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April 28, 2012

A "Portage" is a carrying place between two different drainage systems. Portages were used when travel across America was by boat, prior to the advent of roadways and motorized vehicles. The "Chicago Portage" connected the Chicago River (a part of the St. Lawrence River Drainage System) with the Des Plaines River (a part of the Mississippi River Drainage System).

The Chicago Portage was revealed to Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliett in May of 1673 by friendly Native Americans as a short cut between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico by linking Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River. This portage site is known as Mud Lake.

Marquette and Jolliett were exploring the region in search of a connection to the Pacific Ocean via the Mississippi River. During this period, France controlled the lands of Canada and the mid-American continent. As Marquette and Jolliett made their way south down the Mississippi River, they encountered more Native peoples and learned from one of the tribes that Spain controlled the land at the mouth of the river. Hearing this news, they turned around and returned to New France (Canada). France and Spain were enemies at the time and at war.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the beaver hat craze in Europe, a symbol of social status and fashion, had all but brought about the extinction of beavers there and a new source of beaver pelts was in great demand. The interior of the United States where fur bearing animals were abundant offered the solution. Native American tribes were eager to work with the French to trap and provide pelts so highly sought after as luxury goods by affluent Europeans for bartered guns and other necessities.

Voyageurs or porters were hired to transport furs from the interior of the country for shipping to Europe. The work was hard and dangerous. When water levels were high, it was easy enough to paddle canoes laden with pelts and goods. During the summer or in times of drought, water channels dried out and bundled goods had to be carried or portaged on the backs of the voyageurs until navigable water was found again. These bundles often weighed more than 90 pounds. During a portage, canoes were also carried by usually inverting them over the heads of the porters.

As the men plodded through mucky swamps with their loads, leeches attached themselves to their legs and bodies, causing sore muscles, fever and swelling. It became a ritual to remove these leeches around nightly campsite fires.

One of the most important travel routes of the mid-continent, the portage was a major factor in the development of the United States interior. Since that time, nearly every site of Chicago's origins has been destroyed. The Chicago Portage National Historic Site is the only major remnant of the discovery and settlement of Chicago.

A statue of Marquette and Jolliett and a Native American guide stands at the Chicago Portage site today. The Chicago Portage is owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. It is only one of two National Historic Sites in the United States that is not Federally owned.

The Chicago Portage is considered Chicago's Plymouth Rock and is the reason Chicago had its beginnings at the shores of Lake Michigan on the Illinois prairie.

More information about the Chicago Portage is available by visiting Friends of the Chicago Portage at

Photo by Dave Waycie
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