THE SAND BAR CLAIM
Simon Pokagon (c 1830-1899) was the son of Leopold Pokagon, the founder of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. Simon Pokagon was a writer, public speaker, and activist who made efforts in the 1890s to claim the land along the Chicago lakefront on behalf of his tribe.
After his death, his son Charles Pokagon took up the “Sand Bar Claim” through encampments and press conferences, while the tribe petitioned the Indian Bureau of the Department of Interior, and sent an appeal to U.S. President William McKinley. None of these efforts were successful.
In 1909, the Pokagon Band fought to receive recognition by the State of Illinois for their claim to the land along the lakefront, protesting a proposal that would allow the Illinois Steel Company to create landfill for its site along Lake Michigan near the Calumet River. The claim was denied, as was a second protest in 1914 against plans to build what became Navy Pier.
Finally, the Pokagon Band decided to sue.
“In 1914, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians sued the City of Chicago and other landowners for possession of the Chicago lakefront. The lawsuit arose out of a controversy over ownership of the shorefront that had been ‘reclaimed’ by dumping fill along the lakefront and extending the city east into the lake, a process commencing after the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the need to rid the city of enormous amounts of burnt rubble. Before ‘The Fire,’ the shoreline of the city of Chicago ran roughly along what is now Michigan Avenue. Streeterville; the Gold Coast; Lincoln, Grant and Jackson Parks; the Museum Campus; Soldier Field; the Illinois Central and the Metra lines; and Lakeshore Drive are all on landfill. The filling in and extending of the shoreline continues to this day.”
From Imprints: The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the City of Chicago, by John Low.
The Pokagon Band filed suit in Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The plaintiffs were: Chief John Williams; his brother and secretary of the tribe, Michael B. Williams; and the Business Committee of the Band. The defendants included: City of Chicago, Illinois Central Railroad, South Park Commissioners, Lincoln Park Commissioners, Illinois Steel Company, and the Michigan Central Railroad Company.
Judge George Carpenter of the U.S. District Court promptly dismissed the claim.
The lawyers for the Pokagon Band appealed. The case came before the U.S. Supreme Court in late 1916, and in early 1917, the justices ruled against the Potawatomi. The full text of the decision can be accessed at www.loc.gov.
Low, John. 2016. Imprints: The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and the City of Chicago. Michigan State University Press.
Kearney, Joseph D. and Thomas W. Merrill. 2013. “Contested Shore: Property Rights in Reclaimed Land and the Battle for Streeterville,” 107 Northwestern Law Review 1057.