du Sable, Jean Baptiste Pointe
Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable
The African-American explorer Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable (c. 1745-1818), despite a long period during which his contributions were minimized, is now recognized as the founder of the city of Chicago.
In the 1770s, du Sable and his wife established a farm and trading operation on the north shore of the Chicago River, near Lake Michigan. The swampy site was previously uninhabited; it was known to local Native Americans as Eschecagou, or the land of wild onions. An 1856 account of Chicago's pioneer days (quoted in The Devil May Care: Fifty Intrepid Americans and Their Quest for the Unknown) noted that “the first white man who settled here [in present-day Chicago] was a Negro,” for du Sable was partly of African descent; his mother was probably a Congoleseborn slave. His life, though not well documented, offers insights into the world of the North American interior in the eighteenthth century, a land where interracial cooperation had existed for many decades before the culture du Sable represented was displaced by the advance of the new American nation.
Benefited from Biracial Background
The early facts of du Sable's biography are not completely clear, and even a correct spelling of his name is uncertain and may well be impossible to establish definitively, inasmuch as he lived much of his life in places where full literacy was rare. He was probably born in the port town of St. Marc in western Haiti, which was then the French colony of St.-Domingue, in the year 1745, although one account gives his birthplace as Montreal, Canada, and the determination of his birth year seems to rest on testimony that he was 73 years old when he died in 1818. His father was apparently a French seaman (or pirate) named du Sable, and his mother was of West African descent, probably a Haitian slave whose freedom had been purchased by her husband. She appears nowhere in accounts of du Sable's early life and may have been killed during his early childhood. Du Sable enjoyed privileges beyond those accorded the majority of blacks in Haiti, and he may have been sent to France for a formal education.
It was said that du Sable could speak French, Spanish, English, and several Native American languages. Such skill in learning languages suggests that he acquired some education in grammar, but this too is unsubstantiated, and one study has argued that he never learned to read and write. Du Sable arrived in North America around 1765, perhaps planning to settle in the French colony of Louisiana. During the sea passage he lost his identification documents and was worried that he would be enslaved upon landing. Du Sable hid out at a Catholic mission run by the Jesuit order, offering to work as a groundskeeper.
This stratagem enabled du Sable to establish himself in New Orleans, and he also benefited from his connection with a white French-Haitian friend, Jacques Clemorgan, whom he had known since childhood. However, having experienced the long military conflict between France and Spain over the island of Hispaniola, he would have been dismayed to find that the city of New Orleans had just been ceded by treaty to the Spanish, whom he considered his enemies. Du Sable, probably accompanied by Clemorgan and by a member of the Choctaw Native American tribe, decided to make their way north on the Mississippi River.
They stopped for a time in what is now Missouri, where du Sable established some enduring contacts. Clemorgan may have stayed on or later returned to Missouri, becoming an important figure in the early judicial history of St. Louis. But du Sable continued northward, perhaps traveling as far as Canada but then returning southward and living as a hunter and fur trapper in the lands of the Potawatomi tribe. He owned a barge that he used to transport furs down the river to New Orleans, and for a time he contributed a portion of his profits to the Jesuit mission that had sheltered him there.
Accepted by Potawatomis
Over time, like some of the other French hunters who lived among Native Americans, du Sable became more and more involved in Indian life. He learned to speak the Potawatomi language and those of several neighboring tribes. Du Sable is said to have met the great Ottawa chief, Pontiac, and to have served as his emissary to the Midwestern tribes Pontiac was trying unsuccessfully to unite against British expansionism. The unusual degree to which du Sable was accepted as a member of Potawatomi society was demonstrated when he was permitted to marry a Potawatomi woman named Kittihawa. Potawatomi women were generally forbidden to marry outside the tribe, to say nothing of marrying non-Indians. The two married in a traditional ceremony, much later (in 1788) undertaking a second ceremony officiated by a Catholic priest. Kittihawa acquired the new name of Catherine, and they raised a daughter, Suzanne (or Susanne), and a son, Jean.
Du Sable farmed land in the Peoria area for a time and probably arrived in the area now called Chicago near the beginning of the Revolutionary War; dates through the 1770s are given in various sources. What is certain is that he was quickly able to establish a prosperous farm and trading post. He constructed a solid frame house (measuring 40 by 22 feet) and was soon able to send for his wife and children. Later accounts enumerated 44 large hens, baking and smokehouses, 30 head of cattle, and other outbuildings among his possessions, and he raised and was apparently able to export wheat, hay, and other agricultural commodities. His trading post on the riverbank, located on the site of the present-day Chicago Tribune newspaper offices (and commemorated by a nearby plaque), served explorers, trappers, Native Americans, and military troops of several nationalities.
Visitors to du Sable's home, impressed by furnishings that included several paintings and an imported French coffee grinder, believed that he was a government official of some sort. Undoubtedly du Sable owed the success of his endeavors partly to the help of his adopted Potawatomi tribe, and the cultural coexistence he practiced stood in sharp contrast to what was to come in northern Illinois. In the words of historian Christopher Robert Reed in his book Black Chicago's First Century, du Sable “represented a model for all times in that his life embodied a humanistic concern for intergroup coexistence balanced against the eighteenth century's avaricious commercial spirit.” Some Potawatomi started hundred-acre farms near du Sable's trading post, contributing to his prosperity.
Du Sable, who spoke English well by the late 1770s, visited Detroit and the British garrison at Fort Michilimackinac in northern Michigan, meeting the British commander, Colonel Arent Schuyler de Peyster. But that was not enough to keep him out of trouble when the tide turned against the British during the Revolutionary War— Americans of French background were presumed, correctly in most cases, to be anti-British. After du Sable refused to allow de Peyster to construct a fort in Chicago (he had likewise refused an American colonel), du Sable was arrested in August of 1779 and taken to a British prison in Port Huron (or, according to one source, to Fort Michilimackinac). Some sources also implicate the Wisconsin-based French nobleman Charles-Michel Mouet de Langlade, who resented du Sable's success, in the mulatto's downfall; du Sable may have fled to Michigan City, Indiana, and been arrested there after fighting flared between American and British troops.
Managed Trading Post
Du Sable remained technically a British prisoner until the end of the war, but he impressed Michigan's British governor, Patrick Sinclair, and he was apparently held under a kind of house arrest. He was even given a commission to manage a British trading post, the Pinery, and he may have served as an unofficial monitor of the military activities of Native American tribes in the region. After the British were expelled from America, du Sable returned to Chicago. Fresh sources attested to the vigor of his trading post in 1790, when a Detroit-based agent reported that he was doing a brisk business in pork, bread, and flour. His daughter married that year, and he became a grandfather in 1796. Du Sable maintained his connections with Native American culture, and around 1796 he apparently tried to obtain a minor chieftancy among some Michigan clans but was unsuccessful.
In 1800, du Sable decided to leave Chicago. Among the items the family put up for sale in the growing town were two mirrors, two paintings, 20 large wooden plates, and the coffee grinder; they were reported to have had as many as 23 paintings at one time, and they no doubt kept many possessions for themselves. The reason du Sable left Chicago has not been definitively established, but Reed has argued that it would have been connected with increasing American influence, bringing a deterioration in the region's racial attitudes. It is significant that du Sable moved southward, into regions where the French, more tolerant in racial matters, retained greater influence. The family settled once again in Peoria. After the death of Kittihawa in the early years of the nineteenth century, du Sable moved south once again, to St. Charles, Missouri.
In the last decade of his life, du Sable turned over most of his possessions to his offspring. He transferred ownership of his home in St. Charles to his granddaughter, Eulalie, in exchange for her commitment to care for him in his old age and arrange a Catholic burial after his death. Whether Eulalie fulfilled those duties is unclear. Du Sable was briefly arrested and imprisoned on charges of nonpayment of debts in 1814, and he lived out the rest of his life in poverty. He died in St. Charles on August 28 or 29, 1818.
Du Sable's contributions to Chicago's growth were expunged throughout much of the nineteenth century, but black Chicagoans, especially, worked to recover his memory in the twentieth. Du Sable High School opened in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the city's South Side in the 1930s, and a downtown harbor was later given his name. The Du Sable Museum of African American History opened in 1961, and in 1968 he was finally recognized officially as Chicago's founder. Du Sable was honored with a stamp in the U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage series in 1987.
Cortesi, Laurence, Jean du Sable: Father of Chicago, Chilton, 1972.
The Devil May Care: Fifty Intrepid Americans and Their Quest for the Unknown, edited by Tony Horwitz, Oxford, 2003.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Reed, Christopher Robert, Black Chicago's First Century, University of Missouri Press, 2005.
Jet, February 23, 1987.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 7, 2000.
“1779: Jean Baptiste Point DuSable,” Chicago Public Library, http://www.chipublib.org/004chicago/timeline/dusable.html (February 1, 2008).