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

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 49: Who was the founder of Chicago? 

Chicago has been called the "Great American City," and in his latest book troping on that title, my colleague Robert J. Sampson draws on more than a decade of research in the "Windy City" to argue for the critical importance of place — a community, a neighborhood, a block — in shaping children's lives. It was a natural for Sampson, not only because of his love and concern for Chicago but because of all of our major urban centers it is arguably the most quintessentially American, as Thomas Dyja suggests in his absorbing new history, The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. In recent years, Chicago also has ranked among our most challenged American cities, too often tragically for our young men and women of the South Side. That's not easily forgotten by anyone who has seen Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz's moving documentary film The Interrupters.

While many associate Chicago today with sensational headlines, a century ago it was a magnet for African-American dreamers migrating from the South to escape Jim Crow's grasp and reach for factory jobs during what we now call the Great Migration. Soon after, Chicago became a focal point for gospel, blues and jazz, the chosen setting for consequential writers like Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks, and eventually the home court of Michael and Scottie and the adopted home city of Oprah and Barack. So if place matters, as Sampson shows, so, too, does the history of that place.

Here's where our old friend Joel A. Rogers comes in. "The founder of the City of Chicago was Baptist Pointe de Saible, a Negro, in 1779," Rogers claimed in fact No. 24 of his book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro (1934). In Rogers' earlier comic book, Your History (1940), he sketched out a bit more of the Jean Baptiste Point du Sable (that's how most spell his name) legend, including that he was from "Santo Domingo"; that "He built the first Cabin on the site of that now great metropolis Chicago"; that he "made a fortune trading with the Indians and selling his holdings to a Frenchman, named de Mai"; "retired to Peoria, IL in 1796 where he died"; and "was also probably the first civilized man to use" the name "Chicago," which, according to Rogers, derived "from the Indian word, Eschicagou." It was a remarkable claim and one I remember doing a double-take on. There were black people in Chicago a century before the Great Migration? I thought, before the city was even officially incorporated as a city in 1837?

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I soon learned that actually, there were two stories at play here. The first was of du Sable himself, whose life, we will see, was fascinating and contradictory on its own (at least what we know of it). The second is the one in which Rogers participated: of how du Sable, the legend, was lost and recovered as an icon of black history.

Finding the Real du Sable

The sparse historical record leaves many aspects of du Sable's life uncertain. Scholars believe he was born, as Rogers claimed, in San Domingue before the Haitian Revolution (1794-1804) as the son of a white Frenchman, a sailor, and an African-born black woman, possibly free. (A less common story suggests du Sable's parents were a white man and his black servant, both of whom emigrated from France to Canada.)

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Du Sable's youth is similarly opaque. Was he educated in France upon his mother's death or did he work as a sailor? What we do know is that at some point, he settled in North America, either by traveling north from New Orleans or entering directly in Canada — for him, a personal proto-Great Migration. (Great resources for du Sable's story include Evan Haefeli's "Du Sable, Jean Baptiste Point," in Encyclopedia of African American History; Shirley Graham Du Bois' Jean Baptiste Point de Sable: Founder of Chicago; and Sidney and Emma Kaplan's The Black Presence in the American Revolution.)

Eschecagou 

In 1779, du Sable appeared for the first time in the historical record when Arent Schuyler de Peyster, a British officer overseeing posts at Michilimackinac and Detroit, identified him in his journal as a "handsome negro, (well educated and settled in Eschecagou) but much in the French interest," according to Kaplan. De Peyster's interest in du Sable? He was a successful trapper and trader nimble at negotiating the multilingual, multinational world of the Great Lakes region, with its population of Native Americans — the Potawatomi especially — and the French and Americans with whom the British were at war.

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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.

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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.

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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.")

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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. 

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 First, though, the city had to attract a black population to hear it — then to become curious. During the Great Migration, that population surged. The solution: jobs, jobs, jobs, so that a city that had only 6,000 blacks in 1880 had, by World War I, its own "Black Belt" of some 65,000, Thomas Dyja writes, and not even the brutal Race Riot of 1919 would turn them back. (Note: As of the last census in 2010, Chicago is almost a third black, and that number is down from its historical height.)

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Coinciding with the Migration, a plaque calling forth du Sable appeared in downtown Chicago on the site of his former home. It was 1912, and according to the Afro American newspaper (Aug. 1, 1924), it had "the concurrence of the Chicago Historical Society and the Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution." A year later, Chicago and the Old Northwest, 1673-1835, a book by Dr. Milo Milton Quaife, a white historian at the Lewis Institute in Chicago, became the first to give du Sable a detailed treatment. For any researcher out there frustrated at the thought that nobody will ever read your work, remember Quaife, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, whose findings, in correcting the record, turned heads and pages in the black press. By the late 1920s, du Sable was making regular appearances in black history features, particularly during the Negro History Week (now Black History Month) launched by the great Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1926. 

Even the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes gave du Sable shout-outs in his "Week by Week" column in the Chicago Defender, referring to him as "the brownskin pioneer who founded the Windy City" and cleaning up the old racist joke to read, "The first white man in Chicago was a Negro" in the Nov. 23, 1957, issue. Hughes also went further than Rogers in claiming du Sable's father was a white pirate who had stolen his mother from slavery into freedom in Haiti, only to see her killed in a Spanish raid when Jean Baptiste was 10. In another intriguing twist, Hughes' du Sable arrived in Louisiana after a hurricane and, to avoid being enslaved, paddled north up the Mississippi, where he eventually settled in Chikagou, building "the first permanent home" and fathering "the first child," his daughter, Suzanne (a clear swipe at the earlier white histories that favored the Kinzie family).

As word got out, Chicago blacks pushed for inclusion of du Sable's story in the World's Fair coming to their city in 1933. As early as 1928, the Chicago Defender began advancing this argument by chiding city leaders for "honor[ing] men of far less importance to its prominence in the nation's life" while "refus[ing] … to name a prominent highway after its first citizen." As a result, people listened, a National De Saible Memorial Society was formed by black Chicago clubwomen, and the City Council pledged $20,000 in support when black alderman Robert R. Jackson requested it with backing from Mayor Bill Thompson, himself the recipient of black voter support. By the time the 1933 World's Fair rolled around, not only was the name du Sable mentioned; there was a replica of his home and a pamphlet on his life on display, according to Cheryl Ganz in The 1933 Chicago World's Fair: A Century of Progress. That same year, Frank L. Hayes of the Pittsburgh Courier wrote a profile on du Sable, "the first permanent resident on the site of Chicago," in which he quoted the historian Quaife's assertion that du Sable was a hero " 'in whom the modern city can take legitimate pride.' "

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Two years later, the legendary DuSable High School opened in Bronzeville to great fanfare, and while it was open, over the years nurtured a number of talented black Chicagoans, including Jet magazine founder John H. Johnson, Mayor Harold Washington, musicians Nat King Cole and Johnny Hartman and entertainers Redd Foxx and Don Cornelius, just to name a few, according to Howard Reich, writing in the Chicago Tribune last year. This past spring, the city under Mayor Rahm Emanuel spared DuSable High by designating it an official landmark, the first high school built for blacks in Chicago.

In 1953, Shirley Graham Du Bois' semi-fictional account of du Sable's life attracted a generation of young readers. In the background was the modern civil rights movement (it was just a year before the Brown decision). Looking back and to the future, in 1961 Dr. Margaret Burroughs, a veteran teacher at DuSable High, founded the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, one of the few independent black history museums in the U.S. committed, as its current website states, to "the collection, documentation, preservation and study of the history and culture of Africans and African Americans."

So it was that as black Chicagoans raised cultural institutions for the modern city, du Sable, the frontier trader, traveled with them as the city's unofficial founding brother; and whenever the broader white community left him out of the story, black Chicagoans were there to point out the gap. (For example, in its March 11, 1969, issue, the Chicago Defender sounded the alarm: "Chicago celebrated its 132nd birthday last Tuesday, but not a word was said about Jean Baptist Point Du Sable, the Haitian born Negro, who was the first citizen of this city.") 

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Amazing, when you think about it — 200 years after du Sable, a half-French, half-black Saint-Dominguan, established himself as paterfamilias of a half-Potawatomi family, his memory was claimed and kept alive by the African-American community of a "Great American City" on whose lands he had built his home without ever knowing that one day they would migrate there or why.

In this way, I am reminded of my dearly departed friend and mentor Albert Murray, who in his landmark 1970 book The Omni-Americans chastised those who wanted to carve out black history as something separate, insisting instead that "The United States is not a nation of black and white people" and that "Any fool can see that white people are not really white, and that black people are not black." Really, as Murray wrote, the American character is comprised of various heroic archetypes, a blending that is "part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian — and part Negro."

By my count, du Sable represented at least three of those archetypes; he was also one of what Ira Berlin has described broadly in Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America as "Atlantic Creole." That du Sable — an outsider from a French colony in the Caribbean — mastered the Great Lakes region (and within it, Eschecagou) while uniting with its Native Americans in trade and marriage only makes his legacy — and legend — more astounding.

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Founders Way

That legend lives on today. In 2009, du Sable finally received the public bust the Chicago Defender had called for in 1928. It is located on the North Lakeshore Bridge, near the proximate site of du Sable's house overlooking the Chicago River. The official name of the Chicago River Esplanade is Du Sable Founders Way — fitting since, on March 1, 2006, the City Council of Chicago at last passed a resolution officially recognizing him as the city's founder. "We recognize belatedly, but nevertheless, that Jean Baptiste Point du Sable — a man of color — founded the first non-native settlement that later became known as the City of Chicago," the resolution's sponsor, Freddrenna Lyle, said on the occasion. "We want it permanently immortalized in the Municipal Code and in the history books that go on for the next 200 generations," she is quoted as remarking in the Austin Weekly News.

Returning to the book I cited at the top of this column, Robert Sampson's Great American City, we see that as profound an impact as place has on a child's identity, that place's history, too, can root him or help him fly. I know that to be true of Piedmont, W. Va., in my case, and I'm sure it would be true of most boys and girls growing up in Chicago today. So, as this school year takes flight, don't just walk past the bust of du Sable on Michigan Avenue. Tell the children with you — or nearby — who he was and ask them to imagine what their city could be if they emulated him along the frontiers of their minds.

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We all need heroes, as Albert Murray was fond of saying, and for Americans in Chicago, a good starting point is du Sable.

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.