‘The First White Man in Chicago Was a Negro’?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: How Jean Baptiste Point du Sable became legend, and much more.

Bust of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (A.D. Jameson)
Bust of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (A.D. Jameson)

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 As proof of this, du Sable had taken a Native American wife, a Potawatomi woman named Kittahawa (later, Catherine), and they had two children with whom they lived in a cabin in the area of “Eschecagou” or “Eschikago,” on the banks of what is now the Chicago River. (Rogers set 1779 as the date, but it was likely earlier.)

Encountering de Peyster, du Sable and his family found themselves detained by the British and sent to Port Huron near present-day Detroit, according to Richard Linberg in “Du Sable, Jean Baptiste Point,” from the African American National Biography. With the Revolutionary War in full swing, the British sought control of the Great Lakes, which required the loyalty of that region’s Native American population. Apparently, one group of Native Americans, south of Port Huron, asked the British to replace their current French overseer with du Sable, who then managed their trading post and supplies.

Du Sable did not return to Eshecagou until after the peace, in 1784. There he continued trading while building a new home for his family (a 40 feet by 22 feet home — impressive for that time and place) containing luxurious French furniture and works of art. While the British had lost the Revolution, du Sable continued to rise. In 1788, the year the U.S. Bill of Rights was drafted, he and Catherine received the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church. Not long after, their daughter received the same, marrying a French trader. Now their family was black and white, European and Potawatomi, French and French San Dominguan — in other words, American. 

In 1789, du Sable acquired an additional 400 acres of land from the new American government — a savvy trader indeed. Yet a decade later, he appears to have sold his stake and holdings for $12,000 and, in a different kind of migration, moved some 300 miles southwest (there was no Interstate 55 back then) to St. Charles, Mo., to live with his son. Why he did so is a matter of speculation. Was it because his wife Catherine had died?  Had du Sable been forced out? Or was it, as Shirley Graham Du Bois (wife of W.E.B.) speculated in her biography, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable: The Founder of Chicago, because a white trader named John Kinzie — the white man who would eventually be remembered as Chicago’s founder — told du Sable, “You and your family can stay here,” but “We’re here now to get the Indians out,” a mission with which du Sable never could have gone along, given his extensive network of Potawatomi friends, neighbors and kin? (Interestingly, Shirley Graham Du Bois also envisioned a meeting between du Sable and the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone, in which du Sable told Boone of his efforts to protect the Potawatomi from “removal.”)

Removing himself to Missouri (not Illinois, as Joel Rogers suggested), du Sable suffered another blow in 1814 when his son died, leaving his granddaughter as caretaker. Again, the record is dim, but whatever profits du Sable had made through his earlier land sales, it appears he died in poverty in 1818, the same year his former home territory was admitted as a U.S. state and two years before the Missouri Compromise extended the free-slave line west, setting up a future Civil War.

While it’s possible to pick apart Joel Rogers’ version of the facts here and there, overall, he was on the right track, except, of course, for his dated assertion about du Sable being “the first civilized man to use [the] name” Chicago, a sentiment that may have irked du Sable himself, not least his Potawatomi wife and children. But du Sable’s life is only part of his exceptional story. Remember, there are 200 years of history — and historians — separating us. 

A Man for the ‘Modern City’

In early histories of Chicago written by white men, du Sable received only a passing mention as a “negro” and “Indian trader,” who sold his property to a French trader, who then sold it to John Kinzie (the man who wanted to expel the Native American from the Great Lakes region). In this version of the tale, it was Kinzie who received the credit for upgrading du Sable’s home into the “Kinzie Mansion,” where his family lived until 1828, long enough, I guess, to make them Chicago’s first “permanent” European settlers, according to J. Seymour Curry in The Story of Old Fort Dearborn. Not surprisingly, the Kinzie family had a heavy hand in this narrative, including the assertion that Kinzie’s daughter, Ellen Marion, was the “first white child” born there, as Eleanor Kinzie wrote in John Kinzie: The Father of Chicago in 1910. (The same language is used to describe Kinzie’s daughter on a plaque dedicated on the city’s North Michigan Avenue in 1937. The same plaque also refers to John Kinzie as Chicago’s “First Civilian.”)

When other writers at the time acknowledged du Sable, it was usually as the punch line to a racist joke. “Not in jest, but in naive, sober earnest,” the early historian John Moses related how “the Indians used to say that ‘the first white man in Chicago was a nigger,’ ” as mentioned in his History of Chicago Illinois in 1895. Far more impressive than this insulting and wrongheaded slur was how future generations of black Chicagoans picked up the thread and turned it into a tapestry of pride.