Jagoff of the Week: John Kinzie
by Paul Durica
The founding jagoff, the one who started it all and set a Chicago standard for self-serving behavior and indifference to others, John Kinzie may have played a part in ensuring that the violence following the forced evacuation of Fort Dearborn in August 1812 was as extensive as it was. Kinzie made certain that he and his family eluded the hundreds of Potawatomie warriors who killed most of the garrison, local militia, and the women and children near the intersection of today’s Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road. While protecting one’s own in a time of crisis is understandable jaggoffery (to be fair, he helped the fort’s commanding officer and his wife escape and negotiated for the freedom for some of the other survivors), Kinzie’s actions in June 1812 are difficult to defend. He committed the first documented murder in the area that would become Chicago, killing fellow fur trader Jean La Lime after a heated argument. Kinzie claimed that he stabbed La Lime after the latter took a shot at him but either didn’t believe his own story or its ability to withstand scrutiny because he promptly fled O.J.-style first to Milwaukee and then into Indian Territory. Away from Chicago, he shifted his allegiance between the British and the Americans to his advantage, only returning after it became clear he wouldn’t be held responsible for La Lime’s death. And what had been the cause of the argument between Kinzie and La Lime? Corruption within the government-supported fur trade that the soon-to-be-dead La Lime connected to Kinzie and threatened to expose. And how did La Lime’s death affect the evacuation of Fort Dearborn? He was a skilled interpreter and well-known friend of the Potawatomie whose presence would have eased tensions and been invaluable in preventing violence. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable is now recognized as the first long-term, non-native settler in the Chicago area and thus has taken the title of “father of the city” from Kinzie. Commercially corrupt, politically shifty, and unquestionably violent, Kinzie is perhaps a more fitting father for the city that arose from the ashes of Fort Dearborn.
This originally ran in our special Lumpen Field Guide to Chicago Jagoffs.