Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable – Founder of Chicago

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (unknown date in 1745 – August 28, 1818) known as the "Founder of Chicago". In Chicago, a school, museum, harbor, park and bridge have been named, or renamed, in his honor; and the place where he settled at the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1780s is recognized as a National Historic Landmark, now located in Pioneer Court.

Du Sable's Native American Connection

Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable was born in San Marc, Haiti. Not very much is known about Du Sable's early life. It is known, however, that Du Sable's mother was probably killed by the Spanish when he was ten. In 1764 Du Sable and his friend Jacques Clemorgan moved from Haiti to New Orleans. Du Sable was eventually thankful for moving to New Orleans because it was here that he and his friend Clemorgan met their future partner of a trading post in New Orleans, and later in what would become Peoria, Illinois. The young man Du Sable and Clemorgan met was Choctaw, a Native American from the Great Lakes. At the time, Choctaw was working at a Catholic mission.

Du Sable, Clemorgan, and Choctaw later moved to Illinois. It was here that Du Sable and Clemorgan learned the skills they would use later at their trading post. Choctaw taught Du Sable and Clemorgan valuable skills. They learned how to set traps and where to find martens, small animals trapped for their fur. The three men started a trading post. Du Sable and Choctaw spent their time trapping in the woods, while Clemorgan devoted his time to hauling pelts downstream to New Orleans.

While trapping one spring day with Choctaw, Du Sable met Chief Pontiac, an important Native American leader. Little did they know that they would gain the respect of all the Indians of the Midwest in the weeks to come. Pontiac asked Du Sable and Clemorgan to arrange a peace treaty between the Ottawa, Miami, and Illinois tribes. Du Sable eagerly arranged the meeting in order to restore peace between the tribes.

Du Sable and Choctaw stayed a little longer than expected, but Du Sable was thankful, for it was during the stay that he met Catherine, a Potawatomi woman named Kitihawa (Christianized to Catherine) on October 27, 1788 in a Catholic ceremony in Cahokia, an old French missionary town on the Mississippi River. Du Sable and Catherine were married most likely in the 1770s in the Native American tradition. They had two children, a son named Jean and a daughter named Susanne and lived in a cabin built by Du Sable and Choctaw. This cabin was built on the north bank a waterway that is now called the Chicago River close to its mouth. But Du Sable called it Checagou, the name given it by the Indians.

Du Sable became well known for trading goods throughout the Midwest. He expanded his cabin to a trading post, which later became a small community with a church, school, and store. By 1776 Du Sable had commercial buildings, docks, a mansion house with fruit orchards, and livestock. Pleased with his partner's accomplishments, Clemorgan went to St. Louis, Missouri, to close his own trading post for fear of damage during the war between Spain and Britain.

Du Sable's trading post was very prosperous. Settlers came to Du Sable's post from Quebec because of difficulties with the English who enforced strict rules regarding travel and free trade and heavily taxed them. Many wanted to buy land from Du Sable, but he refused to sell the land. Instead, he gave them some land.

In 1779 war was declared on the British because they would not give up the fort, nor would they leave the Great Lakes. It was then that Du Sable understood that he and his friends could not keep the red coats away from the Great Lakes, and that they would be there for years to come.

Conditions, however, deteriorated in Du Sable's remote outpost. In 1778 British soldiers began to build a fort on Du Sable's land. They arrested Du Sable and about a week afterward the Indians ambushed more than half the troops at the fort and wounded many others. Thus, Indians became a colonial ally in the American Revolution.

In 1779, he was living on the site of present-day Michigan City, Indiana, when he was arrested in August  by the British military on suspicion of being an American sympathizer in the American Revolutionary War. In the early 1780s he worked for the British lieutenant-governor of Michilimackinac on an estate at what is now the city of St. Clair, Michigan, before moving to settle at the mouth of the Chicago River. 

Commemorative bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe Du Sable along Chicago River

In 1779, Point du Sable was arrested at Trail Creek by British troops and imprisoned briefly at Fort Michilimackinac. 

From the summer of 1780 until May 1784, Point du Sable managed the Pinery, a tract of woodlands claimed by British Lt. Patrick Sinclair on the St. Clair River in eastern Michigan. Point du Sable and his family lived at a cabin at the mouth of the Pine River in what is now the city of St. Clair.

Drawing of the home of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in Chicago as it appeared in the early 1800s

In 1800 after Du Sable's son and wife died, Jean sold his land to Jean Le Lime, an employee of his: Le Lime later sold the land to John Kinzie. Meanwhile, Du Sable moved with his daughter, Suzanne, to St. Louis. Later, Suzanne and her husband moved to Canada and Du Sable lived with his granddaughter.

Du Sable bought a house on a farm in St. Charles, Missouri that he deeded to his grandchildren, Eulalie and Michael. This was on condition that Eulalie care for him and promise to bury him with Catholic rites in a Catholic cemetery. For the next few years Du Sable lived quietly on his St. Charles farm in Missouri. On August 29, 1818, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable at age seventy-three died quietly in his sleep. True to her word, Eulalie had a funeral mass held for her grandfather and buried him at the Catholic cemetery in St. Charles, Missouri.

The DuSable Museum of African American History located in the historic Hyde Park area of Chicago is named in honor of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable.

Although Chicago was not chartered as a city until 1837, its founding took place many years before when Du Sable opened his trading post beside the Chicago River. From this humble start came an important city, and Du Sable's life there in its early days is an important part of that heritage.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

Article includes information republished under license from Wikipedia and educational fair use of Northern Illinois University material.