit priest, who in 1673 was the first European to visit the Chicago area. Although the missionary died a year after his sojourn in Chicago, other French missionaries and traders followed him. For both Indian and French fur traders, Chicago was the site of an important portage linking Lake Michigan with the Des Plaines River via the South Branch of the Chicago River.