There have been an incredible amount of early burials in the downtown area of Chicago. Many could be thought of as the earliest “backyard” burial, where the first Chicago residents simply buried their deceased where they lived. Many others were native Americans.
Bodies most everywhere
Both Native Americans and early Chicago settlers buried their dead in or along the Chicago riverbank. The Tribune of 1897 state:
“..that all along both sides and partly under its present bed, from Market Street to Dearborn or State, bodies of early Chicagoans are thickly laid.”
Andreas, in his History of Chicago, used the phrase “..all along the borders of the two branches….on or near the residence of the friends of the deceased.”
The Daily Democrat reported :
“Two coffins seen floating down the river (were) supposed to have been from some burying ground on the North Branch of the Wabansia Division.” One early observation was of a boatman paddling up the river who saw the ends of bark coffins projecting from the sand hills on the right bank…and even occasionally noted their contents.”
As early as 1897, the Chicago Tribune printed an article entitled:
“City built on Graves – Chicago buildings stand upon sites of old cemeteries…the structures of the downtown district cover unnumbered dead.”
John Kinzie’s home along the Chicago river might be considered one of the earliest sites for a backyard burial. John Kinzie (1763-1828) remained at the house until his death on January 6, 1828 when Chicago’s population was only about forty people.
Jean LaLime Buried by Kinzie
Andreas described the La Lime burial site as being “near the bank of the river about the present terminus of Rush Street and within about 200 yards (600′) of Mr. Kinzie’s house, in plain view from his front door and piazza.” This grave was also mentioned in The Fort Dearborn Massacre by Helm, published 1912.
This is (or was) the burial site of Jean LaLime, ( -1812) an interpreter at Fort Dearborn who was killed by John Kinzie (1763-1828) in a dispute early in 1812. Although Kinzie was cleared of any wrongdoing, it is reported that his feelings of guilt prompted him to have LaLime buried near the Kinzie home. According to The Story of Old Fort Dearborn by J. Seymour Currey, 1912, the grave was enclosed by a picket fence and cared for by Kinzie and his family. John Kinzie and other family members dutifully placed fresh flowers on the grave.
The Chicago Tribune of 1897 stated “As the number of families multiplied, fewer bodies were buried in the neighborhood of the houses, and by 1825 it had become customary to carry the dead to the lake shore just north of the (Chicago) river, and east of the Kinzie home for interment. This spot had been used as a burying ground for the inhabitants of Fort Dearborn.”
And on October 7, 1900 the Chicago Tribune printed the story “Forgotten Graveyards of Chicago – Beautiful Homes built over the tombs of departed Pioneers”
The Chicago Tribune article of October 7, 1900 describes a cemetery referred to as the “ Common Acre”: “On the west side, on the North Branch of the Chicago River, north of Kinzie Street, another old cemetery has been obliterated, the ground being taken up for manufacturing sites and business blocks. The remains buried there were taken to burial grounds outside the city limits, as they were at that time, the the cemeteries are now incorporated within the legal precincts of the city.”
The Daily Democrat refers to “…some burying ground on the North Branch of the Wabansia Division”
How did we forget so many graves and even whole cemeteries? And where are they?
Did you know the John Hancock building is built upon and near the site of an early burying ground? The North Side Cemetery, surveyed in 1835, included a portion of prime North Michigan Avenue real estate including the Hancock Building and Water Tower Place.
A portion of Lincoln Park, the beautiful park along Chicago’s lakefront, was once City Cemetery, the primary municipal burying ground for Chicago between 1837 and about 1871. Most bodies were removed after the Chicago Fire, but many still remain buried there. Over the years, human remains have often been found in Lincoln Park and in the Gold Coast neighborhood during construction or repair projects. Most of the God Coast area bodies were from where Catholic Cemetery was located. Today, the Cardinal’s mansion now stands on the north end of that site.
Other cemeteries existed near and under portions of the McCormick Place complex, under the University of Illinois Circle Campus, under housing developments, and under many city streets. Construction crews often discover human remains during street and sewer work.
In future blogs I will describe how the city began to consolidate bodies in two municipal cemeteries.
But for now, think twice as you walk in and enjoy the downtown and northside area. There just may be someone under your feet!
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