In the 1830s, topography, soil conditions, the cheap price of land and a desire to be part of the American Dream lured immigrants from western Europe into what is now Lake and Porter counties and south suburban Chicago.
They came primarily from Germany and Holland to carve farms out of a wilderness that had been home for centuries to such Native American tribes as the Pottawatomie, the Kickapoo and the Sauk.
These tribes had fished in the rivers, hunted and trapped in the thick forests, moving to follow the game and creating trails, some wide enough for wagons, others little more than footpaths.
Joseph and Marie Bailly arrived in the area of the town of Porter in 1822 from the St. Joseph River in Michigan. He had been a fur trader on Lake Michigan for nearly 30 years when he set up his family home along the Little Calumet River.
That was 10 years before the United States government signed a peace treaty with tribes and purchased land from the Pottawatomie.
It took two more years before the first government surveyors arrived in the spring of 1834 to cut the land into sections and townships.
By that time, most of the Native Americans were located along the banks of the Little Calumet and Kankakee rivers. That left the wilderness to the south part of what is now Lake County ready for settlement. There, land sold for pennies an acre, which attracted the Europeans who were locked out of land in the old country.
Shortly after the surveyors left, a handful of European settlers arrived in what is now Crown Point while a few others settled at the mouth of the Calumet River in Brunswick.
Then in 1830, the first white settlers arrived in what is now Dyer.
St. John traces its founding to the John Hack family’s arrival in 1837.
“I believe central Lake County, and some portions of south-central Lake County, were settled first because of the geography/topography of the landscape,” said Steve McShane, archivist/curator of the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest.
The northern portions and some southern portions of Lake County were covered in marshes and swamp lands. Sand was the predominate soil type in the far northern areas.
“Our early settlers found those lands unattractive for farming, so they tended to build their homesteads in the central portions of the county,” McShane said.
Major Lake County cities got their start after the industrial revolution, he said.
“When the heavy industries such as oil and steel needed to build plants in the Midwest in the mid- to late-19th century and early 20th century, they found northern Lake County to be the perfect place to build the huge refineries and steel mills,” McShane said.
“George Hammond and Marcus Towle also found the area to be ideal for their large meatpacking plant. So, that’s why the northern Lake County cities came later, beginning with Hammond, then Whiting, East Chicago/Indiana Harbor and Gary.”
In Porter County, the Pottawatomie tribe sold some land to settlers in 1812 in an area known as Garyton, now part of Portage, when the area was known as the Indiana Territory. Established four years before Indiana gained statehood in 1816, Garyton was one of the first communities in Portage Township and, in fact, in all of northwestern Indiana.
By 1833, there were many European settlers in Portage area. Before it became a town, Portage consisted primarily of three separate communities — McCool, Crisman and Garyton — in addition to a lot of farmland.
LaPorte County maintained jurisdiction over Porter County in 1835, and founded Portage Township that year.
Hebron and Boone Township’s history is intertwined with the first white settlers coming to the area in 1835.
Valparaiso started out as Portersville in 1836. It was renamed Valparaiso in 1837 and incorporated in 1850.
Other towns and some cities in Lake and Porter counties trace their roots to farmers and fur traders settling the wilderness areas through the mid-1800s and to the building of railroads. Those include Hobart and Highland in 1847, Merrillville in 1848, Cedar Lake about 1850, Chesterton and Lake Station in 1852, Griffith in 1853, Kouts, about 1860, Munster in the mid-1860s and Schererville in 1866.
In Illinois, today’s south suburbs featured rich soil that farmers from western Europe favored. Three years before Chicago was incorporated in 1837, the village of Thornton was on the map.
Most other south suburban communities in Cook and Will counties were settled by farmers and then incorporated as the areas grew. Glenwood was incorporated in 1871, Crete in 1880, Chicago Heights in 1892, Homewood and Calumet City in 1893, South Holland in 1894.
Burnham, Sauk Village and Lynwood were all incorporated in the 20th century.