When you were in school, how many African Americans do you remember from the history books? I can remember a very few. Off the top of my head, I can think of Harriet Tubman, Fredrick Douglas, George Washington Carver, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
That’s about all I can remember. What would you say if I told you that Chicago was founded by a very enterprising African American? On this date, March 12, 1773, Jeanne Baptiste Pointe de Sable found a settlement upon ground upon which Chicago now stands. He built a farm at the mouth of the Chicago River in around 1780. He emigrated south to Missouri in 1800.
He was born in Santa Domingo (Haiti) around 1745. The son of a French sailor and a African slave mother, legend has it that Jean Baptiste’s mother was killed by Spanish raiders. To escape, Jean Baptiste swam out to his father’s ship. Afterwards his father took him to France to further his education.
Jean Baptiste arrived in New Orleans in 1764. He and a friend became traders and journeyed up the Mississippi to what is now Michigan. He was adopted by the Potawatomie tribe and took one as his bride. They called him the “Black Chief.”
In 1773, DuSable moved to an area which the Indians called Eschecagou, but the white men mispronounced as “Chicago.” He built a trading post at the mouth of the river, near where the Tribune Tower now stands. During the American Revolution the British forced him off his claims. While he was separated from his holdings, he operated another trading post in Michigan.
DuSable reclaimed his Chicago property from the American government at the end of the war. His holdings grew to include his 22×40-foot home, he built two barns, a mill, bakery, dairy, workshop, henhouse, and smokehouse. He sold flour, bread, and pork. As an adopted Potawatomie, he had a good relationship with the Native Americans. He hired many of them in his enterprises.
In 1800, for some mysterious reason, DuSable sold his property. He then had a farm near Peoria until his wife died ten years later. He then moved in with his daughter in St. Charles, Missouri and died on August 28, 1818. He was buried in a local catholic cemetery in an unmarked grave.
He had sold his property to John Kinzie who for years was considered the area’s original settler. DuSable was forgotten, but in 1912 a plaque was placed on a building near the site where his cabin had been. Later a high school was named for him on Wabash Avenue.
Finally in 2006, the Chicago City Council officially recognized DuSable as Chicago’s founder. In 2009, an outdoor statuary bust memorial of him was dedicated and is located on Michigan Avenue, just north of the river–right near his old front door. The rightful first settler of Chicago finally has the recognition he deserves.