If one were to take a walk down the busy streets of Chicago, Illinois, they would be hard pressed to envision what this sprawling metropolis once looked like when its earliest resident settled in the area. Modern day Chicago is the third largest metropolitan area in the United States (behind New York City and Los Angeles) and the city bustles with traffic, the noise of its infamous L-train system, and the buzz of Fortune 500 companies driving the economic machine of the U.S.
Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable would certainly have a difficult time recognizing the region he called home 232 years ago; in fact few residents of Chicago are probably aware of the vital role Pointe du Sable played in their city’s history. Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable is recognized as the first official resident of Chicago, having lived in a modest cabin at the mouth of the Chicago River from around 1780 until 1800.
Pointe du Sable is a bit like a historical James Bond figure; which isn’t to say that he was a spy of any sorts, but rather an international man of mystery whose true background remains largely unknown even to modern day scholars. Few scholars can agree on Pointe du Sable’s true origins, and his past is clouded even further by wild claims made by others after his death.
What is Known of Pointe du Sable
Very little is known of Pointe du Sable prior to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in the mid-1770s. His name first appears in historical records in 1779 when he was arrested by the British Army at his residence near modern day Michigan City, Indiana on suspicion of being an American sympathizer during the war.
He was later record in the early 1780s as working for the British lieutenant governor of Michilimackinac. It is believed that sometime between the mid-1780s and 1790 he left the service of the lieutenant governor to establish a homestead at the mouth of the Chicago River. Pointe du Sable is first recorded as a resident of this area in 1790 when Englishman Hugh Heward and a party of explorers stopped at Pointe du Sable’s homestead for supplies.
Heward and his group of explorers were traveling across Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois when they encountered Pointe du Sable’s homestead. In a journal entry dated 10 May 1790, Heward detailed the exchange between his party and Pointe du Sable. The explorers traded a canoe for a pirogue (a shallow bottom canoe ideal for accessing shallow waterways) and bought bread, flour, and pork from him as well.
Unraveling his Origins
Beyond the journal entries and poems of other explorers that make mention of Pointe du Sable, little else is known of Pointe du Sable’s place of birth, year of birth, and names of his parents and ancestors. There are numerous theories out there that range from the implausible to the widely accepted when it comes to establishing a reasonable past for Pointe du Sable.
An 1856 memoir from Juliette Kinzie listed Pointe du Sable as being a born in Santo Domingo in the modern day Dominican Republic and almost immediately this become generally accepted as his place of birth. However, historian Milo Milton Quaife disputed Kinzie’s memoir and labeled her account of his origins as little more than an “uneducated guess.” Writing in 1933, Quaife believed Pointe du Sable to be of French Canadian origin.
Quaife came to his conclusion based upon historical records of residents living in the Great Lakes Region. Quaife believes that Pointe du Sable may be a descendant of Pierre Dandonneau, a French immigrant to Canada. This connection was made based upon a loose cluster of facts. First, Dandonneau had acquired the title “Sieur de Sable” and his descendants were known by the names Dandonneau and Du Sable. Looking at these facts, and information about known descendants living in the Great Lakes region, Quaife theorized that Pointe du Sable’s father came from this family and possibly married a slave woman of African descent.
The theories and legends don’t stop here though. The most commonly accepted theory of Pointe du Sable’s past is that he was originally from Saint-Marc in modern day Haiti. A pamphlet published in 1951 by Joseph Jeremie, a resident of Haiti and purported great grandson of Pointe du Sable, claims that he was born in Saint-Marc in 1745 and educated in France. After that he reportedly returned to Haiti to deal in coffee before moving on to Louisiana and eventually into the Great Lakes region.
Accepted or rejected, the various stories of Pointe du Sable’s origins are little more than stories with competing views, all of which have supporters and critics. Modern historians believe the most likely scenario for Pointe du Sable’s history is that which was put forward by Jeremie.
Regardless of how murky Pointe du Sable’s life before 1779 is, his time in the Chicago area is well documented by various British explorers in the region. By the time of Hugh Heward’s arrival in May 1790 with his expedition party, it was noted that Pointe du Sable was already well established at the mouth of the Chicago River and had been there since the mid-1780s.
Numerous European explorers traveled through the Chicago area prior to Pointe du Sable establishing his homestead, with the earliest recorded European presence occurring in 1673. Over the next few years explorers would come through the region and establish winter camps, but none ever stayed.
The Fox Wars of the early 18th century closed off the Chicago area to both European exploration and settlement. No other Europeans were reported in the area until Pointe du Sable settled in the mid to late-1780s. As a result, Pointe du Sable became recognized as the first resident of Chicago and has been honored with the title of “Founder of Chicago.”
By the time Pointe du Sable sold his property in the Chicago area in 1800, he had established the foundation of what would become the most important commercial hub in the central United States. From humble beginnings as a trader and trapper, Pointe du Sable began to acquire more and more land for his Chicago property.
His ability to negotiate with local Native American tribes and gain their trust proved vital in his success. Explorers, settlers, and local tribes came to Pointe du Sable’s ever-expanding property in search of the goods they required but otherwise struggled to acquire in the region. At the time of its sale in 1800, Pointe du Sable’s property had grown to include his home, a trading post, smokehouse, flour mill, dairy mill, bake house, and stables.
Chicago was not chartered as an official city until 1837, but Pointe du Sable’s legacy as the Founder of Chicago is clear. His early commercial adventures and established trading post set the foundation for Chicago’s position as a vital hub in the central United States. Upon his death in 1818, there was no recognition for his efforts in establishing Chicago as a commercial center.
In the decades after his death, recognition would come slowly but surely. It was not until the 1850s that he was recognized as the first non-native resident of Chicago, and the greatest memorials didn’t come until the 20th century. In 1913 the site of his homestead, at the corner of Kinzie and Pine Streets, was commemorated with a plaque by the city of Chicago. In 1934 a number of African American groups lobbied, successfully, to have Pointe du Sable recognized at the Century of Progress International Exposition as the founder of Chicago.
Today, a number of streets, bridges, schools, and museums bare the name of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable in honor of the man whose skill and knowledge allowed him to turn a small homestead at the mouth of the Chicago River into a vital commercial and transportation hub in the central United States.