Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (also spelled Point de Sable, Point au Sable, Point Sable, Pointe DuSable[n 1]; before 1750[n 2] – August 28, 1818) is regarded as the first permanent non-Indigenous settler of what later became Chicago, Illinois, and is recognized as the "Founder of Chicago". A school, museum, harbor, park, and bridge have been named in his honor. The site where he settled near the mouth of the Chicago River around the 1780s is identified as a National Historic Landmark, now located in Pioneer Court.
Point du Sable was of African descent but little else is known of his life prior to the 1770s. During his career, the areas where he settled and traded around the Great Lakes and in the Illinois Country changed hands several times among France, Britain, Spain and the new United States. Described as handsome and well educated, Point du Sable married a Native American woman, Kitiwaha, and they had two children. In 1779, during the American Revolutionary War, he was arrested by the British military on suspicion of being an American sympathizer. 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.
Point du Sable is first recorded as living at the mouth of the Chicago River in a trader's journal of early 1790. He established an extensive and prosperous trading settlement in what later became the city of Chicago. He sold his Chicago River property in 1800 and moved to St. Charles, now in Missouri, where he was licensed to run a Missouri River ferry. Point du Sable's successful role in developing the Chicago River settlement was little recognized until the mid-20th century.
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable
|Died||August 28, 1818 (age 68+)|
|Nationality||unknown; traditionally stated to be Haitian, from the French colony of Saint-Domingue|
|Other names||Point de Sable, Point au Sable, Point Sable, Pointe DuSable|
|Known for||"Founder of Chicago"|
There are no records of Point du Sable's life prior to the 1770s. Though it is known from sources during his life that he was of African descent, his birth year, place of birth, and parents are unknown. Juliette Kinzie, another early pioneer of Chicago, never met Point du Sable but stated in her 1856 memoir that he was "a native of St. Domingo" (the island of Hispaniola). This became generally accepted as his place of birth. Historian Milo Milton Quaife regarded Kinzie's account of Point du Sable as "largely fictitious and wholly unauthenticated", later putting forward a theory that he was of African and French-Canadian origin. A historical novel published in 1953 helped to popularize the commonly recited claim that he was born in 1745 in Saint-Marc in Saint-Domingue (Haiti). If he was born outside continental North America, there are further competing accounts that he entered as a trader from the north through French Canada, or from the south through French Louisiana.
Point du Sable married a Potawatomi woman named Kitihawa (Christianized to Catherine) on October 27, 1788, in a Catholic ceremony in Cahokia, an old French Illinois Country town on the Mississippi River, though it is likely they were married in the Native American tradition in the 1770s. They had a son named Jean and a daughter named Susanne. Point du Sable supported his family as a frontier trader and settler during a period when Great Britain, and later the newly formed United States, were seeking to assert control in the former southern dependencies of French Canada and in the Illinois Country.
In a footnote to a poem titled Speech to the Western Indians, Arent DePeyster, British commandant from 1774 to 1779 at Fort Michilimackinac (a former French fort in what was then the British Quebec territory), noted that "Baptist Point de Saible" was "a handsome negro", "well educated", and "settled in Eschecagou". When he published this poem in 1813, DePeyster presented it as a speech that he had made at the village of Abercroche (now Harbor Springs, Michigan) on July 4, 1779. This footnote has led many scholars to assume that Point du Sable had settled in Chicago by 1779; but letters written by traders in the late 1770s suggest that Point du Sable was at this time settled at the mouth of Trail Creek (Rivière du Chemin) at what is now Michigan City, Indiana. In August 1779, during the American Revolutionary War, Point du Sable was arrested as a suspected partisan at Trail Creek by British troops and imprisoned briefly at Fort Michilimackinac. An officer's report following his arrest noted that Point du Sable had many friends who vouched for his good character. The following year, he was ordered transported to the Pinery. From the summer of 1780 until May 1784, Point du Sable managed the Pinery, a tract of woodlands claimed by a British officer, Lt. Patrick Sinclair, on the St. Clair River in eastern Michigan. Point du Sable and his family lived in a cabin at the mouth of the Pine River in what is now the city of St. Clair.
Point du Sable settled on the north bank of the Chicago River close to its mouth at some time in the 1780s.[n 3] The earliest known record of Point du Sable living in Chicago is an entry that Hugh Heward made in his journal on May 10, 1790, during a journey from Detroit across Michigan and through Illinois. Heward's party stopped at Point du Sable's house en route to the Chicago portage; they swapped their canoe for a pirogue that belonged to Point du Sable, and they bought bread, flour, and pork from him. Perrish Grignon, who visited Chicago in about 1794, described Point du Sable as a large man and wealthy trader. Point du Sable's granddaughter, Eulalie Pelletier, was born at his Chicago River settlement in 1796. In 1800 Point du Sable sold his farm to John Kinzie's frontman, Jean La Lime, for 6,000 livres. The bill of sale, which was rediscovered in 1913 in an archive in Detroit, outlined all of the property Point du Sable owned as well as many of his personal effects. This included a house, two barns, a horse drawn mill, a bakehouse, a poultry house, a dairy, and a smokehouse. The house was a 22-by-40-foot (6.7 m × 12.2 m) log cabin filled with fine furniture and paintings.
After Point du Sable sold his property in Chicago, he moved to St. Charles, now in Missouri but at that time in Spanish Louisiana, where he was commissioned by the colonial governor to operate a ferry across the Missouri River. In St. Charles, he may have lived for a time with his son, and later with his granddaughter's family, and late in life, he may have sought public or charitable assistance. He died in 1818 and was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery. His entry in the parish burial register does not mention his origins, parents, or relatives; it simply describes him as negre (French for negro).
The St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery was moved twice in the 19th century, and oral tradition and records of the Archdiocese of St. Louis suggested that Point du Sable's remains were also moved. On October 12, 1968, the Illinois Sesquicentennial Commission erected a granite marker at the site believed to be Point du Sable's grave in the third St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery. In 2002 an archaeological investigation of the grave site was initiated by the African Scientific Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Researchers using a combination of ground-penetrating radar, surveys, and excavation of a 9-by-9-foot (2.7 m × 2.7 m) area did not find any evidence of any burials at the supposed grave site, leading the archaeologists to conclude that Point du Sable's remains may not have been moved from one of the two previous cemeteries.
Though there is little historical evidence regarding Point du Sable's life before the 1770s, there are several theories and legends that give accounts of his early life. Writing in 1933, Quaife identified a French immigrant to Canada, Pierre Dandonneau, who acquired the title "Sieur de Sable" and whose descendants were known by both the names Dandonneau and Du Sable. Quaife was unable to find a direct link to Point du Sable, but he identified descendants of Pierre Dandonneau living around the Great Lakes region in Detroit, Mackinac, and St. Joseph, leading him to speculate that Point du Sable's father was a member of this family, while his mother was a slave. In 1951 Joseph Jeremie, a native of Haiti, published a pamphlet in which he said he was the great grandson of Point du Sable. Based on family recollections and tombstone inscriptions he claimed that Point du Sable was born in Saint-Marc in Haiti, studied in France, and returned to Haiti to deal in coffee before traveling to French Louisiana. Historian and Point du Sable biographer John F. Swenson has called these claims "elaborate, undocumented assertions ... in a fanciful biography". In 1953 Shirley Graham built on the work of Quaife and Jeremie in a historical novel about Point du Sable that she described as "not accurate history nor pure fiction", but rather "an imaginative interpretation of all the known facts". This book presented Point du Sable as the son of the mate on a pirate ship, the Black Sea Gull, and a freed slave called Suzanne. Despite lack of evidence and the continued debate about Point du Sable's early life, parentage, and birthplace, this popular story is widely presented as being definitive.
In 1815 a land claim that had been submitted by Nicholas Jarrot to the land commissioners at Kaskaskia, Illinois Territory, was approved. In the claim Jarrot asserted that a "Jean Baptiste Poinstable" had been "head of a family at Peoria in the year 1783, and before and after that year", and that he "had a house built and cultivated land between the Old Fort and the new settlement in the year 1780". This document has been taken by Quaife and other historians as evidence that Point du Sable lived at Peoria on the Illinois River prior to going upriver to Chicago. Other records demonstrate that Point du Sable was living and working under the British at the Pinery in Michigan in the early 1780s. The Kaskaskia land commissioners identified many fraudulent land claims, including two previously submitted in the name of Point du Sable. Nicholas Jarrot, the claimant, was involved in many false claims, and Swenson suggests that this one was also fraudulent, made without the knowledge of Point du Sable. Although perhaps in conflict with some of the above information, some historical records suggest that Point du Sable bought land in Peoria from J. B. Maillet on March 13, 1773, and sold it to Isaac Darneille in 1783 before he became the first "permanent" resident of Chicago.
Point du Sable left Chicago in 1800. He sold his property to Jean La Lime, a trader from Quebec, and moved to the Missouri River valley, at that time part of Spanish Louisiana. The reason for his departure is unknown. By 1804, John Kinzie, who also settled in Chicago, had bought the former du Sable house. In her 1852 memoir, Juliette Kinzie, Kinzie's daughter-in-law, suggested that "perhaps he was disgusted at not being elected to a similar dignity [great chief] by the Pottowattamies". In 1874 Nehemiah Matson elaborated on this story, claiming that Point du Sable was a slave from Virginia who had moved with his master to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1790. According to Matson, Point du Sable became a zealous Catholic to convince a Jesuit missionary to declare him chief of the local Native Americans, and left Chicago when the natives refused to accept him as their chief. Quaife dismisses both of these stories as being fictional.
In her 1953 novel Graham suggests that Point du Sable left Chicago because he was angered with the United States government, which wanted him to buy the land on which he had lived and called his own for the previous two decades. The 1795 Treaty of Greenville, which ended the Northwest Indian War, and the subsequent westward migration of Native Americans away from the Chicago area might also have influenced his decision.[n 4]
The French came to the North American mid-continent region in the 17th century. Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, during their 1673 Mississippi Valley expedition, though probably not the first Europeans to visit the area, are the first in the written record to have crossed the Chicago Portage and traveled along the Chicago River.[n 5] Over the following years visits continued, and occasional intermittent posts were established, including those by René LaSalle, Henri Tonti, Pierre Liette and the four-year Mission of the Guardian Angel. Point du Sable 1780s establishment is recognized as the first settlement that continued on and ultimately grew to become the city of Chicago. He is therefore widely regarded as the first permanent resident of Chicago and has been given the appellation "Founder of Chicago".
By the 1850s, historians of Chicago recognized Point du Sable as the city's earliest non-native permanent settler. For a long time the city did not honor him in the same manner as other pioneers. Point du Sable was generally forgotten in the 19th century and instead the Scots-Irish trader John Kinzie, who had bought his property, was often credited for the settlement. A plaque was erected by the city in 1913 at the corner of Kinzie and Pine Streets to commemorate the Kinzie homestead. In the planning stages of the 1933–1934 Century of Progress International Exposition, several African-American groups campaigned for Point du Sable to be honored at the fair. At the time, few Chicagoans had even heard of Point du Sable, and the fair's organizers presented the 1803 construction of Fort Dearborn as the city's historical beginning. The campaign was successful, and a replica of Point du Sable's cabin was presented as part of the "background of the history of Chicago".
In 1965 a plaza called Pioneer Court was built on the site of Point du Sable's homestead as part of the construction of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of America building. The Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable Homesite was designated as a National Historic Landmark on May 11, 1976, as a site deemed to have "exceptional value to the nation". Pioneer Court is located at what is now 401 N. Michigan Avenue in the Michigan–Wacker Historic District. At this site in 2009 the City of Chicago and a private donor erected a large bronze bust of Point du Sable by Chicago-born sculptor Erik Blome. In October 2010 the Michigan Avenue Bridge was renamed DuSable Bridge in honor of Point du Sable. Previously, a small street named De Saible Street had been named after him.
Several Chicago institutions have been named in honor of Point du Sable. DuSable High School opened in Bronzeville in 1934.[n 6] The DuSable campus today houses the Daniel Hale Williams Prep School of Medicine, and the Bronzeville Scholastic Institute. Dr. Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, a prominent African-American artist and writer, taught at the school for twenty-three years. She and her husband co-founded the DuSable Museum of African American History, located on Chicago's South Side, which was renamed in honor of Point du Sable in 1968. DuSable Harbor is located in the heart of downtown Chicago at the foot of Randolph Street, and DuSable Park is a 3.24-acre (1.31 ha) urban park in Chicago currently awaiting redevelopment. The project was originally announced in 1987 by Mayor Harold Washington. The US Postal Service has also honored Point du Sable with the issue of a Black Heritage Series 22-cent postage stamp on February 20, 1987.