Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable was an explorer and merchant, educated, a renowned and dignified businessman in the Northwest Territory of the United States. He spoke fluent French, Spanish, English and several Native American languages. He founded the main supply station for white men who were moving from the English colonies to the West and traded bountifully with neighboring tribes.
Du Sable was born in St. Marc, Santa Domingo (eastern Haiti) in 1745 to an African mother who is accounted to be simply called Suzanna, an emancipated slave from a region in Africa now within the Congo nation and a French father who was a merchant sailor on a ship called Black Sea Gull.
According to historical records, his father gave him an education in France and he also worked as a seaman on his father’s ships.
In the 1760s, Du Sable was settled in the Louisiana Territory, which was then under French rule. He moved from New Orleans to St. Louis, where he established a fur trading post at St. Louis before relocating to Chicago.
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Native American accounts that an African man born in Santa Domingo (Haiti) was the first non-native American to settle at the city that is now called Chicago. The Native American accounts were supported by the Europeans in 1779 when a British Commandant of Fort Michilimackinac is quoted to have described Du Sable as a “handsome Negro, well-educated, and settled in Eschikagou (Chicago).”
The natives called the area where Du Sable settled Eschikagou because of the wild onions that grew in the region.
It was on June 6, 1770, that Du Sable established his trading post at the mouth of what is now the Chicago River, near the Tribune Tower building. There he married Kittihawa or Katherine as she was also called. She was of the Potawatomi tribe of Native America. He then settled into running a family trading post.
As an educated, multilingual, free and self-employed Black man, Du Sable may have been considered suspicious by the British, French and European men who claimed to be American natives. In 1778, he was temporarily jailed by the British armed forces on charges of being a French spy. These allegations were never validated.
Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable’s U.S. citizenship was officially documented in what is now known as the area of Peoria, Illinois in 1783. His farm which was more than 800 acres of land was filed at Peoria in the early 1770s. Du Sable’s settled in this area before the land became a part of U.S. territory. Before then, the territory along the Mississippi River such as Louisiana, with its main city post at New Orleans and the St. Louis area were French territories.
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Du Sable was known as a man of magnificent tastes. According to Monsignor Meshan, Du Sable uniquely built himself a cabin of imported French walnut wood. Meshan asserts that his home contained “a feather bed, a couch, and a bureau, to say nothing of mirrors and pictures, in the midst of a wilderness.” 23 Old World art treasures were recorded to have been found in Du Sable’s property along the Chicago River.
Du Sable left the region and moved to live with his son in Saint Charles, Missouri. On May 14, 1800, records show that Du Sable sold his Chicago holdings to a European trader for $1,200 (2015/CPI=$17,000).
Some commentators aver that Du Sable’s 5 years imprisonment along-side with his family by the British during the Revolutionary War may have led to his relocation from the region as the Europeans approached.
Du Sable died on August 28, 1818, in St. Charles at the age of 73. His death was recorded at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church.
Monsignor Meshan had the following to say of Du Sable:
“For more than twenty years his name was associated with Chicago. Here was a frontiersman who lived with an air of regality, and if the city which traces her permanency from him adopted, at a later date, the motto “I Will,” she can be sure the first Chicagoan had all the qualities that this slogan implies.”
A Native American saying that may partially summarize the significance of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable’s legacy is “The first white man to settle in Chicago was a black man.”