Clarke House Museum > The Clarkes
In 1833, many of the Native Americans left the Chicago area, which opened that part of the country to new settlement. At that time, the population of Chicago was 350 people; by 1837, the year Chicago was incorporated as a city, the population had already grown to 4,000. (See timeline of Chicago settlement - PDF)
Henry Brown Clarke, a merchant from Utica, New York, moved to Chicago in 1835, having heard of the prairie town’s economic promise from his brother in law, Charles Walker. Engaged in the shipment of guns, boots and leather, Mr. Walker had come to Chicago earlier that same year, not only to seek his fortune, but to buy land and settle in “the West.” Caroline Palmer Clarke and two of her three young children soon followed her husband to Chicago.
When the Clarkes settled in Chicago, it was still a small frontier town. In a letter to her sister in law (PDF), Mrs. Clarke wrote: “I am far better pleased with Chicago than I expected. The situation is, I think, very pleasant and the town is laid out handsomely. When the streets come to be built up with good houses... it will be very pleasant indeed.”
Mr. Clarke became a partner in the wholesale hardware firm of Jones, King and Company. Their firm dealt in construction, farming, and trapping implements that were in great demand in the rapidly growing city of Chicago and throughout the Midwest.
In June of 1835, Mr. Clarke bought twenty acres of land and acquired an interest in the remainder of a quarter section of land along the south shore of Lake Michigan, reportedly for the price of $10,000. The smaller tract was bordered by the lake on the east and by today’s State Street on the west, 16th Street on the north, and 17th Street on the south. In November 1835, the Clarkes moved into an existing log cabin on the twenty-acre plot built by the property’s original owner.
For the site of his family’s new residence, Mr. Clarke chose a section of land on what is now approximately 1700 south on Michigan Avenue. To the west stretched the nearly limitless prairie, with its tall grasses and plentiful game. In 1836, the Clarkes built a sturdy home with timber frame construction in the Greek Revival style. One and a half miles south of its nearest neighbor, the Clarke House could only be reached via an old American Indian path (today’s Michigan Avenue) that ran in front of the new home’s west entrance.
In Chicago’s quickly developing economy, Mr. Clarke had also become a director of the city’s first bank, the Illinois State Bank, which had opened in 1834 at the corner of LaSalle and South Water streets. The expansive years of the early 1830s ended in the Panic of 1837, when almost overnight the Illinois State Bank failed and Jones, King and Company foundered. As a result, the Clarkes did not have the money necessary to finish the interior of their new house.
During these hard times at the end of the 1830s, Mr. Clarke turned to farming, dairying, and hunting. The family took in boarders, Alice Barnard, a teacher who lived with the Clarkes, wrote to a friend that the unfurnished south parlors were hung with “half a dozen deer, hundreds of snipe, plover and quail, and dozens of prairie chickens and ducks.” The game was used by the family and also sold.
The first city directory in Chicago, published in 1844, listed Clarke as “farmer, lake shore below Michigan Avenue.” Economic conditions improved during the 1840s. Mr. Clarke served as city clerk from 1846 to 1848 for a salary of $600 and fees. During the 1840s the Clarke family continued to grow, and by 1849, there were six Clarke children living (three had died in infancy): James, Mary, Robert, Caroline, Edward and Cyrus. In 1849, however, the Clarkes again suffered the hardship that affected the entire city. After a severe winter, spring flooding apparently contaminated the city’s drinking water. Cholera broke out in epidemic proportions, killing nearly three percent of the city’s population. Henry Clarke, then 47 years old, contracted the disease and died the same day, July 23, 1849.
By the 1850s, the city was beginning to spread southward close to the once remote Clarke property. The State Street stagecoach made daily trips to the city limits and 22nd Street. Mrs. Clarke then subdivided and certified “Clarke’s Addition to Chicago.” The twenty Clarke acres were divided into four blocks and the blocks subdivided into lots that were sold, except for the three acres on which the house stood. The Clarke family retained its financial position, and in the years before the Civil War, the cupola was added to the house. Michigan Avenue was opened all the way to the Clarke House, and a favorite Sunday excursion for Chicagoans was a carriage ride to see what had come to be called the Widow Clarke mansion. In 1860, Mrs. Clarke traveled to Buffalo, New York, probably to visit her late husband’s youngest brother, Cyrus. While there, Mrs. Clarke died, and her body was returned to Chicago for burial. When Graceland Cemetery opened later that year, both Henry and Caroline Clarke and their eldest son James, who had died in 1856, were reburied in a Clarke family plot. The Clarkes’ youngest child, Cyrus, was only twelve years old when his mother died. Mary, the oldest of the surviving children and her husband Frank B. Williams moved into the Clarke House to care for Cyrus and the other children. By the Civil War years of the 1860s, the pioneer era in Chicago had ended. The village had grown into a city of more than 100,000 people. The Clarke children continued to live in the house their parents had built until 1872, when they sold it to the John Chrimes family.