1849 – 1949
Note: Mrs. Ruth Orton Camp was an active board member and sometime committee chair of the Chicago Orphan Asylum from 1934 till at least 1950. Mrs. Camp also served as acting director of Hull-House Association for nine months in 1943 until Russell Ballard was selected to be the first male director of the agency. This paper by Mrs. Camp is the first section of a 150 page unpublished history of the Chicago Child Care Society, the oldest child serving organization in Illinois. It is reprinted here with permission of the Society.
Before 1832, the village of Chicago consisted of a small group of families who helped each other in adversity; orphaned children always found a refuge next door.
To the north, was the log Indian Agency House; there was no building on the south bank of the river, where the land was a low, wet prairie stretching back from Lake Michigan. Mark Beaubien’s whitewashed home, at the Point farther to the south, was two storied and had bright blue wooden shutters at the windows. A handful of buildings, and Fort Dearborn, composed the settlement in 1831. Mrs. Kinzie later wrote of that winter: “Our only recreation was an occasional ride on horseback through the woods on the north side of the river. A little bridle path took us along what is now Rush Street.”
The John Kinzie’s were among the founders of the first Episcopal Church in Chicago and the young Botsford’s helped found the Methodist church. Both couples were charter members on the board of the Chicago Orphan Asylum in 1849. Mrs. Kinzie was first directress of the women’s board and Mrs. Botsford was vice-president a few years later. The Botsford’s retained their connection with the new asylum while the Kinzie’s, after a number of years of service as director and directress, resigned. One hundred years later, in 1949, the Chicago Botsford’s have completed a century of continuous family service on the orphanage boards.
When the first home of the Chicago Orphan Asylum opened its doors in 1849, the John Kinzie’s had seven children of their own and had taken into their home as many more orphaned nieces, nephews, and cousins. It is reasonable to assume that most of the destitute children in the earlier community found shelter in a similar manner.
But Chicago was no longer a small village in 1849, when cholera struck for the second time. And the earlier arrangements for sheltering orphaned children were no longer adequate.
“Man’s inhumanity to man” was never more shockingly demonstrated than in the care provided for homeless children by the public authorities before privately controlled orphanages were established. Two kinds of child custody were used — indenture to families and commitment to the poorhouse. The first gave some children good homes but to many more a veritable child serfdom; indenture without Supervision left the child’s welfare entirely subject to chance. And the second, poorhouse commitment placed children in daily contact with adult rogues and vagabonds in disgraceful, repressive, and miserable surroundings.
The two methods of child custody continued into the twentieth century. But a few homes for children, called orphan asylums, were established as early as 1800. By 1900 these institutions, founded by public-spirited citizens, were winning their fight against poorhouse commitment of children.
The Chicago Orphan Asylum, oldest surviving Chicago charity, reached its hundredth year of childcare in 1949. Yet the events and trends in the community, which created the need for such an institution, had their source more than one hundred years ago; they developed in the very beginnings of Chicago as a city, seventeen years before the asylum was established. From that time, l832, the incredibly rapid growth of the city combined with life destroying epidemics made increasingly inadequate the friendly pioneer arrangements of absorbing homeless children into surviving families.
The frontier had always suffered from epidemic diseases. In Fort Dearborn a bilious fever raged before the great massacre, and ague was prevalent every summer. At length a terrible plague came on shipboard from Europe and spread quickly from Quebec throughout the East and to Buffalo, thence again on ships along the Great Lakes and to Chicago.
This first great epidemic of cholera reached Quebec in the spring of 1832, when ship rats on an infected vessel from Europe had run down the ropes to the wharf and into the alleys and shanties of Quebec’s Lower Town. General Winfield Scott’s troop ships, sailing from Buffalo for Chicago and the Black
Hawk War found cholera on board as a tragic result of the Quebec docking. One of Scott’s ships, the overcrowded “Henry Clay”, was forced by the sickness to land all passengers, both sick and well, at Fort Gratiot near Detroit. The other vessel, the S.S. “Sheldon Thompson”, left two companies of artillery at Fort Gratiot and continued to the famous fur-trading center, Mackinac Island. Here there were five sick men put ashore who carried the disease into the island fort. On the lake voyage between Mackinac and Fort Dearborn in Chicago, seventy-seven cases of cholera developed and twenty- one men died. Small wonder that Fred Landon writes of this very epidemic in “The American Lakes Series”, “Cholera…left behind a trail of broken homes, scattered families and a fear of the disease that was to linger in men’s minds for the rest of their lives.”
The landing of the troop ship at Fort Dearborn in 1832 brought the epidemic to Chicago and made a hospital out of Fort Dearborn. The epidemic spread through the town and countryside. In the Fort itself, there were fifty-eight deaths among two hundred sick. (The dead were buried in a rude graveyard at what is now the northwest corner of Lake Street and Wabash Avenue.)
But hardihood and optimism were inherent in the frontier. In spite of the epidemic, a historical sketch in the first Chicago City Directory (published in 1844) asserted that “the year 1832 may be regarded as’ the period from which to date the commencement of the city.”
The Indian War had focused the attention of the entire country on this region and given a stimulus to the expansion from the East, already in progress, which was called the “Western Fever.” General Winfield Scott, after the fighting and the cholera had both subsided, found time to investigate the new town site at Fort Dearborn. He became enthusiastic over its possibilities and addressed a letter to Congress urging harbor improvements. More important, the Illinois legislature had finally decided to construct the Illinois and Michigan Canal.
In contrast, before the expansion, which began in 1832, the handful of families located here and the occupants of the Fort lived in isolation and were dependent upon the infrequent arrivals of the Mackinac boat for their entire supplies; they exported nothing but furs.
When the city was incorporated in 1837 with a population of about 3,000 it had already experienced its first period of prosperity and was in the midst of its first financial panic. Coming after overexpansion and easy credit, the recession affected most of the citizens and many quickly lost their entire fortunes. But recovery followed; by 1844, laborers were again employed on the revived Illinois and Michigan Canal project, the credit of the city improved and immigrants poured in. Buildings went up everywhere; there were eight public schools, one private Female Seminary, eleven Protestant, one Jewish and two Catholic churches — four temperance societies, a medical college (Rush Medical) and a city dispensary which was supported by voluntary contributions. A city hospital built about this time cost $474.86. The first panic had lasting effects. Many families never recovered from their losses, and one reason for the increase in poorhouse expenditures – from $245 in 1832 to $4,339 in 1841 – was the unstable labor market following the depression.
The new county poorhouse was full and further admissions were denied when Asiatic cholera again leaped the ocean in 1847-48. Children in the new city were suddenly orphaned and needed help in rapidly increasing numbers. But the early intimate period had passed. Well-established families could not be expected to take sickly immigrant children with different speech and customs into their orderly patterns of home life. And with the rapid growth of the city the ratio of substantial homes had declined. Immigrants relying on seasonal labor lived in squalid slums. When they died from cholera their surviving children had to go somewhere – and the county poorhouse was full.
A visiting committee from the Grand Jury inspected the almshouse in the spring of 1849 and again in the autumn. The visitors reported sixty-one paupers in residence – nineteen men, fifteen women, and twenty-seven children. Food and attendance were considered adequate, but the committee “protested against the dilapidated state of the buildings. They are fast decaying, producing an unwholesome stench, and it appears evident to the jurors that the building most be insecure without repairs.” Such was the poorhouse where no more orphans could be admitted because of lack of room. Civic-minded Chicagoans began to discuss ways and means to meet the growing need.
By the summer of 1849 even Chicago’s falsely optimistic newspapers could no longer gloss over the reality. The cholera sickness was striking at all points in the United States, and Chicago was hit far harder than its inaccurate lists of dead ever indicated. However, those citizens who were active in civic projects were aware of the existing conditions. William H. Brown and Judge Samuel Hoard were members of the Chicago Board of Health in 1849, and a few months later used the experience they had gained as public health officials, on the first Board of Trustees of the Chicago Orphan Asylum.
The difficult problem of the many suddenly orphaned children was responsible finally for an informal meeting of prominent citizens. The moving power behind this meeting was possibly the Orphans’ Benevolent Association, a Protestant society that later sponsored the Chicago Orphan Asylum. Daily papers of the time and later histories mention both the Orphans’ Benevolent Association and the Orphan Relief Society as sponsors of the Asylum. It is not known whether they were the same organization or two different societies, and it is not important; but the existence of such a group (or groups) is significant since one or both must have planned the citizens’ meetings and the child-care campaign, which were a basis for the Orphan Asylum’s founding. This may be supposition, but organizational details of the Asylum’s founding indicate careful previous planning.
All that has been said of cholera in Chicago during the epidemic of 1832 can be said also of this later plague in 1849, and is true to an even greater extent. The vastly increased population provided the carriers, and the flat muddy location, drained inadequately by open ditches, was the breeding ground of the disease. Unusually heavy rains in the spring, when the ice broke, caused a flood that damaged the new Illinois and Michigan Canal, swept away every bridge in the Chicago River and spread disease-laden water over low-lying areas. Mayor John Wentworth proposed two drainage plans to the Board of Health, neither of which was acted upon. The city’s funds were tied up in the bank panic, which developed in Chicago at this time, and the cost of adequate drainage may have been prohibitive. (As late as 1866 only one-eighth of the city had sewage disposal.)
As the summer advanced the Board of Health published the lists of dead every day, and every day the numbers increased. Nevertheless, plays and concerts drew big audiences, the public schools reopened on July 3; and the newspapers continued to print reassuring editorials. At the same time penitentiaries throughout the country were refusing to admit any new convicts because of the cholera raging within their walls.
The situation became so grave that President Tyler proclaimed August 3 a national day for fasting and prayer. On that same day there was held in Chicago “a public meeting” in the First Baptist Church “for the purpose of adopting measures necessary for the maintenance of the orphan and destitute children of the city.” According to newspaper accounts, “The meeting was fully attended and all present manifested a deep interest in the success of the enterprise, as was clearly evinced by the liberal subscriptions made as well as by the earnestness and eloquence of the gentlemen who addressed the meeting.”
Appointed to the executive committee of seven, with power to appoint women’s subcommittees and to employ assistants, were Judge Jesse B. Thomas, William H. Brown, the Rev. Mr. Patterson, the Rev. Tucker, the Rev. Mr. Stewart, John T. Edwards, and George Davis.
On the publishing committee were: the Rev. Mr. Barlow, Dr. McVicker, Judge Thomas, B. H. Burch, Dr. Boone, B. W. Raymond, and Judge Samuel Hoard.
Mr. Tucker offered the following resolution: “…it is the duty of the citizens of Chicago to establish without delay an “asylum” for the support and benefit of the orphan and destitute children of our city.”
The Executive Committee had their duties defined “to provide without delay accommodations for children, give public notice of their readiness to receive applications and proceed at once to gather in those for whose benefit the institution was established.”
The following Tuesday, in a meeting at the City Hall, a board of trustees for the Orphan Asylum was chosen and a constitution adopted. The officers and trustees were:
William H. Brown ••••••••••••••• President
Orrington Lunt ••••••••••••••••••• Vice-president
Samuel Hoard •••••••••••••••••••• Secretary
Col. Richard K. Swift ••••••••••• Treasurer
Thomas Dyer J. H. Woodworth
William B. Ogden John H. Kinzie
J. Y. Scammon J. K. Botsford
William H. Clarke W. L. Newberry
Sylvester Lind B. W. Raymond
Newspapers carried the following notice on August 13: “ORPHAN ASYLUM. At a meeting of the trustees of this institution, held on Saturday last, 23 ladies were appointed Directresses. They are requested to assemble this afternoon at 3 o’clock in the First Presbyterian Church.”
The following officers and committees were appointed:
Mrs. John H. Kinzie ••••••••••••• First Directress
Mrs. Dr. Pitney ••••••••••••••••••• Second Directress
Miss Julie Rossiter ••••••••••••••• Secretary
Committee on Health •••••••• Mrs. Boone, Mrs. Porter
Committee on Diet and Provisions ••••••••••••• Mrs. Hamilton, Mrs. Dryer
Committee on Instruction Moral, Religious and Literary •••••••Mrs. C. Walker, Mrs. H. Norton
Committee on the Wardrobe,Bedding, and General Order and Cleanliness of Asylum •• Mrs. Beecher, Mrs. McVicker
The directresses had their second meeting on Tuesday, August 21, when Miss Hanson was chosen governess. At the next meeting, on September 3, it was decided to hold sewing circles every Tuesday in September “to make up needed bedding and clothing.”
In the meantime the trustees had rented a house on Michigan Avenue between Lake and Water streets. It was a small frame building, fronting east on a grass-grown street, with Lake Michigan just beyond. No location during the cholera epidemic could have been healthier than this sandy, well-drained site.
All the furniture had been donated piece by piece and the result was barely comfortable; the floors were bare and there were no heating stoves to drive out the chilly dampness. But Miss Hanson and the first three children moved in on September 11.
It was a quiet homecoming. Mrs. Follansbee and Mrs. Beecher welcomed the governess and children in the name of the directresses. They assisted Miss Hanson in the work of settling the house, remained through the early evening and helped put the children to bed.
For further reading:
Chicago Orphan Asylum Building. Landmark Designation Report. (2008 December 4). Department of Zoning and Land Use Planning, City of Chicago.
Cmiel, K. Orphanages. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/937.html
Cmiel, K. (1995). A Home of Another Kind: One Chicago Orphanage and the Tangle of Child Welfare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
McCausland, C. L. (1976). Children of Circumstance: A History of the First 125 Years of the Chicago Child Care Society. Chicago: Chicago Child Care Society.
Wheeler, Sarah Jenkins (1892). Annals of the Chicago Orphan Asylum From 1849 to 1892. Chicago: The Board. Retrieved from The Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/annalsofchicagoo00whee
Chicago Child Care Society records. The Chicago Child Care Society (CCCS) is the oldest child welfare organization in Illinois. It was founded in 1849 as the Chicago Orphan Asylum and changed its name in 1949. Some sources indicate that the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, hosted by the University of Chicago, may know how to access whatever records still exist; however, this has not been confirmed.