Jean Baptiste Point du Sable
Jean Baptiste Point du Sable’s birth year is speculated to be sometime in the 1750’s. He was born in Saint Dominique, in the region now known as Haiti. His mother was an African slave who’d gained her freedom, and his father a succesful mariner from France. Receiving his education in France, Jean Baptiste acquired a taste for fine art and culture. In addition to his native French, he learned English and Spanish. Eventually Jean Baptiste began sailing on his father’s ships as a seaman, and on one of his voyages from Haiti to the French colony of New Orleans, he damaged his ship and sank it, completely destroying his ‘identity papers’. This put him at great risk of being enslaved. A group of Jesuits offered him safety and shelter while he healed. At that time, sensing opportunity, he felt compelled to explore the interior of the American wilderness.
He traveled up the Mississippi River to area that is now known as the state of Illinois. By 1770 he had aquired over 800 acres of land. Jean Baptiste got along excellently with the local peoples of the Pottawatomie tribe, which is remarkable considering their harsh outlook on the Europeans who’d attempted to and failed to settle in the area. They referred to the area as 'Eschikagou’, which has been variously translated as “Land of the Wild Onions” and “Place of Bad Smells” for its swampy odors .Being embraced by them and learning their language, it is believed that he joined the tribe. His wife, Kihihawa, was ‘given’ to him by the tribe leaders. They had two children, a daughter, Susanne, and a son named Jean.
On the site of the current Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago, is where he established the first permanent home in the region, a substantial structure, with five rooms and all the amenities of the era. Jean Baptiste 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. 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.
Du Sable and his family were detained by the British for five years, during the Revolutionary War, due to his American and French sympathies.
His granddaughter, born in 1796, had the distinction of being the first American 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.