Chicago’s Big Shoulders: People Who Put Chicago on the Map
By: Legacy Staff
7 years ago
On Dec. 4, 1674, Father Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) arrived in a mostly uncharted, swampy area of America, next to a big lake and near a number of large Indian settlements. Nasty weather forced him to spend the winter in a cabin there. Marquette left in the spring, and he died not long after, at age 38.
Even if he had lived to 100, Marquette wouldn’t have seen what great heights the site of his humble cabin would rise to, as it would be another century and a half before the area would begin to grow in leaps and bounds. But as the first European to winter in the area, Marquette was an early influence on the place that would one day become Chicago.
He was followed by countless others, all the men and women who made Chicago the great city it is today – a cultural, business and financial center of the world, and the third-largest city in the U.S. To commemorate the anniversary of Father Marquette’s arrival, let’s take a look at a few of the others who helped put Chicago on the map.
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (17??-1818) arrived at the mouth of the Chicago River more than 100 years after Marquette’s winter there, and unlike Marquette, he put down roots – becoming the first non-native permanent resident of Chicago. Point du Sable’s history is not well-documented, and there are no known portraits of him, but we know he showed up in Chicago sometime in the 1780s and built the house pictured. Possibly a native of Haiti, possibly of French-Canadian origin, Point du Sable described himself as a “free mulatto man.” He remained in the house until 1800, when he moved on to Missouri, and he is honored today as the Founder of Chicago.
Daniel Burnham (1846-1912) may not be a household name, but he did as much – if not more – to bring Chicago international renown as anyone else on this list. As the Director of Works for the World’s Columbian Exhibition – the 1893 World’s Fair that graced Chicago’s south side – his vision of a classically-influenced “White City” dazzled millions of visitors from all over the U.S. and the world, keeping Chicago in the minds of many. Burnham went on to create “The Plan of Chicago,” a model for the growth of the city during a boom period. Its influence can still be seen today in the city’s roads and greenways, and especially in its many parks.
Jane Addams (1860-1935) founded the innovative Hull House as part of the social reform movement that was coming to prominence in the late 19th century. Hull House offered social, educational and artistic programs to the mostly immigrant residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, and its volunteers helped address and influence reforms in child labor, women’s suffrage, healthcare, and immigration policy. Addams’ decades of work helped establish Chicago as a major player in social reform.
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) had ties to locations all over the Midwest, but his poems about Chicago are among his best-known works. As a resident of suburban Evanston and Elmhurst, he worked as a journalist for the Chicago Daily News in addition to writing poetry and children’s books. Some of his most famous words immortalized Chicago as a city of brawny hard workers:
Hog Butcher for the World
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler,
Stormy, Husky, Brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.
Al Capone (1899-1947) is Chicago’s most famous criminal – so famous that the stereotypical gangster image is largely based on Capone’s appearance and mannerisms. His Chicago crime syndicate took advantage of Prohibition by bootlegging liquor to great profit, as well as keeping a hand in other criminal activity like prostitution and gambling. If anyone has ever thought of Chicago as a bit lawless (and more than a few have…), Capone can be thanked – or blamed – for prominently influencing that view.
Richard J. Daley (1902-1976) – arguably Chicago’s most famous politician before a certain U.S. president began his 2008 campaign – is known partly for his longevity (he served as the city’s mayor for 21 years) and partly for his reputation as the brutal head of a corrupt political machine. He helped solidify the perception of Chicago as a city of underhanded political back-scratching, but he did a lot of good for the city as well. He worked to revitalize downtown, pushed through major projects like the building of O’Hare International Airport and the Sears Tower, and kept the city from spiraling into the post-industrial decline that many other cities suffered in the same era. But perhaps the most enduring legacy of Richard J. Daley is his son, Richard M. Daley – himself an influential politician, who will soon surpass his father as the longest-serving mayor in Chicago history.
John Belushi (1949-1982) joined The Second City – the best known of Chicago’s many improv comedy troupes – in 1971 and, along with other Second City alums like Bill Murray (and later Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, and Stephen Colbert), helped bring national recognition to the city’s thriving improvisational comedy scene. Shortly after his Second City stint, Belushi went on to star in the first four seasons of "Saturday Night Live." But it was his classic movie "The Blues Brothers" that best spotlighted his hometown – from the chase scene on Lower Wacker Drive to the bridge jump over the Calumet River to the death of the Bluesmobile in Daley Plaza. The city is such an integral part of the movie that its writers and stars considered it another character. Belushi’s biggest film helped make Chicago a go-to venue for movie locations.
Koko Taylor (1928-2009) was a blues woman in a blues town. Taylor was a powerful singer whose distinctively rough voice could, in the words of one reviewer, “[pin] a listener to the back wall.” A Tennessee native, Taylor moved to Chicago in her early 20s and made the area her home for the rest of her life. Chicago is known for its blues scene and style thanks to Taylor and many other fine musicians, and thanks to record labels like Chess, the Chicago-based label that brought local blues artists like Taylor, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and Buddy Guy to a national audience. As a testament to the enduring popularity and influence of the blues in Chicago, the annual Chicago Blues Festival is the largest free concert of its kind in the world and attracts more than 500,000 fans each year.
Chicago’s important place in American history and life is firmly established, thanks to these and many other notable residents. And a new generation of Chicagoans carries the torch – from musician and producer Kanye West to best-selling writer Dave Eggers, media superstar Oprah Winfrey to President Barack Obama. They’ll help maintain the legacy Father Marquette started more than 400 years ago.