If you happen to be in the third most populous city in the US, Chicago, make sure to take a walk along Michigan Avenue, near the bridge over the Chicago River. There, you will find the above commemorative bust of the founder of the windy city, the man known as the father of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable.
In 1745, DuSable was born in St. Dominique on the island of Haiti to an African mother and a French father. His mother was a freed slave from an African region that later came to be the Congo nation. His father was a successful French mariner and merchant on the “Black Sea Gull” ship. DuSable’s father took him to France for his education, and there, along with his native French, DuSable learned English and Spanish. During the years of his education in France, he also acquired a taste for the fine arts and culture and assembled a striking collection of valuable works of art.
Afterwards, DuSable started sailing on his father’s ships as a seaman. On his voyage from St. Dominique to New Orleans, the then-French colony, his ship was damaged and he was badly injured. By the time he reached the mainland, he had lost his identification papers and received the shocking news that the Spanish had taken control of the city. Thus, he was arrested and even faced enslavement. Fortunately, a group from the French Jesuit protected him until he recovered from his injuries and was healthy enough to continue his travels. During that period, he started to develop an interest in exploring the interior of the American wilderness.
DuSable travelled north, up the Mississippi River and in the early 1770s he settled in an area that is the modern-day Peoria, Illinois. Gradually, he acquired what totals about 800 acres of land. He also formed close relationships with the Pottawatomie Native American tribe, from whom he got married to Kihihawa who after her marriage became known as Catherine. Together, they had two children, a daughter, Susanne and a son, Jean.
In the mid to late 1770s, DuSable travelled to the Great Lakes area, and reached the north bank of the mouth of the modern-day Chicago River. It was a damp and barren area with swampy odors that was given the Native American name, Eschikagou, which translates as “Place of Bad Smells” or “Land of the Wild Onions. However, DuSable who foresaw the value of the location managed to befriend the tribes of the area and established the first permanent home in the region which is on the site of the current Tribune Tower, downtown Chicago.
From here on, DuSable started to flourish financially. He took advantage of the strategic location of this land and started to create a complex of commercial buildings including a trading post, a smokehouse, a bakehouse, a workshop, a mill, a dairy, a barn and a horse stable along with other buildings. DuSable’s complex soon became the main trade and supply depot for traders, woodsmen, trappers, pioneers and Native Americans. He offered good prices for raw agricultural materials and animals and used them to make profitable products such as meat, furs and flour. His trade reached locations as far as Detroit and Canada. Eschikagou grew to be the main trading route for the Great Lakes area.
The DuSables’ household was a five-room house of a substantial structure and with all the necessary amenities of the time. His fine taste appears in every aspect of the house built in the middle of a wilderness. It was built of imported French walnut wood and filled with fine furniture and artistic paintings indicating that the family grew wealthy and became prosperous for the time and region. In 1796, DuSable’s granddaughter was born which made her the first child born in what was to become the grand commercial city of Chicago.
For unknown reasons, in 1800 DuSable sold his property for $1200 to a trader and moved from Chicago to the Missouri River Valley where he lived in St. Charles on a property that they owned. While living in St. Charles, he was commissioned by the colonial governor and granted a license to operate a ferry across the Missouri River. DuSable, being a free, multilingual black man aroused suspicions by the British and the French and they suspected him as a spy, and so he and his family were detained for five years by the British during the Revolutionary War. In 1818, DuSable passed away in St. Charles at the age of 73 and was buried in St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery.
Jean Baptiste Pointe BuSable was a visionary entrepreneur. He transformed a small trading post into the largest commercial center upon which a major metropolis was built. In 1968, the city and state of Illinois officially recognized DuSable as the founder of Chicago. The city honoured him by naming several establishments after him including a high school, a harbor, a park, a museum and a bridge. The place where his house was founded when he first settled at the mouth of the Chicago River is now recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
The plaque under his commemorative bust reads:
Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable
Founder of Chicago
African-Caribbean, born in St. Marc, Haiti.
In the 1770’s he opened the first trading post
beside the Chicago River, establishing
the settlement that became Chicago.
The DuSable homestead was located near this site.
This monument is given to the City of Chicago
by Haitian-born Mr. Lesly Benodin
to honor the legacy of its founder.
Bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable
Erik Blome 2009
City of Chicago
Richard M. Daley, Mayor
Public Art Collection
DuSable’s foresight in recognizing the significance of the site of the city of Chicago was matched by his uncommon kinship with the local Native American tribes. Together, the two factors led this bold pioneer to establish the most important and vibrant center of commerce, trade and industry in Central America.
There is a Native American saying that sort of captures the magnitude of DuSable’s legacy. It says that the first white man to settle in Chicago was not a white man but rather a black man.
- Ganz, Cheryl R. (2012). The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-07852-7.
- Haefeli, Evan (2006). “Du Sable, Jean Baptiste Pointe”. In Paul Finkelman, et al.,. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass. 1. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-516777-1.
- Schoon, Kenneth J. (2003). Calumet beginnings: ancient shorelines and settlements at the south end of Lake Michigan. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34218-8.