Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable

Jun 29th, 2011 | By | Category: Business
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Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable1745?-1818  Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable was an intrepid pioneer and settler in the areas now known as Peoria and Chicago, Illinois. His foresight in perceiving the importance of the site of Chicago, now one of the largest cities in the United States, was matched by his uncommon affinity with the local Native American tribes. Together, these factors led this visionary entrepreneur to establish the most important center of commerce, trade, and industry in the central United States.

From Europe to America

Du Sable was born in approximately 1745 in the village of St. Marc on the island of Saint Dominique, in the region now known as the country of Haiti. His mother was African and a former slave. His father was a French mariner of some success, who took Du Sable to France for his education. There, the boy acquired a taste for fine art and culture, as well as languages. In addition to his native French, he learned English and Spanish, and assembled an impressive collection of valuable works of art.

Subsequently, Du Sable began sailing on his father’s ships as a seaman. On one such voyage, from Saint Dominique to the then-French colony of New Orleans, his ship was damaged. The boat sank, and Du Sable was injured. He managed to make his way to the mainland, but had lost his identity papers. Complicating the situation, he found that the Spaniards had taken control of the city, and he faced arrest and even enslavement. Fortunately, a contingent of French Jesuits protected him while he recovered from his injuries. At that time, sensing opportunity, he felt compelled to explore the interior of the American wilderness.

Du Sable ventured up the Mississippi River to the area now known as the state of Illinois. In the early 1770s, he settled in what is now Peoria. There, he gradually acquired more than 800 acres of land. Having learned several Indian languages, and evidently having mastered the necessary diplomatic skills, Du Sable formed a close relationship with the indigenous Pottawatomie tribe. By some accounts, Du Sable actually joined the tribe; according to others, the tribe “gave” him the woman who became his common-law wife. Her native name was Kihihawa, and Du Sable called her Catherine. It is likely that they had an Indian marriage ceremony. Catherine and Du Sable would eventually have two children: a daughter, Susanne, and a son named Jean.

Onward to Eschikagou

At some point in the mid to late 1770s, Du Sable decided to journey north. He made his way as far as the Great Lakes area, and the north bank of the mouth of the present-day Chicago River. This damp, barren, marshy area had earned the Indian name of Eschikagou, which has been variously translated as “Land of the Wild Onions” and “Place of Bad Smells” for its swampy odors. Its fierce local native population had served as an additional deterrent to European settlement. Du Sable, however, perceived the value of the location, and again was able to befriend the tribes who counted him as a brother. On the site of the current Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago, he established the first permanent home in the region.

The original house was a substantial structure, with five rooms and all the amenities of the era. Du Sable went on to create a complex of commercial buildings and a thriving business, taking advantage of the strategic location that would continue to support the city’s evolution to the present day. He added a trading post, a bake house, a smokehouse, a dairy, a mill, a horse stable, and a barn, in addition to miscellaneous out-buildings. This complex became the main trade and supply depot for trappers, woodsmen, pioneers, traders, and Native Americans. Du Sable offered good prices for trapped animals and raw agricultural materials. From these, he made marketable products such as flour, meat, and furs, and traded them to locations as far away as Detroit and Canada. He sold the trappers tools and supplies. Eschikagou grew into a key depot and a main trading route for the area.

As a result, the trading post was enormously successful, and Du Sable’s reputation extended widely throughout the region. He became wealthy, and added his own herds of livestock, poultry, and hogs. There is evidence that he also contracted for field work and construction assignments, probably hiring local labor and supplying them with tools. Du Sable and his family were detained by the British for five years, during the Revolutionary War, due to his American and French sympathies. But in 1784, he brought Catherine, Susanne, and Jean to join him at his reclaimed property. Du Sable, a devout Catholic, then had a priest marry him and Catherine. Their granddaughter, who arrived in 1796, had the distinction of being the first child born in what was destined to become the great city of Chicago.

For somewhat mysterious reasons, Du Sable left his prosperous settlement on May 7, 1800, having sold his entire estate for only $1,200. He spent the following 13 years back in Peoria. In 1813, he joined his granddaughter in St. Charles, Missouri, where he died almost penniless and was buried in 1818. Ironically, in that same year, Illinois became a state.

Du Sable’s legacy is manifest in today’s vibrant Chicago, and its economic significance to the development of the modern U.S. economy. From a small trading post to the largest commercial center in the heartland, his vision was the foundation on which a major metropolis was built. On October 25, 1968, Du Sable was officially recognized as the founder of Chicago by the city and the state of Illinois.


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