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Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable: Father of Chicago

According to Native American tradition, an African man born in Santa Domingo (Haiti) was the first non-native American to settle at the city that is now called Chicago. The native accounts were corroborated by the Europeans in 1779 when a British Commandant of Fort Michilimackinac reported the frontiersman as a "handsome Negro, well-educated, and settled in Eschikagou (Chicago)."

In 1783, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable's U.S. citizenship was officially recorded in what is now known as the area of Peoria, Illinois. His farm was recorded at Peoria in the early 1770s. The farm encompassed more than 800 acres of land. Du Sable's settlement in this area was prior to the land becoming a part of U.S. territory. The French held territory along the Mississippi River such as Louisiana, with its main city post at New Orleans. The French also held the St. Louis area.


Du Sable was born in St. Marc, Santa Domingo (eastern Haiti) in 1745. His mother was an African referred in historical records as Suzanna, an emancipated slave from a region in Africa now within the Congo nation. His father was a French merchant mariner on a ship called Black Sea Gull. This blogger has not been able to find a reliable source for the name of Du Sable's father or mother. The record does indicate that his father provided him an education in France. Du Sable also worked as a seaman on his father's ships.

By the 1760s, we find that Du Sable is living in the Louisiana Territory, then under French rule. He moved from New Orleans to St. Louis, both still within French colonial rule. Du Sable established a fur trading post at St. Louis before relocating to Chicago.


Commemorative bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe Du Sable along Chicago River
Records indicate that by June 6, 1770, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable had established his trading post at the mouth of what is now the Chicago River, near the Tribune Tower building. The natives called the area where Du Sable settled Eschikagou because of the wild onions that grew in the region. In this field of tears, Du Sable married Kittihawa (also called Katherine) of the Potawatomi tribe and settled into running a family trading post.

An explorer and entrepreneur, Du Sable was a well-known and highly respected businessman in the Northwest territory of the United States. He spoke fluent French, Spanish, English and several Native American languages. He traded heavily with neighboring tribes and established the main supply station for westward bound white men who were moving from the English colonies. In 1778, he was temporarily jailed by the British armed forces on charges of being a French spy. These allegations were never substantiated.


Bust of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable.
Du Sable was known as a man of fine tastes. Du Sable built his home on the north bank (North Michigan Avenue) of what is now known as the Chicago River, near the site of today's Wrigley Building (chewing gum) and the Tribune Towers. Monsignor Meshan wrote that Du Sable was the only man who thought of having a cabin built of imported French walnut wood. Meshan said his home contained "a feather bed, a couch, and a bureau, to say nothing of mirrors and pictures, in the midst of a wilderness." Du Sable's establishments along the Chicago River were reported to possess 23 Old World art treasures.

On May 14, 1800, records show that Du Sable sold his Chicago holdings to a European trader for $1,200 (2015/CPI=$17,000). He left the region that would become a great metropolis. He moved to live with his son on property they owned in Saint Charles, Missouri. Some commentators state that Du Sable's imprisonment during the Revolutionary War by the British may have precipitated his move from the region as the "westward expansion" of Europeans began to advance. Du Sable and his family were detained by the British for five years during the Revolutionary War.

As a Black man who was multilingual, free and self-employed, Du Sable may have been considered suspicious by the British and the French, as well as those Europeans who were identifying themselves as Americans. Whatever his reason, there is a Native American saying that may capture in part the magnitude of his historical legacy: "The first white man to settle in Chicago was a black man."

Du Sable died August 28, 1818 in St. Charles at the age of 73.

Du Sable's death was recorded at St. Charles Burromeo Catholic Church. Monsignor Meshan said the following of Du Sable:

"For more than twenty years his name was associated with Chicago. Here was a frontiersman who lived with an air of regality, and if the city which traces her permanency from him adopted, at a later date, the motto "I Will," she can be sure the first Chicagoan had all the qualities that this slogan implies."


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