But events across the ocean were about to impact Jefferson’s rosy outlook as the Napoleonic Wars began to seriously impact American businesses. Following Adm. Nelson’s victory over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar on Oct. 21, 1805, both the British and the French had started to interfere with American shipping, even though the U.S. had steadfastly remained neutral. The British routinely stopped American ships on the pretext of searching for deserters, but with the actual goal of impressing them, and any men of questionable citizenship into the British navy. These actions had so enraged American public opinion that Jefferson was forced to respond. Not wanting to get into a shooting war, Jefferson, naively assuming that Europe needed American exports more than American business needed European markets, made the disastrous decision to outlaw all outbound shipping of American products by signing the Embargo Act on December 22, 1807. The results were predictable: American business interests were impacted the worst while the ban lasted for a devastating fourteen months, until Jefferson grudgingly bowed to the pressure of both the merchants and Congress by allowing Congress’ Non-intercourse Act of March 1809, that lifted the embargo on all countries except Great Britain and France, to become law on the last day of his administration. This bill still did little to improve the economy of the Atlantic seaboard and the return to business-as-usual was short-lived, however, for Britain renewed its onerous practice of impressing American sailors.
Not all the economic consequences of Jefferson’s embargo, however, had been negative. John Jacob Astor in New York City had been importing furs from Canada since 1794 from the North-West Company, a group of Scottish and French-Canadian fur merchants that had aligned to contest the chartered rights of the “English” Hudson Bay Company, that maintained exclusive British-sanctioned export rights. Astor, in essence, had established a dummy front for the North-West Company that also allowed the company to circumvent the British East India Company’s monopoly on the China trade, and in the process had become one of the city’s wealthier merchants by the time of the embargo. The embargo had also stopped all trade with Canada so Astor had to act quickly to protect his business. He approached Jefferson in 1808 and requested his permission to form a new company, the American Fur Company, with the expressed purpose of wrangling the control of the fur industry in all lands claimed by America out of the hands of both British companies and their agents. The idea was to build a chain of trading posts from St. Louis to the Oregon country (following the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-6), to which Jefferson gave his tacit approval. In 1811, Astor was able to buy the British-owned Mackinac Company that he then reorganized into the new Anglo-American owned South-West Company, centered in St. Louis, that subsequently became the outlet for Kinzie’s furs from the Fort Dearborn outpost. Astor’s efforts to gain total control of the NorthWestern fur trade at this moment came to naught, however, when Democratic-Republican Pres. James Madison and Congress declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812, and British military power combined with their Native allies easily swept the Americans from the region.
Within a month, the British had captured the American Fort Michilimackinac on Mackinac Island at the juncture of Lakes Michigan and Huron, leaving Fort Dearborn as one of the more western and exposed outposts of the fledging Republic. The American commander of the West ordered the evacuation of the fort’s garrison to Fort Wayne, but as they began their retreat on August 15, a band of local Potawatomis sympathetic to the British massacred the garrison and a number of settlers, and then burned the fort to the ground. The stark isolation at this time of the Chicago River to the bulk of the U.S. population was made apparent by the fact that the victims’ remains were left exposed to the elements for the better part of four years until American troops returned to the ruins of the fort following the end of the war after Congress ratified the Treaty of Ghent in February 17, 1815.
Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
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