Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Ann Durkin Keating's "The World of Juliette Kinzie"

Ann Durkin Keating is Dr. C. Frederick Toenniges Professor of History at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The World of Juliette Kinzie: Chicago before the Fire, and reported the following
Opening to page 99 of The World of Juliette Kinzie, the reader is dropped not only into the middle of Juliette Magill Kinzie’s life, but also into the middle of her 1856 history of Chicago, Wau-Bun: The ‘Early Day’ in the Northwest. It is representative of the book in this way: At every turn, I wove together what Juliette was writing with her broader life experiences. So the page toggles back between early Chicago and 1856. In 1856, Juliette was 50 years old; it was thirty-five years after she had married and traveled west from Connecticut to Wisconsin and then to Chicago. Juliette still lived in the large brick house she and her husband John had built in 1835 on the north side of the Chicago River not far from what is today the Michigan Avenue Bridge. By 1856, the couple had helped to build Chicago from a small outpost in Indian Country to a growing industrial entrepot anchored by almost a dozen rail lines. Juliette Kinzie wrote her history of Chicago to solidify the place of the Kinzie family in that saga. We remember her because of her work as a historian; Wau-Bun remains in print down to the present.

On page 99, the reader learns that Juliette sought to shape the history of the city she called home. I suggest that:
Juliette set out to define a foundation story for Chicago that properly acknowledged the role of her family. Her history of Chicago began in 1804 with the arrival of John and Eleanor Kinzie, the same year the US government completed Fort Dearborn. Whatever happened before was simply a prequel. This allowed Juliette to acknowledge and then quickly diminish the earlier presence of others like Jean Baptiste Point de Sable, now widely understood to have been Chicago’s first settler. She shrewdly interjected race into her dismissal of his claim to primacy by repeating what she had heard from area Indians: “the first white man who settled here was a negro.” She assumed that her largely white readership would then simply discount his importance.

Juliette also skillfully downplayed the handful of métis families at the small trading outpost that emerged during the 1790s. Their houses, gardens, and outbuildings already dotted the riverbanks when Fort Dearborn was founded. In Wau-Bun, Juliette ignored them when she enumerated the residents of Chicago she encountered in her 1831 visit. By narrowing her field to “white inhabitants,” Juliette overlooked even the Kinzies’ longtime neighbors Antoine and Archange Ouilmette, who had lived alongside Point de Sable during his years at Chicago.
This selection also raises another issue that threads through my book. Juliette Kinzie believed in the supremacy of white New England society and tried to transplant it in Chicago. Alongside her sense of superiority, Juliette betrayed deep prejudices against Native Americans, African-Americans and European immigrants. While Juliette showed a deep interest in understanding the Ho-Chunk and Potawatomi who lived around her in the early 1830s, it was guided by her certainty that their world was disappearing in the face of the western expansion of American society. Metis people were simply written out of her story of “white inhabitants.” And African-Americans, enslaved or free, were relegated to subservient places in her deeply hierarchical and patriarchal world. Individual rights had very little meaning to her; household responsibilities were at the center of a worldview that she shared with many privileged white women. But changes were afoot. Even by 1856, challenges from abolitionists and women’s rights activists, as well as the rise of industrial capitalism, were challenging Kinzie’s world view. Not found on page 99 is the story of how Juliette Kinzie responded to these changes before her death in 1870. But it is part of The World of Juliette Kinzie!
Learn more about The World of Juliette Kinzie at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue