Jean-Baptist-Point Du Sable, (born 1750?, St. Marc, Sainte-Domingue [now Haiti]—died Aug. 28, 1818, St. Charles, Mo., U.S.), black pioneer trader and founder of the settlement that later became the city of Chicago.
Du Sable, whose French father had moved to Haiti and married a black woman there, is believed to have been a freeborn. At some time in the 1770s he went to the Great Lakes area of North America, settling on the shore of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago River, with his Potawatomi wife, Kittihawa (Catherine). His loyalty to the French and the Americans led to his arrest in 1779 by the British, who took him to Fort Mackinac. From 1780 to 1783 or 1784 he managed for his captors a trading post called the Pinery on the St. Clair River in present-day Michigan, after which he returned to the site of Chicago. By 1790 Du Sable’s establishment there had become an important link in the region’s fur and grain trade.
In 1800 he sold out and moved to Missouri, where he continued as a farmer and trader until his death. But his 20-year residence on the shores of Lake Michigan had established his title as Father of Chicago.
The Black Founder of Chicago
In this episode of Unique Coloring, The Black Founder of Chicago, Daniel J. Middleton discusses Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the Haitian trader, trapper, and pioneer who first settled what became Chicago, Illinois, and was its founder.
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 date, place of birth, and parents are unknown. Juliette Kinzie, another early pioneer of Chicago, never met Point du Sable but said 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 claim that Point du Sable was born in 1745 in Saint-Marc in Saint-Domingue (later known as Haiti). If he was born outside continental North America, there are competing accounts as to whether 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 27 October 1788, in a Catholic ceremony in Cahokia in the Illinois Country, a longtime French colonial settlement on the east side of the Mississippi River. It is likely that this couple was married earlier in the 1770s in a Native American tradition. 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 of great upheaval for the former southern dependencies of French Canada and in the Illinois Country, where the regions changed hands several times over the course of half a century.
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 province of Quebec), 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 Arbrecroche (now Harbor Springs, Michigan) on 4 July 1779. This footnote has led many scholars to assume that Point du Sable had settled in Chicago by 1779. But letters written by other 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 Patriot 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, Point du Sable was ordered transported to the Pinery on the St. Clair River north of Detroit. From the summer of 1780 until May 1784, Point du Sable managed the Pinery, a tract of woodlands owned by British officer Lt. Patrick Sinclair, on the St. Clair River in eastern Michigan. This may have been a choice given by him from the British, offering him release from his imprisonment to manage the Pinery. Point du Sable with his family lived in a cabin at the mouth of the Pine River in what is now the city of St. Clair.
At some time in the 1780s, after the US achieved independence, Point du Sable settled on the north bank of the Chicago River close to its mouth The earliest known record of Point du Sable living in Chicago is an entry that Hugh Heward made in his journal on 10 May 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, detailed 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, west of St. Louis. It is now in Missouri but at that time still in Spanish Louisiana. 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. Late in life, he may have sought public or charitable assistance. He died on 28 August 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 nègre (French for negro).
The St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery was moved twice in the 19th century. Oral tradition and records of the Archdiocese of St. Louis suggested that Point du Sable’s remains were also moved. On 12 October 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 reinterred 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 as living around the Great Lakes region in Detroit, Mackinac, and St. Joseph. He speculated that Point du Sable’s father may have been a member of this family, while his mother was likely an enslaved woman.
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 what was then Saint Domingue, 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 drew from the work of Quaife and Jeremie in a historical novel about Point du Sable. She described it 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 freedwoman called Suzanne. Despite lack of evidence and the continued debate about Point du Sable’s early life, parentage, and birthplace, this popular story has been repeated and 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 north to settle in 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 13 March 1773, and sold it to Isaac Darneille in 1783 before he became the first “permanent” resident of Chicago.
Departure from 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 [du Sable] 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 by the United States government. It 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.