American Medical Biographies/Wolcott, Alexander

Wolcott, Alexander (1790–1830)

Alexander Wolcott, Indian agent and first resident physician at Chicago, was born at East Windsor, Connecticut, February 14, 1790. The ancestor of the Wolcott family in America was the Honorable Henry Wolcott who came from Tolland, England, about 1628. The father of Alexander Wolcott was also named Alexander Wolcott, an attorney of Windsor, Connecticut, who was a graduate of Yale and a distinguished lawyer. He removed to Middletown, Connecticut, where he was collector of the port through the administrations of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and John Quincy Adams. He was a member of the constitutional convention of 1818. The grandfather of Dr. Wolcott was a physician of prominence in Windsor, chairman of the committee that examined applicants for the post of surgeon, or surgeon's mate. Before and since his time, many Wolcotts have been members of the medical profession. One, who became well known to the profession in Chicago, was Dr. Erastus Bradley Wolcott, who settled in Milwaukee in 1839, regent of the Wisconsin State University and surgeon-general of Wisconsin.

Alexander Wolcott was graduated from Yale in 1809, studied medicine with Nathan Smith (q.v.) in Hanover, New Hampshire, and in March, 1812, enlisted in the army of the United States as surgeon's mate and in April, 1816, was promoted to the rank of post surgeon. He resigned from the army in 1817 and in 1818, President Monroe appointed him Indian agent to the Lakes (Chicago). Governor Cass, territorial governor of Michigan, was superintendent of the northern division of Indian tribes, which comprised the entire northwest. This brought the doctor and governor into close personal relations. In 1819 John C. Calhoun, the Secretary of War, arranged with Governor Cass to organize an expedition to explore the upper lakes region and find the source of the Mississippi River. The expedition set out from Detroit on the first of May, 1820, in boats constructed by Indians and rowed with oars by soldiers from the garrison at Detroit and Indian helpers. Henry Schoolcraft of New York was sent by the government as mineralogist and Dr. Wolcott as physician, to the expedition. Owing to the large size of their boats, the shallow water of the Mississippi prevented proceeding above the lake, which Mr. Schoolcraft named Lake Cass, and from which they turned back Four months were consumed in making the journey, visiting Indian tribes and getting back to Detroit. Mr. Schoolcraft, in his report, speaks of Dr. Wolcott as a gentleman commanding respect by his manners, judgment and intelligence. Twelve years later, in 1832, Dr. Douglas Houghton (q.v.), of Detroit, accompanied a second expedition, organized by Mr. Schoolcraft, to finish this work. They succeeded in reaching the source of the river, which they found to be about 180 miles above Lake Cass. Thus Wolcott and Houghton had the honor of connecting the medical profession with the discovery of the source of the Mississippi River.

On August 29, 1821 one of the last great Indian treaties was held at Chicago. Dr. Wolcott was one of the signers with Governor Cass and the United States Indian Commissioners. Henry Schoolcraft, who attended and acted as secretary, attributed to Dr. Wolcott's advice to Governor Cass the acquirement, for a trifling sum of millions of acres of Michigan lands.

In 1823 the garrison was withdrawn from Fort Dearborn and the fort and property left in charge of Dr. Wolcott until it was again garrisoned in 1828. In these early days the settlement of Chicago consisted of a few families clustered about Fort Dearborn; one family which had settled there as early as 1804, was that of John and Eleanor Kinzie, whose eldest daughter, Ellen Marion, the first white child born in Chicago, Dr. Wolcott married on July 20, 1823. As there was no one in Chicago legally authorized to perform a marriage, a Justice of the Peace, who was on his way from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to his home in Peoria, was called on for the ceremony.

Shortly before his death Dr. Wolcott purchased at the sale of canal lands, a number of town lots and eighty acres. The latter, years later, became "Wolcott's addition to the city." For many years North State Street bore the name of Wolcott Street. Dr. Wolcott died October 25, 1830, and was buried near the fort. In 1865 Mrs. John H. Kinzie had the remains of Dr. Wolcott and his two children removed to her lot in Graceland Cemetery.