Jean Baptiste Point du Sable

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable
Black and white sketch of the bust of a man. His features are darkly shaded. He has dark curly hair and a goatee.
There are no known portraits of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable made during his lifetime.[1] This depiction is taken from A. T. Andreas' book History of Chicago (1884).[2]
Bornbefore 1750
Died(1818-08-28)August 28, 1818 (age 68+)
Nationalityunknown; traditionally stated to be Haitian, from the French colony of Saint-Domingue
Other namesPoint de Sable, Point au Sable, Point Sable, Pointe DuSable
OccupationTrader
Known for"Founder of Chicago"

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".[7] 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.

Biography

This map shows the British Province of Quebec in the north around the Great Lakes. To the west, across the Mississippi River is Spanish Louisiana. The former French Illinois Country spans the Mississippi in the center-west. The thirteen American colonies are to the east.
Map of eastern North America in the late 18th century, just prior to the American Revolutionary War. Point du Sable lived near Lake Michigan and the Illinois Country (center left).

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,[7] his birth year, place of birth, and parents are unknown.[8] 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).[9] This became generally accepted as his place of birth.[10] Historian Milo Milton Quaife regarded Kinzie's account of Point du Sable as "largely fictitious and wholly unauthenticated",[11] later putting forward a theory that he was of African and French-Canadian origin.[12] 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).[13] 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.[14]

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,[15] 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.[16] 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.[14]

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".[17] 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.[18] This footnote has led many scholars to assume that Point du Sable had settled in Chicago by 1779;[19] 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.[20] 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.[21][22] The following year, he was ordered transported to the Pinery. From the summer of 1780[23] 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.[24] 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.[25]

Black and white sketch of a well kept log house, with multiple windows, a front porch, fence and landscape. Two people are on the porch.
Drawing of the former home of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable in Chicago as it appeared in the early 1800s

Point du Sable settled on the north bank of the Chicago River close to its mouth at some time in the 1780s.[24][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.[27] 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.[28] Perrish Grignon, who visited Chicago in about 1794, described Point du Sable as a large man and wealthy trader.[29] Point du Sable's granddaughter, Eulalie Pelletier, was born at his Chicago River settlement in 1796.[30] 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.[31] 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.[31]

After Point du Sable sold his property in Chicago, he moved to St. Charles, now in Missouri but at that time in Spanish Louisiana,[13][32] where he was commissioned by the colonial governor to operate a ferry across the Missouri River.[15] 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.[14] 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).[33]

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.[34][35] In 2002 an archaeological investigation of the grave site was initiated by the African Scientific Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.[7] 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.[36]