It All Started with DuSable

Chicago’s founder, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, was born around 1745 in St. Marc in what is now Haiti. Little is known about his life there, but his father was French and his mother was a Black African slave. As a young man, Jean left St. Dominge around 1765 for New Orleans, and after making the voyage north on the Mississippi River, settled in the Illinois territory near the first capital city, Kaskaskia. There he had good relations with the natives and married a Potawatomie woman named Kitihawa. He and Catherine as she was called had two children, Jean Jr. and Suzanne.

DuSable became an important trader who gained a good reputation as he moved about the Midwest territories. He even had some interactions with the British who were still active in the area after the American Revolution.

Jean and Catherine had a very nice home and business in Chicago. It was located on the north side of the Chicago River just west of Lake Michigan. The settlement contained several wooden buildings, including a 40-by 22-foot house, a grain mill, a bake house, as well as tools, furniture, and livestock. Because of its location, what became Chicago was a natural crossroads for natives moving from place to place and for explorers who wanted to go through to the rivers connecting to the Mississippi. DuSable’s trading post supplied food such as bread, grains and pork in exchange for cash and manufactured goods brought from Europe. DuSable’s settlement established strong trade relationships with other settlements east of Chicago, including Michigan City, Detroit, Green Bay and Mackinac.

In 1800, DuSable sold his land and property to Jean LaLime, a French-Canadian fur trapper. The sale was recorded and witnessed by John Kinzie, an early settler of Chicago. He purchased the property from LaLime a few years later. It is unclear whether DuSable wanted to leave Chicago or left for his own safety. He went back to his land in the Peoria area for a while, but later retired to St. Charles, Missouri, where he died in 1818.

Chicago considers DuSable the founder of the city as the first non-native settler who literally put it on the map. He is remembered with several important places that have been given his name, including the DuSable Museum of African American History, the bust of DuSable on the north side of the Chicago River at Michigan Avenue, the DuSable harbor at Randolph Street on the north and the Columbia Yacht Club on the south. The DuSable Bridge was renamed from Michigan Avenue bridge. The distinction of designating our beloved Lake Shore Drive as Jean Baptiste Point DuSable Lake Shore Drive was made in 2021.

Bernard C Turner

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