The Chicago Portage archive is available for download as a single .zip file from here. The archive includes copies of The Chicago Portage Ledger, photographs of the site, and the video "Connected Worlds: The Story of the Chicago Portage.
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Swamp to City - Introduction

......Chicago History from the Portage to the Metropolis



To the Teacher: Discovering Connections

The history of human beings on earth is the story of people making Connections, crossing boundaries, finding new ways to see, think, know, travel. As far back as humans can remember, we have been crossing rivers, finding our way over mountains, sailing for days on the trackless oceans, and for years in airless space to find new peoples, lands, ideas, and products. Often our search is merely exploiting the connections that Nature offers. A close look at the globe reveals one ocean connecting to another.

Looking again at the globe we see river and lake systems - inland waterways - that connect towns, cities, states, and nations. Find two of these systems on the globe and draw the shape of it on a piece of paper. These systems are like the veins on the back of a leaf, or the blood vessels in your body-enabling food or oxygen to travel everywhere - making connections.

Early African and Asian sailors found their way from one ocean, and one continent, to another. More than 500 years ago European explorers crossed the Atlantic Ocean and ran right into two huge continents - North and South America. This made a connection between Europe and the Western Hemisphere but the explorers were also looking for a seafaring connection between Europe and the continent of Asia. They began to try to sail around the two continents, trying both to the north and the south and encountering great difficulties.

They found the skinny middle of the two continents and tried to cross overland. Because there were no roads, travel on land, through thick dark forests, over huge mountains and through mucky
swamps was difficult and dangerous. In North America, they began to sail up the rivers to find a way through he continent and to connect the different parts of the continent. The land between the
water systemswould appear on maps, when maps existed, as great unknown, "empty," or "unused" spaces.  They had few maps but they did receive some help from the people that lived in North America, the peoples the explorers called Indians, who had been using the waterways as their transportation system.  The Native Americans helped the European explorers travel the Great lakes system from the Atlantic Ocean to what would later become known as the Midwest.

The First Peoples of North America also helped the explorers travel the Mississippi River system which connected the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, and what would later be known as Western United States. Gradually the explorers began to make maps. The story of Chicago is the story of connecting these two great inland waterway systems - the Great lakes System and the Mississippi River System. The doorway between these two systems, making the connection is the Portage Site, amazingly still in existence, near I55 on Harlem Avenue.

Chicago stands at the link between these two systems, the gateway that made it possible for people to travel to and settle those huge spaces we know as the United States, and like the blood vessel system in a human body, make the connections that brought the United States to life. This is Chicago, Illinois, U.S. World History-all connecting on a piece of swamp and prairie. This curricula: "Swamp to City: Chicago History from the Portage Site to Metropolis" looks at the story of how this connection was discovered, developed, controlled and used by people making history.

The story of Chicago begins in the 17th century at a place called the Chicago Portage.  Located about ten miles west of Lake Michigan, this swampy area provided a crucial link in a transcontinental system of travel. When flooded in the springtime, a “Mud Lake” connected Lake Michigan and the Chicago River with the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi rivers so that a complete waterway existed. In other seasons, when the swamp had dried out, travelers would portage, that is, carry or drag, their boats through muck until they reached the next river where they rejoined the water system.

The Portage Site is Chicago’s “Plymouth Rock.” The French, who first began exploring North America in the 16th century, were introduced to the Portage by Native Americans in 1673. These Europeans quickly saw the commercial potential of being able to travel from New France (Canada), into the interior of the land, and all the way down the Mississippi River. First they thought the route would provide a shortcut to China, but instead a vision of potential trade, settlement and empire in North America opened before their eyes. At the same time, the Dutch, English, and Spanish were expanding their empires and establishing colonies elsewhere on the continent, each usurping the First Peoples inhabiting the land. By the mid-19th century, these territories belonged to a new nation—the United States of America, and Chicago was a booming city with hundreds of thousands of people.

While the history of Chicago can be explored in many different ways, this book is the history of Chicago as told by the rivers, lakes, and swamps that surround it. It is a history of the way human beings used and changed these bodies of water to fit the needs and dreams of people.

In today’s era of airplanes, cars, trucks, and trains the old Chicago Portage has no commercial use or importance. In fact, only traces of the original place exist. The site, however, now has historical use—as Chicago’s “Plymouth Rock,” its significance can be remembered and commemorated. People can actually stand on the site at Harlem Ave. near I-55, look east to the towering Chicago skyline and remember: from this swampy piece of land, a great city grew.

Scope of this Curricula

The extensive curriculum covers glaciation through the current trend of heritage tourism. Some teachers will decide to block out several weeks to cover the curriculum in its entirety (or do half each semester). It is expected, however, most teachers who use Swamp to City will select the units and lessons that are most relevant and appropriate to the topics or themes already under study in their classrooms. Because Swamp to City flows across the U.S. History curriculum it offers many opportunities for "post-holing" local history lessons throughout the units on Discovery, Colonization, Native Americans, Early National Period, National Expansion, Urbanization, Gilded Age, Progressive Era and Post-War histories. Other teachers may devote a week to a particular unit simply because they find it interesting, intriguing, and important for their students. Finally, as with all CMHEC publications, the primary-source packed curriculum is a seed bed for History Fair projects any year.

Following the thematic introduction of Unit 1, Units 2-7 form the base of the curriculum. Each unit opens with an introduction to the teacher which outlines the key topics, objectives, summary, and state standards address in the unit. The introduction is followed by an activity called "Portages." Like a physical portage that links two physical bodies of water, this metaphoric portage allows students to make the connections between what they know (or can imagine) and the historical theme to be developed in the unit. "Portages" offer a form of mental warm-up designed to help students open up to inquiry and reach the "aha!" moment as they engage in the primary sources. Individual lessons, an average of three, comprise each unit. Teachers and students are offered background information, primary sources, and questions and activities. Each unit closes with suggestions for extended activities from which teachers and/or students may wish to undertake. Unit 8, like the introduction, focuses more on historical thinking than a specific topic; therefore, it may be used for multiple purposes and any point in the school year.


The Chicago Metro History Education Center inquiry approach to history education enables students to learn history by doing history. Yet, because reading levels of students in the same grade may fall across a spectrum, CMHEC curricula focus first on securing basic reading comprehension and then moves to analytical and critical thinking skills so crucial to doing history. A given lesson may mix both types of reading goals so that a teacher may select what is most appropriate for her or his students.

The second part of our approach is to emphasize primary sources—first hand documents from the time under consideration. Primary sources make history come alive and even though students may sometimes struggle to understand them, they are motivated to do so because they know they are exploring something authentic, for and by themselves, not sifted through scholars and textbook editors. Primary sources also inspire one of the fundamental activities of active, engaged learning: asking questions. Thoughtful questioning, inferring, and brainstorming then propel students into research of their own so they may develop their own interpretations or arguments based on evidence. Sometimes the answers may simply stay unknown and students are left in a heightened state of curiosity, which is not such a bad state to be in sometimes. In Swamp to City, teachers and students will find only scant use of secondary sources; instead a range of primary sources from maps to travelers’ accounts, letters to the editors, fur trade ledgers, photographs, government reports, city directories, and other material are all employed to tell the stories and present thoughts and actions of a world long gone. Students spend most of their school careers being "fact-stuffers," an inquiry-based approach to history, founded on the deep respect for questioning, gives students the wings to fly.

CMHEC’s approach also makes consistent use of "representation to learn." Activities based on primary sources ask students to read widely, keep journals, write imaginatively or persuasively, create art, hold debates or develop their own research projects. They are encouraged to go out into the community and find real sources, visit museums, and connect the issues of today with what they are learning about the past.

Finally, Swamp to City offers insights into historical thinking as practiced by historians and non-historians alike. "Every man a historian," proclaimed the eminent scholar Carl Becker, and despite the unfortunate use of sexist language, he was correct. Every person seeks information, compares and contrasts, makes judgments and interpretations based on the evidence. Everyone retains documents from the past—whether it is a letter, birth certificate, photograph, or electric bill. All people have memories and share memories with others, not just from their own personal and familial lives, but also to actual events that happened in the larger society. We all have a rootedness in the past waiting to be discovered. History is not a magical art, it is a discipline which teaches people how to think and make meaning, and it is open for all citizens to learn and use.

Go to Swamp to City Curricula