Though unsigned, the author of this letter with a magnificent description of Chicago in 1835 has been determined to be Edward Benton Talcott (1812-1886), the son of Capt. Mancel Talcott (1785-1857), who brought his family west from Rome, New York, by flatboat on the Erie Canal to Detroit, and then on foot to a tract of land next to the Des Plaines River west of Chicago where he built his cabin in 1834. The site of Talcott’s cabin and farm, described in this letter, is now near Touhy Avenue in Park Ridge, Illinois (near O’Hare Airport).
Edward B. Talcott did not come to Illinois with his parents. Instead, he remained in employment on the Chenango Canal in his home state until 1835 when he came to Illinois with intentions of obtaining employment as a surveyor and engineer on the proposed Illinois & Michigan Canal. Eventually, in 1848, he became the superintendent of that entire project until he resigned in 1854. He married Mary Rawson Haywood (1812-1881) in 1842.
Edward directed his letter to his friend Jacob Farquharson (1810-18xx), son of William Farquharson (1771-1852) and Sarah McEwan (1772-1831) of Rome, Oneida, New York.
This letter was written just two weeks following Talcott’s arrival in Chicago and captures his initial impressions of the city, its inhabitants, and its society. There is a great description of Fort Dearborn, yet in existence at the mouth of the Chicago River, and of the businesses fronting the river to Wolf Point.
6th June 1835
I now proceed with joy to relieve the anxiety you will naturally feel till you get hold of this mammoth sheet. Don’t be alarmed at the first glance of this as it is designed as a good social, friendly, confidential letter in which I design to say just what I feel without regard to precocious opinions. Perhaps you may think some apology due for not writing to you sooner. If so, it is this — that I might give you a more definite account of the general business of the country, the general character of society, & more particularly of my own success in business.
In my journey I met with nothing peculiar interesting or worth a comment. At Buffalo I was detained two weeks in waiting for the harbor to open. From Buffalo to Chicago I came by water as the journey by land through Michigan was represented to be very tedious and moreover, I learned from a gentleman before I arrived at Buffalo that the situation of my contemplated business on the Michigan & Illinois Canal was such that it was not necessary for me to hasten my arrival at Chicago as I supposed it would be when I left Rome. From Buffalo, we came here in the short time of 14 1/2 days & what was very remarkable, we had no bad weather & instead of being sea-sick, I was able to eat about twice my allowance had Old Cuff ¹ cooked it as it should be. There was so many to cook for that Blackee ¹ did not stand to more than half cook anything. But we lived it through and since my landing here have gormandized all that comes within my reach. Since my arrival, I have not pursued exactly the course marked out before I left home for certain reasons. It was my desire (did I not succeed in business immediately) to take a cruise through the north and middle of this state, to examine the country & the lands soon to be sold. This journey depended upon the receipt of letters from men in Chenango County which have not been received and consequently my tour is deferred for the present.
It is now a little more than a fortnight since I arrived here. One week I spent at home and the other in town. From my limited view of the country, I can not express an opinion of it generally, but only of the small portion passed over and seen in going from Chicago to my father’s. Previous, however, to speaking of the country, I will give you a description of this far famed city of the West — of Chicago as it is. The harbor is yet unfinished and vessels have to anchor off shore and load and unload with small boats carrying about 30 tons. As you are wafted up the river in the ships’s small boat, you are hailed by the sentry of the fort, which stands on the South Bank of the river & but a short distance from it. The fort does not present that commanding appearance which the Military Station or Arsenal at Rome does, being on a much smaller scale. Yet it has a very military-like appearance and it together with the grounds around present a very neat aspect.
Passing the fort, you proceed up the river to the principal landing opposite a large & well finished brick building 3 stories high owned by Hubbard & Co., ² & accepted as a store & storehouse. To those who speak disparately of the whole mass of buildings in this place, I would observe that this and two other brick buildings would do no discredit to the city of New York. But it is not my design to stand forth the champion of the fine arts or morals of this place, but simply to present it as it is and leave you to make your own conclusions. With the exception of a section of lands reserved to the fort (which lies parallel with the Lake), this village is situated on very level ground but sufficiently above the river to drain it perfectly dry & in most places to allow a cellar to be built under the houses. There is now in this place __ public houses & from one of the superior order. They are all constantly full to overflowing. I eat at the Exchange & sleep with Thomas Wright. There are many very well built private dwelling houses & there are 7 Piano fortes in town so you may judge whether the moral state of society is so extremely gross & void of taste as represented.
There is weekly four different assemblies for public worship in this place. This morning I attended the Presbyterian Church here. There was assembled at least 200 quiet citizens. Afternoon, I attended the Episcopal & there found a goodly number. The moral star of this society is improving with grand strides and whoever conceived that the citizens of this place, or the inhabitants of the surrounding country, are characterized by that moral depravity represented by some, have formed a very unjust opinion of them.
With the people in town speculation in village lots is all the go. A few days since, a man bought a lot one day in the morning for $1000 & in the morning of the following day before breakfast, he sold it for $2000. This is the character of their speculations. Real estate in this place has risen within six months past 500 percent throughout the whole town. Since I have been in town, there have been sales to the amount of $80,000 in one day and not a day passes without large sales. This is no nominal affair but a real “bonafide” cash business. Every kind of business is brisk and everything salable bears a good price. Money is plenty and rents extravagantly high. A small house that here actually costs but $100 will rent readily for $200 per ann. This is one reason why so many small houses are built because they are more profitable to the builder than larger ones. It is estimated that more than one third of all the buildings in town are on Canal Lands — lands to which the builder has no legal title — more than the possession by erecting a building thereon. This forms another most cogent reason for building small houses.
It is said that the mercantile business has increased since last fall 250 percent. It is now at least 5 times the amount done in Rome. Vessels are arriving almost daily & some days hourly. There is now eleven sail lying in port. Mr. Davis & family are said to be on board some of them — almost every vessel has more or less emigrants on board. The numbers that have arrived up to this time greatly exceeds the amount of last year up to the same time. You can hardly conceive the “hot haste” with which the citizens glide along the streets — many of them dashing on as though the “fate of empires” or immortality depends upon his exertion alone. This is Chicago as it is.
A brief description of the country is all I am now able to give you. As you go out to my father’s, you pass over a very level, wet prairie for the first six miles. You then strike a narrow ridge running 1 1/2 miles over which is a fine road, the prairie on each side of it. Leaving the ridge, the prairie is more dry and broken and ground may be cultivated without expensive draining. The whole country around Chicago may be cultivated by draining which will not be expensive. The soil on this part is not so deep or rich in quantity as it is farther back into the country. The land on the east side of the Des Plaines [River] is mostly good but not generally as much so as the west side. The east side is bordered with a fine grove of timber in sufficient quantity for a range of farms on each side of the river.
Father is on the west side. His land is not generally so good as it is farther up the river, but there is a small grove near his house of about 5 acres which is about all the timber there is on the west side. As you go west from the river, the prairie improves in quality & situation. that is, the land is more rolling. It gradually rises to about the middle which is 3 Miles and then gradually descends to Salt Creek, which is bordered with a fine grove & is 6 Miles west of the Des Plaines. This is all I can say from actual observation of the country. This is sufficient to establish my good opinion of the country for farming. I say any man who is to be a farmer can do no better in ________ . You must come and see this country as soon as possible and get you a farm. I am going on to the Fox River in about four weeks to make a location for myself and I will put your mark on some sturdy oak.
You are probably anxious to know what father has done. He has now fenced in about 50 acres & rails enough split to fence 40 more. He has as much as 30 acres plowed, planted & sowed to corn, oats, & potatoes, and his crops all look very well. He is now at work hoeing his corn. House, when finished, will be very comfortable. Has nearly siding enough to close it which he designed to put on as soon as he gets through with his corn. The Old Man works like an old soldier & has got on well. Mancel is very near as tall as I am & as stout as two of me. The others of the family are all well.
When I commenced this great sheet, I designed to have given Caleb a short touch of it, but I have so much to say that I will make it all in the family & tell him just answer it with you.
With regard to my business here, I am somewhat disappointed as neither the canal or railroad have yet been commenced and probably will not this season. The survey of the public lands is also stopped for the present. Thus all my projects are done up. I was just on the point of starting for the south part of the state a few days since when the county surveyor offered me a job of draughting which will probably occupy me for 4 or 5 weeks. If there is any quantity of job surveying to be done so that I am in no want of business & if I have my health, I can do better here at it than on the canal (Chenango). This canal will be commenced another year without doubt, which will then afford me business. In the meantime, I shall perhaps grow a little fat. You will probably want to hear from all who came from Rome so I will give them a going over.
First, Asahel. ³ He is now living on a lot 2 miles out of Chicago. He will probably not be able to obtain this as it will probably sell high. He has made no more improvement than to build a small log house & barn & a small garden. If he does not obtain it, he will move into town where he has a house on a canal lot. He has another village lot worth $500 today. He has a claim about 20 miles from Chicago. He has just returned from planting & fencing a spot on it so as to save the claim. He did not like the place father had selected for him which was better than his own. The man who now claims it can take $500 for his claim at any moment. I think Asahel would have done best to have taken it but cannot say what the result will be. He says he is not a going to work … and all well and well pleased with the country. Wilcox and family are well. Fluskey is well & his business good. Thomas Wright is now sitting by the table reading poetry while I scratch for you. His health is good & his prospects very fair. William Hubbard is in a good location & is doing a fair business, and as he becomes known, his business will increase. I have not seen any of Mr. Hauser’s family except Elira who has got a boy nearly as large as her husband. Mary & husband are well. Chester & wife are well. ____ to Isiah Hills, that notwithstanding his predictions Chester House has his land paid for and is because Judith scolds so much or not, I do not know.I have not seen her but have no more doubt that she can scold than that she is alive.
The base changes of cal____, which formed the gossip of the neighborhood where my friends once resided, are hardly deserving of notice. I would only say that upon my arrival here, I found my friends in the full & unrestrained enjoyment and confidence of the most respected & virtuous portion of this community. I received a letter from ____ Auger this morning. He said John had gone to Kentucky and that Gilbert was expecting soon to follow him. I was in hopes that my business would have been such that I could have offered sufficient inducements for him to come here, but as it is I could not consistently. When you write, let me know where John is. Tell friend Caleb I hope his brewing will prove a good business. But he must be careful not to let the malt lie too long before using as it is apt to make dull beer.
Friend Esther [Farquharson]. When I began I resolved to dedicate a part of this letter to you, but before I was aware, I had proceeded to far to give you a friendly share and so resolved to make it a family concern.
¹ “Old Cuff” and “Blackee” were common 19th century derogatory terms for the Negro cook Talcott encountered aboard the ship on Lake Michigan. “Old Cuff” — a “woolly-headed and flat-nosed descendant of Ham” — was a ship’s cook and cabin boy popularized in a short story by Nathaniel Ames published in 1835.
² The Hubbard & Company brick warehouse referenced in this letter is undoubtedly the storehouse critics loved to call “Hubbard’s Folly.” It was built in 1834 at the SW corner of Water and LaSalle streets by Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard and his cousin, Henry George Hubbard.
³ I believe Talcott is referring to Asahel Newell (1784-1867), the husband of Elizabeth (Betsy) Bushnell (1779-1845). The Newell’s emigrated from Rome, Oneida County, New York, to Illinois in the 1830’s.