Thursday, December 1, 2016

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Chicago's first black and non-native settler.

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable
The first non-native permanent settler in what would become Chicago was a black man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. He was born in San Marc, Haiti in 1745 to a French mariner. His mother was a black slave of African descent. In 1764 Point du Sable and his friend Jacques Clemorgan moved from Haiti to New Orleans.

Point du Sable was educated in France. Then in the early 1770s, sailed to New Orleans. From there, he made his way up the Mississippi River to Fort Crèvecoeur on the east bank of the Illinois River, near modern-day Peoria in the Northwest Territory. The young Point du Sable and Clemorgan met Choctaw, a Native American from the Great Lakes. At the time, Choctaw was working at a Catholic mission. 

Point du Sable, Clemorgan, and Choctaw later moved to the Northwest Territory. The three men started a trading post Point 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, Point 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 Point 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.

Point du Sable and Choctaw stayed a little longer than expected, but Point du Sable was thankful, for it was during the stay that he met Catherine, a Potawatomi. He married Catherine in a tribal ceremony. The couple had two children, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Jr. and Suzanne and they lived in a cabin built by Point du Sable and Choctaw. This cabin was built on a waterway that is now called the Chicago River. But du Sable called it Chicagou (the French spelled it Chécagou) the name given it by the Indians. The marriage was formally recognized before a Catholic priest in Cahokia, in the Northwest Territory in 1778.
Chicago, Illinois in 1820.

Point 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.

Point du Sable's trading post was very prosperous. Settlers came to Point 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 Point du Sable, but he refused to sell the land. Instead, he gave them some land.

Conditions, however, deteriorated in Point 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 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 Point 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.

In 1800 after Point du Sable's son and wife died, he sold his land to Jean Le Lime, an employee of his: Le Lime later sold the land to John Kinzie
Illustration of the house built by John Baptiste Point du Sable at the mouth of the Chicago River as it appeared in 1827 when owned by John Kinzie from 1804 to 1828 Claimed to be the first house build in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Point 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 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 Point 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. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable passed away just before Illinois achieved statehood on December 3, 1818.

Although Chicago was not chartered as a town until August 12, 1833, its founding took place many years before when 
Point 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.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.