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Jean-Baptiste Pointe-Du-Sable The Founder of The City of Chicago

By Louis J. Auguste, MD

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This installment is part of a series that I published about individuals of Haitian ancestry who have had an impact on the world beyond the island coastline. I chose Jean-Baptiste Point Du Sable among the selected ones to start with. While some Haitian completely ignore his story, others imagine Mr. Du Sable with compass, ruler and square drafting the outline of the city of Chicago, just like Benjamin Banneker planned the city of Washington, the Nation’s Capital. His story is quite inspiring and deserves to be told.

To be clear, all that we know of Jean-Baptiste Point Du Sable was written after his death from his daughter’s accounts and through analysis of various official documents attesting his deeds.


Jean-Baptiste Point Du Sable was born around 1745 in Saint-Marc, a city of the French Colony of Saint Domingue, which 60 years later was to become independent and adopt the name of HAITI.  His French father was the captain of a ship called the “Black Sea Gull” and his mother Suzanne, a black slave in that city.  During a Spanish raid on the town of Saint-Marc, Suzanne was killed and young Jean-Baptiste saved himself by swimming to his father’s ship. Then his father sent him a Catholic School in France to be educated.

Du Sable on US Stamp

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At a young age, Jean-Baptiste was already fluent not only in French, but also in English and Spanish.   Soon after, we find him in Saint Domingue working on his father’s ships and where he heard stories from other sailors about opportunities for financial success in Louisiana and the French territories in Northern America.  At age 20, along with his best friend Jacques Clemorgan, he decided to move to the United States.  The ship was caught in a storm near New Orleans and wrecked.  Jean-Baptiste and Clemorgan escaped alive and made it safely to the land. Once in Louisiana, fearing that they would be caught as runaway slaves, they decided to go up the Mississippi River.  On their way up North, they trapped animals and sold their furs.  They eventually settled in Saint-Louis, Missouri and became quite successful in trapping and trading.


Always looking for more opportunities, Jean-Baptiste relocated to Fort Peoria, Illinois and continued his trading enterprise.  Fort Peoria was located in close proximity with a Potowami village and Jean-Baptiste fell in love with the daughter of Potowami Chief Pokagon, named Kittihawa. Soon they were married in a traditional tribal ceremony. Subsequently, Kittihawa was christened in the catholic religion and received the Christian name of Catherine. They had a catholic wedding in Cahokia, Illinois, in 1778.  Jean-Baptiste became a member of the Potowami clan and he took an eagle as his tribal symbol.  They gave him a name that translates into “the quiet Black Frenchman”.


Still looking to expand his commerce, Jean-Baptiste would travel all the way to Canada to trap animals and harvest their fur.  During these long trips on his way back to Fort Peoria, he would stop and rest at a place that the local Native people called “Eschikago.” Many other traders did the same. The name Eschikago, Eschikagoo or Chicaugoo meant powerful, strong or great and was used by many tribal chiefs to signify that they were "great" chiefs. That area was located at the mouth of the Chicago River, which connected the Lake with the Mississippi river. This area was first visited in 1673 with the help of the local indigenous people by a French Canadian Louis Jolliet and a French-born Jesuit Priest by the name of Jacques Marquette.


Point Du Sable saw the strategic importance of the site and in 1779 decided to build a trading post where he could buy furs from trappers and sell them all the supplies they needed.  However, these plans had to be put on hold because of the American revolutionary War.  In this conflict, Du Sable sided with the Americans and supported Colonel George Rogers Clark of Virginia, whose assignement was to win the territories of Indiana and Illinois for the Revolutionaries.  For his role, Du Sable who was thought to be an American Spy was arrested by the British Lieutenant Thomas Bennet and sent to Mackinac.


In 1781, Jean-Bapiste, along with his wife, his son Jean-Baptiste, jr and other members of the Potowami tribe officially established a permanent settlement in Eschikago, by building houses, barns, and smokehouses. His house had five rooms and a fireplace and served as the trading post. The family expanded as Kittihawa gave birth to a daughter that was named Suzanne in memory of Jean-Baptiste’s mother. Many traders passed through Eschikago, which had acquired a reputation as the best trading post between Saint-Louis and Montreal, Canada. The settlement grew rapidly. Perrish Grignon, who visited Chicago in about 1794 described Point du Sable as “a large man who was a wealthy trader.” In 1793 or 1794, Suzanne married Jean-Baptiste Peltier. From them, was born a daughter in 1796 by the name of Eulalie, probably the first non-indigenous person born in Chicago.


In 1800. Jean-Baptiste sold the entire settlement to John Lalime for $12,000.  The bill-of-sale mentioned a house, two barns, a horse-drawn mill, a bakehouse, a poultry house a dairy and a smokehouse.  The witness to the deal John Kinzie who was supposed to have the deed registered at in St-Joseph, Michigan, instead registered it in his own name. Another version of the story suggested that John LaLime was actually a front man for Kinzie.


Point DuSable moved with his family back to Peoria, Illinois where he owned 800 acres of land.  Nine years later, Kittihawa died and Jean-Baptiste finally relocated to St-Charles, Missouri, where his granddaughter lived. He died in St Charles on August 28, 1818. He was buried in an unmarked grave in St Charles Borromeo Cemetery.  St Charles Borromeo cemetery was moved twice in the XIXth century.


As to the settlement of Eschikago, in 1795, the U.S. government built Fort Dearborn at what is now the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. The Fort was regularly attacked by Native Americans, until Chief Black Hawk was defeated in 1832. One year later, Chicago was officially incorporated as a town and four years later, when the population reached 4170, as a city. With the arrival of the railroads, the city of Chicago really started to boom reaching a population of 300,000 in 1870. Despite being consumed by a fire, the City has continued to grow at a rapid pace, due mainly to its privileged location and its role in the national and international commerce.

Du Sable High School opened in Bronzeville in 1934. Some of its alumni include Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Harold Washington, Redd Foxx and Maurice Cheeks. The city of Chicago after giving credit for its foundation to John Kinzie for nearly 150 years finally recognized Jean-Baptiste Point Du Sable as its founder.  On August 8, 1963, Richard J. Daley, Mayor of Chicago officially declared the third full week of August, DU SABLE WEEK. In 1965, a plaza named Pioneer Court was built on the site of Du Sable’s homesite, as part of the construction of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of America Building. Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, an African-American artist and writer who taught at the Du Sable High School for 23 years and her husband co-founded the Du Sable Museum of African-American History, located on Chicago’s South Side, in 1968.  On October 12, 1968, the Illinois Sesquicentennial Commission erected a granite tombstone at the site believed to be Point Du Sable’s grave in the third St Charles Borromeo Cemetery. The Jean-Baptiste Point Du Sable Homesite was designated as a National Historic Landmark, on May 11, 1976.  It is located at 401 N. Michigan Avenue in the near north Side of Chicago.  The US Postal Service issued on February 20, 1987 a 22-cent  BLACK HERITAGE postage stamp sporting the face of Jean-Baptiste Point Du Sable. In 2002, a team of researchers from the University of Illinois excavated the tomb site at the third St Charles Borromeo Cemetery but found no evidence of his remains. In late 2009, the city of Chicago and a private philanthropist erected a large bronze bust of Point Du Sable, sculpted by Erik Blome on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, near the Chicago River. In October 2012, the Michigan Avenue Bridge was renamed Du Sable Bridge in honor of Point du Sable.


Today, Chicago is the third most populous city in the United States with approximately 2.7 million residents.  It is a dynamic and culturally diverse city. It is an international center for both business and leisure travel, due in part to the city’s transportation accessibility, a thriving business community, and excellent hotels, restaurants, shopping and attractions.


Louis J. Auguste, MD


February 23, 2013

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