It was July 1826 on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River and John Kinzie’s household, along with a good friend who was visiting, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard, was just sitting down to breakfast when they thought they heard singing.
The past few days had been odd; a mysterious fire badly damaged old Fort Dearborn and heavy July thunderstorms had flooded the area.
As they listened, the faint sound seemed to be one of the traditional songs the American Fur Company’s voyageurs favored to set their paddling cadence. Suddenly, Kinzie brightened, telling Hubbard he recognized the strong lead voice—it was his half-brother, Bob. Robert “Bob” Forsyth, his brother Thomas (Kinzie’s other half-brother), and Kinzie were all former partners in the fur trade Kinzie was then carrying on alone. By 1826, Robert Forsyth was serving as secretary for Michigan Territory Governor Lewis Cass, the U.S. Government’s point man in dealing with Native Americans along the Northwest frontier and Kinzie thought him to be with Cass at Green Bay.
Hurrying outside, they saw a sleek birch bark express canoe moving quickly up the normally sluggish Chicago River towards Kinzie’s trading house. As the canoe reached shore, half the tough, wiry voyageur crew jumped out to steady the craft and keep it from striking the muddy riverbank while others carried Forsyth, and, Kinzie was surprised to see, Gov. Cass himself, to shore on their backs.
Which is how Kinzie and Hubbard learned the Winnebago Tribe in what is today Wisconsin was on the verge of open warfare with whites encroaching on their lands—and that Cass, Forsyth, and their crew of 13 hardy voyageurs were on the brink of making Illinois frontier history.
Cass explained he had traveled to Butte des Morts, just upstream from Green Bay on the Fox River of Wisconsin for treaty talks with the Winnebagoes, to find only one small group had showed up. Further, he learned Winnebagoes had attacked and killed a Métis (mixed French-Canadian and Indian ancestry) fur trader and that a keelboat on the Mississippi had also been attacked.
Cass, a former military officer, knew serious trouble when he saw it, and he decided decisive action was needed to keep the situation from deteriorating. Cass and Forsyth quickly gathered supplies aboard a handy express canoe, and set off like nautical Paul Reveres to warn the frontier and get military help at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Cass’s route was the familiar “Voyageur Highway” up the Fox River from Green Bay to the portage to the Wisconsin River (at modern Portage, Wis.) and then down the Wisconsin through Winnebago territory where he stopped to urge the tribe reconsider their actions—and where he was nearly assassinated. Then it was down to the Mississippi, a quick July 4 stop at Prairie du Chien to buck up terrified settlers and on to the Fever River by July 6. There he organized the defense of Galena and dispatched a relief force to Prairie du Chien.
From Galena, Cass set his course down the broad Mississippi to Jefferson Barracks at St. Louis, where he alerted U.S. Army Brigadier General Henry Atkinson that troops were needed in a big hurry up north. Gen. Atkinson moved fast, leading an armed and equipped detachment aboard a steamboat for the trip up the Mississippi while Cass, Forsyth and their crew loaded their canoe aboard the steamboat.
When the steamer reached the mouth of the Illinois River at modern Grafton, Cass and company left to continue up the Illinois with the goal of warning the residents of Peoria and Kinzie’s American Fur Company post at Chicago that hostilities with the Winnebagoes were likely.
The voyageurs set a fast pace as they paddled upstream through Peoria Lake and past its historic village overlooked by old Fort Clark, sped along by the urgency of their mission. Passing the confluence with the Kankakee and steering up the Des Plains River, they knew they were finally just 60 miles from their goal of Lake Michigan and Chicago.
Especially during the summer months, this was one of the most problematical stretches of any journey up the Illinois River to Lake Michigan. During periods of low water, the shallow Des Plaines required lengthy portages. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for the portage to extend the full 60 miles from the confluence with the Kankakee all the way to Chicago. Providing wagons and ox teams to haul canoes and boats across the wildly variable length of what was called the Chicago Portage was, in fact, one of the businesses Kinzie’s friend, Hubbard, operated.
But this time Mother Nature favored Cass and Forsyth. The heavy rains that struck the southern end of Lake Michigan swelled the Des Plaines, as well as the tributary from the river to Mud Lake (the source of the normally sluggish Chicago River), and the Chicago itself to such an extent that no portage was needed at all. The canoe and its crew and passengers reached Mud Lake just as night fell, and darkness prevented Cass from continuing on. One misstep with the efficient but fragile hull of the bark canoe would have meant disaster, so the voyageurs anchored the canoe by driving their paddles into the muddy lake bottom and everyone passed a miserable mosquito-plagued July night sitting upright in their seats.
As soon as dawn lit the sky, they set off again, with Forsyth leading the traditional canoe songs that set the paddlers’ cadence—and which had alerted Kinzie and Hubbard. By the time they reached Chicago, they’d already paddled more than 1,400 miles in 13 days.
Cass and Forsyth quickly explained their mission to Kinzie and Hubbard while replenishing their supplies and Kinzie acted at once to secure the vital Chicago Portage. After a good night’s rest, the canoemen set off again, this time up the shore of Lake Michigan to Green Bay to complete their remarkable 1,600 mile circuit, setting a record that is unlikely to ever be matched, and creating an enduring Illinois frontier legend.