Juliette M. Kinzie’s Wau-Bun: The "Early Day" in the North-West*
by Nina Baym

Wau-Bun: The "Early Day" in the North-West is a key narrative of early Illinois history, written with considerable literary flair by a woman whose adult life was inextricably connected with the development of the state and its metropolitan center, Chicago.

When Wau-Bun first came out in 1856, its author, Juliette Magill Kinzie, was fifty years old. She had been born in Connecticut where her maternal grandfather and great-grandfather (whose family name was Wolcott) had been leading statesmen and businessmen whose family presence on the continent dated back to 1630 and the Massachusetts Bay settlement. Her parents moved to New York State when she was fourteen; Juliette may or may not have accompanied them, but it was at their home in New Hartford, New York, that she married John H. Kinzie ten years later. John’s parents, originally from Detroit had settled on the shore of Lake Michigan at the point where the Chicago River has its source, directly opposite Fort Dearborn; this was in 1804, when John was a year old. His father, John Sr., pursued the occupation of fur trader, and in due time John Jr. did the same.

It is not known how and when Juliette Magill and John H. Kinzie met or courted. The most likely explanation is that Juliette’s young uncle Alexander Wolcott was responsible for introducing them. Wolcott, a medical doctor by training, had made his way west and become the US government’s Indian agent at Chicago in 1810, marrying John H. Kinze’s younger sister in 1823. His letters back East had filled Juliette’s imagination, and when she met John, he probably appeared to be a deeply romantic figure.

John and Juliette were married in August 1830 and within a month set out from Detroit by boat to take up residence at Fort Winnebago, where John had become the fort’s first Indian agent two years before. Fort Winnebago, still under construction in 1830, had been established when the Winnebago war ended in 1828, in order to guard the portage between the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. The Winnebago conflict (like other Indian wars) had been concluded with a treaty stipulating regular payments to be made by the U.S. government to members of the tribe, and an agent was needed on the ground to supervise disbursal. More generally, Indian agents were the U.S. government’s civilian representatives whose peaceful presence was meant to soften the threatening military aspect of the forts that lined the frontier. As well as managing payments and keeping an eye on Indian comings and goings, agents were expected to mediate Indian disputes and if possible prevent violence between members of tribes traditionally hostile to each other. The European settlement had not encroached on a prehistoric paradise of undifferentiated native Americans living in pastoral harmony with nature; rather, Europeans entered, participated in, and eventually came to dominate a complex historical scene populated by numerous tribes with different ways of life and long-standing friendships and rivalries.

Men like John Kinzie who had lived and worked among the Indians all their lives were considered especially qualified to work as Indian agents precisely because they were aware of the subtleties of relations among the Indians themselves and also because they frequently knew native American languages. Additionally, unlike most of the white settlers and military personnel, the traders had developed a way of life in symbiosis with the Indians, one that depended on their survival and prosperity. Whether for selfish or humane reasons, they were concerned with Indian welfare and, without necessarily sacrificing their sense of cultural superiority, admired and sympathized with many aspects of Indian life. A number of traders intermarried and settled with Indians, raising their children as Indians rather than Euroamericans; and these children (like Alexander Robinson and Billy Caldwell in Wau-Bun) sometimes grew up to be tribal leaders.

Others, like the Kinzies, kept apart from the Indians but still developed considerable knowledge of the culture and language of the tribes they worked with. When such men became Indian agents they saw themselves as doing good for the Indians they supervised. Very few of them perceived the U.S. government policy as a deliberate strategy to extirpate the Indians; and many of them, given their knowledge of intertribal warfare and settler greed, truly believed they were protecting the Indians from extinction. There is no doubt that John Kinzie approached his work in this light and cared deeply, if patronizingly, for "his" Indians, priding himself on the trust and affection that he believed the Indians felt for him. The young Juliette, with her adventurous spirit her romanticism and idealism, was delighted to have a chance to share this life.

The couple lived at Fort Winnebago for three years, during which time they entertained relatives for long stretches and had their first child. The reader of Wau-Bun will be surprised to discover the baby on the scene with no mention of his birth, but in fact Kinzie is not particularly forthcoming about the details of her private life. Wau-Bun is not autobiographical so much as it is a form of social history, presenting everyday life from a personal vantage point that carries the stamp of lived experience. The intensity and vividness of Kinzie’s account is noteworthy not only because she summons back events in her life that transpired more than a quarter-century before, but because virtually all traces of these events had by then vanished completely in the rapid changes that followed the official incorporation of Chicago as an urban entity.

In the same year that Juliette and John were married and went to Fort Winnebago, the whole Kinzie family (which consisted of John’s widowed mother along with his brothers and sisters) officially registered their claim to the 102-acre tract of land bordering the Chicago River and Lake Michigan that was their original homestead. Three years later John resigned his position at the fort and went home to Chicago to help with the subdividing and selling of this property. The Sauk war of 1832 had ended with the Winnebagos required to give up their lands in Illinois and Wisconsin in exchange for territory in Iowa. With so much land around Chicago now available for white settlement, the little frontier post entered a boom period that to some extent has not yet ended. The Kinzie Addition, as the Kinzie claim was called, constituted the geographical center of the city that was coming into being, and the Kinzie family took a place among the city’s most prosperous and prominent citizens. The irony, or tragedy, that their success depended on displacement of Indians and the termination of a way of life that they themselves had loved is never enunciated in Wau-Bun but runs like a dark undercurrent through the narrative. In giving her book the Winnebago name for "early day," Kinzie reminds her white readers that theirs was not the true "early day"--reminds them that they were late arrivals whose early day meant, for the Indians, a setting sun.

For the Kinzie family and for Chicago, the world of fur trading, Indians, and wilderness disappeared after 1833; and the pace of change accelerated with each passing year. In 1850 Chicago’s population was just under 30,000; by the end of the decade it was almost five times larger. The greater the population, the smaller the fraction of that population with firsthand memories of the vanished era. There was, as Kinzie wrote in her preface to Wau-Bun, a "multitude" who were "crying out for information in regard to the early settlement of this portion of our country, which so few are left to furnish. Among those few, Kinzie herself, with her lifelong habits of observation and writing, and her unique experiences, was probably the most qualified to respond to this cry.

Although not a professional writer, Juliette Kinzie had written and published a pamphlet (in 1844) recounting the massacre at Fort Dearborn during the War of 1812. The pamphlet, based on the oral narratives of her mother-in-law, Eleanor Kinzie, and her sister-in-law Margaret Helm (Eleanor’s daughter by an earlier marriage), effectively installed the Kinzie version of events at the very fountainhead of Illinois history. It made John Kinzie, Sr., into the founder and guardian of Chicago--a veritable epic hero. It was Eleanor Kinzie who had the idea of transforming family history into public history, and she summoned her daughter-in-law’s literary skills for the job. Now, in 1855, as Kinzie observed the multitudes crying out for information about the early day--or did she rather decide on her own that the multitudes needed such information?--she was motivated to expand her Narration of the Massacre (it is incorporated as chapters 18-20 of Wau-Bun) into a total re-creation of life on the Illinois frontier as she had known and lived it twenty-five years earlier.

The overarching structure of Wau-Bun is chronological, beginning with the couple’s departure from Detroit in September 1830 and ending when they leave Fort Winnebago for good three years later. Within that chronology, Kinzie moves from episode to episode, diversifying her account with interpolated historical and ethnographic material. This material is never drawn from documentary sources, however, but always comes from the author’s own experience. The interpolations, though they seem casual, are not randomly introduced; rather, they emerge by association from the context. A visit to Chicago naturally enough leads to an enumeration of all the city’s inhabitants in 1830; and since Fort Dearborn and the Kinzie homestead are so central in this enumeration, this in turn calls out the narrative of the massacre.

Within the chronology the narrative alternates between descriptions of journeys (almost half of the book is presented in the form of a travelogue) and of life at Fort Winnebago as the young bride negotiates between her outward-turning interest in the fascinating spectacle of wilderness life and her inward-turning drive to construct a tidy domestic space complete with piano and white curtains. As she moves between outward and inward, between public and private spaces, Kinzie conveys incompatible desires: to become one with the unknown wilderness and to establish the forms of "civilized" life that she had previously known.

The travel format allows Kinzie to extend the geographical scope of her account without abandoning the first-person perspective. It also permits her to write numerous set pieces of romantic landscape description which are emotionally more complicated than they might at first seem. Although these are presented as fresh, immediate responses to natural beauty, they are actually quite literary. A painter as well as a writer, Kinzie carries her sketchpad and watercolors with her and searches long and hard for a suitable scene, that is, a scene that looks like a natural wilderness. She brings her perceptions with her and tries to find what she expects to see. But, although she often succeeds in finding what she is looking for, these vanished landscapes always have something surprising or unexpected in them. They are more beautiful than, or different from, what she has imagined. And they are shown to contain dangers and difficulties as well.

After the introductory chapter, which formally leads in to her first journey as well as into the book itself, Kinzie describes the trip to Fort Winnebago (chapters 2-7), the process of settling in at the fort (chapters 8-11), an d a visit to Chicago initiated in March 1831 at the close of a particularly severe winter (chapters 12-25). Within the Chicago section, she gives family history, including the details of the Fort Dearborn massacre and of her mother-in-law’s long girlhood captivity among the Senecas. Returning to Fort Winnebago, she gives much of the last third of the book over to the Indians, including a presentation of two Winnebago folktales (chapters 29-30) and numerous Indian speeches. Travel accounts, massacre stories, captivity narratives, Indian folktales, landscape descriptions--all these were literary practices with considerable popular appeal during the first half of the nineteenth century; thus, her apparently artless and entirely "natural" firsthand account is actually mediated through numerous literary models. The point here is not that Kinzie was falsifying her perceptions to make them literary but rather that her perceptions themselves were literary, because she was a person who read and wrote. Not only did this literariness color her descriptions of nature, it also gave her the techniques to describe character, to write good dialogue, and to vary her narration with humor and suspense.

Wau-Bun ends with an account of the Sauk war--Black Hawk’s war--of 1832 and its effect on the Winnebago Indians who are punished by the federal government for their supposed (and perhaps cynically falsified) complicity with the Sauks. Kinzie’s growing outrage at the U.S. treatment of the Winnebagos is expressed in her outspoken delight when several of the Indians escape from prison. Throughout Wau-Bun, her descriptions of the Indians, though obviously permeated by the prejudices of her time and place, display fellow-feeling and affection without sentimentality and without ignoring the very real cultural differences between herself and them.

The entire chronicle is contained within a small geographical space between Fort Winnebago and Chicago, a narrow north-south line that defines the frontier. It is positioned in time between the Indian wars of 1812 and 1832, dates that might be described as the establishment and disestablishment of Illinois as frontier territory. And ideologically, the narrative is defined by superimposed images of whites who--whatever they may think they are doing--are actually in the process of taking over the wilderness for their own purposes and Indians who are in process of being driven Out of it. Although by abstracting the period 1830-33 from the process Kinzie appears to create a moment of stasis, a photograph in which a variety of whites, Indians, and landscapes are composed harmoniously together, the pressure of historical change is always felt as a threat to this picture, as a blurring of the camera’s focus. It is never totally forgotten that the whites are not wilderness people and that where they settle the wilderness will vanish. Kinzie herself, with the literary background that leads her to love and long for the wilderness while separating her from it with her books, watercolors, and piano, is a superb embodiment of the paradoxical and that even those who mean well for the Indians have, by intruding on their lives, initiated or participated in the processes that are destroying them.

Nor is Kinzie without fear of Indians; nor should she be, given that many thousands of civilian whites were killed in frontier fighting that had been going on for over two hundred years when Wau-Bun was written. In the midst of the Sauk war, terrified by the sight of a Sauk Indian doing a war dance outside their house, Margaret Heim says, "I have always thought that I was to lose my life by the hands of the Indians--this is the third Indian war I have gone through, and now I suppose, it will be the last" (chapter 32). Kinzie writes of feeling at that moment that "of all forms of death that by the hands of savages, is the most difficult to face calmly, and I fully believed that our hour was come." But it turns out that the dancing Indian was a Winnebago who had purposely dressed up as a Sauk to frighten the white women, whose fears are thereby exposed as at least partially the product of their own imaginations. Kinzie then wraps up the chapter with a sentence that undermines her earlier expressed distinctions between whites and savages: "such a trick would not be unnatural in a white youth, and perhaps since human nature is everywhere the same, it might not be out of the way in an Indian." If human nature is everywhere the same, then perhaps to an Indian civilian it is equally true that "of all forms of death that by the hands of savages, is the most difficult to face calmly"--only the savages would be white.

As a first-person narrative, Wau-Bun is presented mainly from Kinzie’s perspective in the period of which she writes rather than from that of the author as an older woman writing retrospectively. Thus the novelty and strangeness of the experience can be featured, and the narrator functions something like a surrogate for the readers who would also find everything in the account new and foreign. Adventure and discovery, rather than hardship and suffering, are set continually before the reader, providing an implicit lesson to settlers of the 1850s (especially women settlers) on the right way to approach pioneering life. The literature of westering was full of complaints and laments by women uprooted from friends, family, and comfortable circumstances and forced to endure danger, hardship, and discomfort Kinzie proposes--see especially the conclusion to chapter 15--that with an attitude combining curiosity, flexibility, and tolerance, settling a new country gives women rare opportunities for adventure and excitement.

Kinzie’s early voice, however, is blended with many others, so that whatever moralizing she might do at one moment is counterbalanced by alternative perspectives. She almost never appears to claim that her opinions and views are authoritative; what she claims authority for is the accuracy of her observations. Occasionally she speaks from the position of herself as the older woman, especially when she wants to drive home the difference between the past and present, and when she wants to inveigh against the horrible mistreatment of the Indians in the years subsequent to the period of Wau-Bun. With California coming into the Union in 1850 it had become perfectly clear that there would never be a place on the continent where the Indians could live unthreatened by white settlement, because such settlement was going to extend clear to the Pacific. Kinzie feared that unless the U.S. government changed its policy, Indian wars would continue until the Indians were obliterated. Wau-Bun is not a polemic, but its deepest moral feelings are engaged in an expression of outrage at the cost to Indians of white territorialism.

In addition to what might be called the second Kinzie voice, the polemical voice of Kinzie the older woman, Wau-Bun gives the narrative over to many other speakers, catching the conversation, slang, songs, and stories of a variety of frontier types with quite diverse cultural and national backgrounds. Consistent with the book’s preoccupations, Indians get a great deal of space in which to speak for themselves. Kinzie also gives chunks of the narrative, including everything that pertains to the period before 1830, over to other Kinzie women, thereby suggesting a general role for women as family storytellers on whom the preservation of family history and tradition depends.

In this light it is extremely significant that the voices notably absent from this book of history are the voices of conventional authority: the voices of the white men who are in charge of public record-keeping. There is, it would seem, an unacknowledged but nevertheless powerful tension in the book between what we might call "official" history and what we might contrast with this by calling it "authentic" history--history from the bottom up rather than from the top down. It is not that Wau-Bun is an exercise in historical revisionism or disputation; rather, Kinzie simply pays no attention--with one striking exception--to official documents or accounts. By 1856 there were formal histories of Illinois available (all of which used Kinzie’s 1844 Narrative as a source for the massacre at Fort Dearborn). There were archives, court records, city directories, newspapers. Kinzie’s neglect of this material should not be seen as laziness or amateurishness but rather as the product of her certainty that truth was to be found in actual experience at the individual level and that the individuals whose lives comprised history were to be approached as ordinary people.

The one exception to Kinzie’s neglect of documentary sources is her inclusion in an appendix of an account of the Sauk war drawn from the journals of Thomas Forsyth, half-brother of John Kinzie, Sr.. This account provides a very different narrative of the war from that contained in Wau-Bun itself. From 1819 to 1830, Forsyth was the U.S. Indian agent for the Sauk and Fox Indians at Rock Island, and in the manuscript he blames the U.S. government rather than Black Hawk for starting the war. "As I have given throughout the Narrative of the Sauk War the impressions we received from our own observation," Kinzie writes, "I think it but justice to Black Hawk and his party to insert, by way of Appendix, the following account." In other words, she departs from strict fidelity to what she saw and heard in the one instance that enables her to defend the Indians, even though it means defending them against herself. Forsyth is admitted into the narrative because he, like her husband, her husband’s father, and her uncle, represents an alternative to the shameful history of Indian destruction and Indian-white warfare that U.S. government policy has brought about.

This means that Wau-Bun is not only a historical account but also a deliberate attempt to intervene in American history at a crucial moment. As though to drive this point home, Kinzie introduces the topic of her own convictions into the preface. Some may believe, she writes, that her sympathies for and sense of wrong done to the Indian are "exaggerated." Having brought up the issue, she then appears to dismiss it: "This is not the place to discuss that point." And indeed she does not discuss it-but not out of a sense of tact or a womanly disinclination to get involved in politics or to take a strong stand. On the contrary, she takes the strongest stand she can imagine: that of Divine law. "There is a tribunal at which man shall be judged, for that which he has meted out to his fellow-man. May our countrymen take heed that their legislation shall never unfit them to appear ‘with joy, and not with grief,’ before that tribunal!"

The liberal Christian faith underlying this uncompromising exhortation is much in evidence throughout Wau-Bun, especially in the earlier parts of the book. It seems clear that Kinzie entered the western scene with some fan" of helping the Indians by introducing them to literacy and, through literacy, to the Bible and Protestant Christianity. She quickly discovered that she was unfit for the task and that the Indians had good reasons for seeing in missionary activities a form of cultural imperialism. More than most Kinzie perceived that because Indian culture had its own integrity and had developed interactively with the environment, an alteration at any one point would affect the whole system. Moreover, she recognized the extent to which Indian resistance to white cultural practices rose from religious belief, from fidelity to their understanding of the Great Spirit’s plans for them. She developed considerable respect for Indian spirituality without in the least abandoning her own firm Christian commitment Instead, she reinterpreted her religious obligation toward the Indians as that of learning to see them as created beings whom she was bound to regard with Christian charity here taken in the old sense of love. From this perspective it would indeed be pointless to think of her sympathies for the Indians as "exaggerated," for the point of Christian love is precisely that it is boundless.

This generalization about Kinzie’s worldview is not articulated expressly in Wau-Bun because, as already observed, Kinzie is not the subject of her own narrative. There is a striking sparseness of the first-person pronoun in the book considering that this is a first-person narration; and when the ‘I’ appears it is almost always as the point of view rather than the subject of the point of view. When Kinzie describes her own thoughts, these are almost always about what she thinks others are thinking. Her eyes and mind are always directed toward the world around her; she probably felt from the beginning that good observers would have little time to think about themselves.

Indeed, Kinzie’s letters and journals probably constitute a deliberate training program in the art of observation, and it seems fair to surmise that for her the stance of enthusiastic observer was useful for preserving mental health. Especially on the frontier, but really everywhere, the self-absorbed person might quickly become isolated, then self-pitying, and then depressed. In chapter 16 Kinzie describes a Mrs. Lawton, who "complained bitterly of the loneliness of her condition, and having been brought out there into the woods, which was a thing she had not expected, when she came from the east." Kinzie comments with some irony that "we did not ask her with what expectations she had come into a wild, unsettled country." It is necessary to keep cheerful if one is to surmount the challenges of frontier life, and for women from the built-up eastern regions especially, isolation was one of the most severe challenges. But active observers, people with a curiosity about the world outside them, are never really isolated even if they are alone. Like many a New Englander, Kinzie believed that mind makes circumstances and that willpower is always available to overcome difficulty. Cheerfulness can be willed into existence when necessary.

So, just before we meet Mrs. Lawton, we are presented with the one instance in which Kinzie’s own habitual cheerfulness has deserted her. This is when, thinking herself about to arrive at Chicago after the party has lost its way several times in bad weather and been frustrated and dangerously delayed, Kinzie learns that they have probably another fifty miles-which would mean two more days-to go. "I seated myself on the fallen trunk of a tree, in the midst of the snow, and looked across the dark waters. I am not ashamed to confess my weakness-for the first time on my journey I shed tears." Even at this low ebb, however, her powers of observation and speculation remain active, as she contemplates a young Indian girl contemplating her, looking into her face "with a wondering and sympathising expression. Probably she was speculating in her own mind what a person who rode so fine a horse, and wore so comfortable a broadcloth dress, could have to cry about."

After a while, left to her solitary meditations, Kinzie works herself out of despair by remembering old Mrs. Welsh, who had warned her that she would break her heart if she went west. Wouldn’t Mrs. Welsh "rejoice to find how likely her prediction was to be fulfilled?" This reflection rouses Kinzie’s fighting spirit, and she soon recovers her cheerfulness and is "ready for fresh adventures"(chapter 15). The aim of linking cheerfulness with adventure as connected inner and outer states of being is clear here: if you want adventure in this life, then you must be cheerful. Even if you want no more than to survive on the frontier, you must be cheerful: observe that Mrs. Lawton was preparing to return to the East, while Mrs. Kinzie was determined to stay in the West.

The story of Mrs. Lawton alerts us to the fact that, more than most historians, Kinzie is concerned to register the presence of women in the early day. She is, of course, well aware of herself as one of a small number of women on the frontier. But she also describes dozens of other women in Wau-Bun, thereby giving a more accurate and diverse picture of daily life than do conventional histories that focus exclusively on men. As a middle-class woman from the East, Kinzie is sensitive to interiors, to comfort, to cooking, to clothing, to housework; and she is also interested in patterns of love, romance, marriage, and the way in which women are treated by the men they live with. Moreover, she has extensive contacts with Indian women and is thus able to give a feminine slant to her description of Indian life. It would be too much to say that Kinzie is writing a history of women, but certainly she is writing a history in which women are much more prominent than they are in "official" history. Overall, moreover--and this is a very important point, since the narrative of the Fort Dearborn massacre and of Eleanor Kinzie’s captivity among the Senecas, as well as the two Winnebago folktales recorded, are narrated by women, women come through as Wau-Bun’s historians as well as the book’s subjects.

Although, as has been stressed, Kinzie is not the subject of Wau-Bun, the book’s appeal to and success with readers must depend crucially on the extent to which she persuades them to trust and to like her. Descriptions of striking vividness and precision are meant to engender trust; an implicit self-presentation of the narrator as cheerfully prepared for fresh adventures, as fun-loving, as able to laugh at herself, is meant to engage the readers’ affections. For her own time and background, Kinzie’s openness to the varieties of life-styles on the frontier and to the otherness of the Indians suggests a rare generosity of spirit. This should not be lost in a late twentieth-century awareness of the limits of her vision.

Wau-Bun was a successful book in its own day. It was published in a luxurious format on heavy paper and with a good binding, with large type and margins, and illustrated with half a dozen engravings made from Kinzie’s own watercolors of early Illinois scenery. A second edition followed soon after the first one, and there have been many editions thereafter, some with careful scholarly annotation. In the last decade of her life (she died in 1870, at the age of sixty-four) Kinzie wrote two novels, one of which recycled material that had appeared in Wau-Bun. It would seem somehow that despite the tremendous social and financial success that had come to the Kinzie family after 1833, and despite the numerous social and charitable activities in which Kinzie herself engaged as a leading citizen of Chicago, the way of life that this very success had obliterated remained sharply present to her. To make the dead past live again, and to keep it living by insinuating it into the memories of the present generation--these were her long-range aims in Wau-Bun. Whether her book can succeed in the late twentieth century is something that each reader of Wau-Bun must decide individually. Certainly, Juliette Kinzie has produced one of the most vivid and readable accounts that we have of a fleeting and relatively unchronicled moment in Illinois history.


*Originally published as the introduction to Wau-Bun: The "Early Day" in the North-West by Juliette M. Kinzie (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992).