Throwback Thursday: Chicago’s Founder, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Settles in Illinois

Though many have traveled through these lands known today as Chicago, there is one regarded as the first permanent settler. Europeans have been exploring North America’s since the 17th century, and one of the first to be on record to explore the land, rivers and portages go by the name of Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette. Others have since visited or posted up for a time including Renee Lasalle, Henri Tonti and Father Francois Pinet for the Mission of the Guardian Angel. It was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable that held permanent residence here and laid a foundation to expand upon.

There is not much documented history on the early life of Jean Baptiste, however there are many accounts and theories that lead to a general idea believed to be accurate. Baptiste Point Du Sable is known to be born in Haiti, and later studied in France, before returning to Haiti to sell coffee, and then travel up to New Orleans, Louisiana, by the account of Joseph Jeremie; who claims to be his great grandson. Historian Milo Milton Quafe found a French immigrant in Canada with the title Sieur de Sable, with descendants titled Du Sable living around the Great Lakes. Quafe speculates Jean Baptiste father is from this family, while his mother was most likely an enslaved woman.

Land acquisitions would place Baptiste to own land in Peoria in from March 13th, 1773 to 1783, prior to his settlement at the Chicago River, while other records placed him in Michigan. In 1779, British officers arrested Baptiste on suspicion of being an American sympathizer. He then worked for British lieutenant-governor Michilimackinac in a pinery in what is now St. Clair, Michigan. Jean Baptiste was married to a Native Pottawatomie woman, Kitihawa AKA Catherine, and had two children, Jr. and Suzanne. The marriage was recognized by a Catholic priest in Cahokia, Illinois in 1788.

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable was not recognized as the founder of Chicago at first however. Many believed the first settler to be Scots-Irish trader John Kinzie, who bought Du Sables property in 1803. During construction of the Century of Progress Internation Exposition or Chicago’s World Fair, the fair recognized the construction of Fort Dearborn as the historical beginning of Chicago. Several African American groups campaigned for Baptiste to be recognized at the fair, and succeeded. Today we recognize the founder of Chicago in many different ways, with marking is home-site in 1976 as a National Historic Landmark, a memorial at Pioneer court and a renaming Michigan Bridge to Du Sable to name a few.

Jean Baptiste spoke Spanish, French, English, and several Native Dialects. He had established his home and trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River in early 1779 or early 1780’s. It included huts for employees, bake, poultry, dairy and smoke houses, two barns, an orchard and plenty of space. He served Natives, French and British as frontier trader and settler during the American Revolution and thereafter. He sold his farm in 1800 to John Kinzie‘s front man Jean La Lime. He died on August 28, 1818 in St. Charles Missouri, formerly French Louisiana, buried in an unmarked grave in St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery, where Illinois Sesquicentennial Commission erected a granite marker. His entry in the parish burial register does not mention his origins, parents, or relatives; it simply describes him as nègre, French for negro. He was often regarded as a big, handsome, wealthy and well educated!

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