Cap Streeter

Cap Streeter

Note: After spending several years researching the life of "Cap" Streeter, I have come to the realization that much of what has been written about this man is simply not true. I have tried to weed out the fiction from the fact in this short biography. However, at this stage in my research, I cannot yet claim that all this information is correct.

George Wellington Streeter was born in Flint, Michigan in 1837. Prior to the Civil War, he wandered the Great Lakes region, working at various times as a logger and trapper, an ice cutter on Saginaw Bay, a deck hand on Canada's Georgian Bay, and a miner. He married his first wife, Minnie, and then traveled west in a covered wagon, returning to Michigan on the eve of the Civil War. He joined the Union Army as a private and served in the Tennessee theater.

After the war he became a showman, lumberjack, and steamship operator. After his wife left him (she ran off with a vaudeville troupe), he came to Chicago in the mid-1880s and married again. He and his new wife, Maria, decided to become gun runners in Honduras. Streeter bought a steamship and named it Reutan. Before piloting it down to Central America, Streeter decided to take a test cruise in Lake Michigan in 1886 during a gale. The ship ran aground about 450 feet from the Chicago shore.

In the days that followed, Streeter surveyed the situation and decided to leave his boat where it was. At the time Chicago was in the midst of a building boom, and Streeter found excavation contractors who were eager to pay a fee for the right to dump fill on the beach near his boat. He eventually amassed 186 acres of newly created land. Consulting an 1821 government survey, Streeter determined that his man-made land lay beyond the boundaries of both Chicago and Illinois and therefore claimed that he was homesteading the land as a Civil War veteran.

Unfortunately, prominent Chicagoans such as Potter Palmer and N.K. Fairbank owned the land adjacent to Streeter's land accretions. These men claimed that Streeter was a squatter and that he had no legal rights to the land. Streeter argued differently, claiming that, "When I come here ther warn't a particle of land for me to squat on!"

Sensing that his enemies would try to oust him, Streeter replaced his ship with a homemade two-story castle. The first floor was his war room; the second floor was his residence. When private detectives and thugs attempted to serve allegedly specious warrants on Streeter, he and his wife responded with sawed-off muskets filled with bird shot. On one occasion, Streeter's wife drove off three deputies by dousing them with boiling water.

Several times assailants were killed during their attempts to storm what Streeter called his "District of Lake Michigan." But the city found it difficult to keep Streeter in jail. One time he was acquitted on self-defense. Another time he proved that the birdshot in his rifle could not possibly have killed the policeman found with a piece of lead in his heart. When he was arrested for refusing "to disburse," he successfully argued in court that as he was only one person, he could not disburse. But in March 1902, John Kirk, an imported Western gunman, was killed in Streeter's district. Streeter was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Streeter claimed he was framed; the governor of Illinois agreed and pardoned him nine months later. But while Streeter was in prison, his wife died.

Streeter resumed control over his domain. Unable to oust him by force, his foes turned to the courts. The law of riparian rights was murky, however, and Streeter's lawyers--paid with deeds of land--proved to be able adversaries. But finally, shortly after his arrest in 1918 for selling liquor without a license and assault on a police officer, agents of Chicago Title and Trust Company, armed with warrants, put the torch to Streeter's castle. By now Streeter had married a third time, and his wife, Emma "Ma" Streeter, charged the group with a meat cleaver, but to no avail, and the couple retreated to a nearby boat to wanly continue the fight. Streeter lost the final battle--to pneumonia--on January 24, 1921, at age 84. Many dignitaries, including William Hale Thompson, the mayor of Chicago, attended his funeral. His wife continued to wage war both inside the courtroom and on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1925 the federal district court in Chicago ruled that because Streeter never divorced Minnie, his first wife, "Ma" Streeter was not legally married and thus ineligible to file claims for Streeter's property. The last suit brought by alleged heirs was dismissed in 1940, thus finally ending a half century of colorful warfare and litigation concerning sovereignty of the District of Lake Michigan--to this day still called Streeterville, in honor of its founder. The land that Streeter so ardently fought for is now the most expensive part of Chicago. It is on the Near North Side of the city, bounded by Oak Street on the north, Michigan Avenue on the West, Grand Avenue to the south, and Lake Michigan on the east.

The picture at the top of this page (and all other pictures on this web site) is from Everett Guy Ballard's book, Captain Streeter: Pioneer. Because this book was published in 1914, these pictures enjoy no copyright protection and are now in the public domain. They can be printed without fear of reprisal.

The sources that I used in writing this account of the life of Cap Streeter (together with other reference materials) are found at Suggested Reading.