Chicago’s pioneer

Chicago became the largest city in Illinois in the 19th century. It quickly became one of the largest in the United States, and then the world. First the lake brought visitors and settlers. Then it was the rivers, followed by the railroads, the highways and the airports. Millions of people call Chicago home, and millions more visit every year.

It all started with one pioneer.

Through the late 18th century, present-day Chicago had been visited by countless Native Americans, including the Potawatomi, Sauk and Fox, but none had stayed long enough to build anything like a permanent settlement. So when a Caribbean-born fur trader named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and his Potawatomi wife Kittihawa sought to build a trading post at the point where the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan, the couple became the first permanent residents of Chicago.

Du Sable, the son of a French father and a formerly-enslaved African mother, was believed to have been born between 1745 and 1750 in present-day Haiti, which was then a French colony. He left the Caribbean for the Great Lakes region of North America around 1770.

He arrived in the middle of North America after learning to sail with his father, a merchant seaman. After a disastrous shipwreck near New Orleans, du Sable had embarked on his own, heading up the Mississippi River. He made his way to the area around present-day Peoria, which had already seen some French settlement as much as a century before.

There he made friends among the Potawatomi, learned much of their language and acquired a large tract of land. He also became a respected trader in his own right. It was here that he met Kittihawa, whom he called Catherine. Together they would have two children, a son named Jean and a daughter Susanne.

After a few years, du Sable followed the Illinois River to the north, eventually reaching Lake Michigan. He thus became the first permanent resident of an area which had been dubbed “Eschikagou,” by Native Americans: a word with different translations, many relating to its unpleasant onion field smell.

But du Sable saw the prospects for a trading post with its access to major water routes of transportation. The fur trade between North America and Europe was in full swing by this time, and the Great Lakes region was fast becoming a hub of such activity. History would show that du Sable had picked a perfect location. He once again befriended the Native Americans in the area and built a cabin on the north bank of the river a short distance from the lakeshore.

Du Sable’s trading post was soon thriving. He built a five-room home for his family, as well as a barn, stable and mill. Before long he added numerous other commercial buildings and a burgeoning community began to grow around them, attracting other traders, explorers and pioneers. His business diversified beyond fur trading, expanding to include tools and agricultural products.

But then conditions took a difficult turn. A thousand miles to the east, colonists met in Philadelphia and declared the American colonies independent of the British Crown. After two years of struggle, colonial forces achieved a decisive victory over the King’s troops at the battle of Saratoga. The victory convinced French King Louis XVI to openly side with the rebels, and soon French treasure and weapons were making their way into the hands of the Americans. Meanwhile, an expedition of Virginia troops led by George Rogers Clark fought its way through the Ohio Valley and began capturing British forts in the region between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River.

This combination of events made a prominent French colonial like du Sable a target for British reprisals. He and his family were taken into British custody in 1779. They were removed from Chicago and held at Fort Mackinac far to the northeast. Remarkably, du Sable found a way to turn even this reversal into an advantage, and by the time his family’s five years of captivity were over he was running the British fort’s trading post.

Released from custody in 1784 following the British surrender, du Sable returned to his old home by the shore of Lake Michigan, now part of a loosely-organized northwestern territory of the new United States of America. The village had continued to thrive in his absence, helped along by the abundance of tradeable goods produced in the area: everything from furs and tools, to grains and timber.

Formally married by a Catholic priest in the late 1780s, Jean and Catherine celebrated the birth of their first grandchild, Eulalie Pelletier, in 1796, possibly the first child born in Chicago.

The du Sable family opted to move on from the city they had created, leaving Chicago in 1800 and moving back south along the river. They spent about a dozen years in Peoria before relocating again to St. Charles, Missouri, recently acquired from the French as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It was there that Jean Baptiste Point du Sable died in 1818, just as Illinois was about to become the 21st state.

For a century, the story of du Sable as Chicago’s founder was disputed. Credit was given to another settler, John Kinzie, who historical records would eventually show bought his property from du Sable. Other historians credited the building of Fort Dearborn in 1803 as the beginning of the city. Fort Dearborn was constructed on the opposite side of the river from du Sable’s settlement.

As preparations for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair got underway, African American leaders in the city launched an effort to have du Sable given his proper historical due. Organizers eventually agreed to include du Sable in their display on the history of the city.

Another three decades went by before he was officially recognized as the founder of of Chicago. In 1965 the city built Pioneer Court along the riverfront near du Sable’s original home. Three years later, Illinois’ sesquicentennial commission dedicated a marker in his honor at the location in Missouri believed to be his gravesite. By that time, of course, his small trading post community had grown into the largest metropolis in the central United States and the economic powerhouse of an entire region.

In 1976 Pioneer Court was added to the National Register of Historic Places and became a National Historic Landmark. Today a monument featuring a bust of du Sable marks the spot of the settlement near the bridge over Michigan Avenue which was named in his honor in 2010.

Du Sable’s legacy lives on throughout the city. A high school in Bronzeville bears his name, as does the city’s Du Sable Museum of African-American History on the south side. He was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1987.

Chicago’s downtown harbor is also named in du Sable’s honor. It is perhaps the most fitting tribute for the trader who saw the enormous economic potential of the smelly onion field where the river met the lake and turned it into a leading commercial center of an entire state and nation.