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John S. Wright Papers

Identifier: spe-nhrc-wri

Scope and Contents

This small collection concerns the purchase of Chicago land by John S. Wright in 1848 from the New York speculator Bronson family, and the subsequent history of that land over the next two decades. The original deeds (Oversize 1, 2, and 3) are to lots 3, 4, 5, and 6 in Block 3 of the original town of Chicago, and lot 3 of Block 5. The majority of the collection, however, concerns lots 4, 5, and 6 of Block 3. See map on page 3 for location in present-day Chicago. [Note: The Commission on Chicago Landmarks was instrumental in identifying the location of this land, only to discover that the building which the Commission occupies sits partially on lot 4 of Block 3.]

Most of the people represented in the collection are, in addition to the original buyer and seller of the land, a cast of lawyers and court officials. The exceptions are Samuel and Ellen Kerr, whose personal letter (1:2) bears no relation to the legal aspect of the collection. In fact, it is unclear what relation the Kerrs have to John S. Wright at all. Timothy Wright (various folders) and Walter Wright (1:7) are probably the younger brothers of John S., born in 1817 and 1819, respectively.


  • 1848 - 1866


Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Please consult staff to determine ability to reuse materials from collection.

Biographical / Historical

John Stephen Wright was born in Sheffield, Massachusetts, on July 16, 1815, the eldest son of John and Huldah (Dewey) Wright. His father was a storekeeper, his mother a former schoolteacher. John Stephen Wright was named for his grandfather, John Wright, and for Stephen Dewey II. About the time of John Stephen’s birth, his father took a year’s trip to the West in hopes of bolstering his failing health with liberal doses of fresh air. During that trip, he visited the site of Chicago, then a tiny village of less than forty inhabitants.

In 1832, father and son set off with a stock of goods, intending to settle at Galena, Illinois. However, when they arrived at Chicago on October 29, they decided to remain, building a log merchant house at Lake and Clark. This site was so far from the town’s business center that it became known as “The Prairie Store.” Not yet twenty, Wright not only took a census of Chicago in 1833, but also published a lithographed map of the town in 1834, the year he began a real estate business. By the time he achieved legal majority on his twenty-first birthday, his property was worth $200,000.

This handsome fortune was wiped away in the panic of 1837. Wright began again as secretary and general manager of the Union Agricultural Society for whom he began a newspaper, the Union Agriculturist. A merger with the Western Prairie Farmer followed, and by 1843 Wright became its owner and changed the name to the Prairie Farmer. Although he maintained his connection with the paper until 1857, he hired an editor and began investing his interests elsewhere.

Following his marriage to Catherine B. Turner of Virginia on September 1, 1846, Wright again entered the real estate business and over the next decade acquired an impressive second fortune, which was swept away in the late 1850s as a result of his financial backing of a “self-raking” reaper manufacturing concern. Shortly afterwards, he formed a land company designed to interest Eastern capitalists in the Midwest.

Among Wright’s civic interests was public education; the first public school in Chicago, a log structure, was built at his own expense in 1835. He was also a promoter of the Chicago park system connected by wide boulevards—a system designed, but far from completed, at Wright’s death. Always a Chicago booster, he compiled Chicago: Past, Present, and Future (1868), which has been described as “a rambling, bombastic volume.” Other similar books were added to his bibliography; his later works are said to exhibit evidence of a weakening mind, and indeed, shortly after the Chicago fire of 1871, his family was forced to commit him to an asylum. The remainder of his life was spent in and out of institutions. At 59, he died and was buried in Rosehill Cemetery, Chicago, on October 1, 1874. John and Catherine (Kitty) were the parents of four children: Augustine Washington (b. 1847), Walter (1848-1849), Maria Alexander (b. 1849) and Chester Dewey (b. 1852). All four children were born at their grandfather’s Virginia home, so ardently did their mother dislike Chicago, an animosity which she never fully conquered.

For more information, see Lloyd Lewis’s John S. Wright: Prophet of the Prairies (Chicago: The Prairie Farmer Publishing Company, 1941). Special Collections also has three titles of Wright’s authorship: Chicago: Past, Present and Future (first edition, 1868, and second edition, 1870) and Wright’s Proposition to a Chicago Railway Capitalist with Important Addendum (1871).

A map of Wright’s land ownership follows in the print version of this finding aid.


.25 Linear Feet (in 1 box, plus 3 oversize folders)

Language of Materials



John Stephen Wright (1815-1874) moved to Chicago from Massachusetts with his father in 1832. In 1833, Wright took a census of Chicago and published a lithographed map of the town in 1834, the year he began a real estate business. This collection concerns his purchase of land in the city in 1848 and the subsequent history of that land over the next two decades.


The collection is organized alphabetically by topic (Correspondence, Land records, Legal papers, and Tax receipts), and chronologically within each topic.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by Joseph B. Francus in 1978 and 1983.

Guide to the John S. Wright Papers
Original author unknown. Processed, May 1990. Updated and ingested into ArchivesSpace by Johanna Russ, 2021.
1990 May
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English

Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections Unit at Harold Washington Library Center Repository

Harold Washington Library Center, 9th Floor
Chicago Public Library
400 S. State Street
Chicago IL 60605 United States
(312) 747-4875