Very little is known about du Sable’s early life. Many scholars believe that he was born free in 1745, in St. Marc, Saint-Dominique (modern-day Haiti). His mother was an African slave and his father was a French mariner. du Sable sailed to France alongside his father. There, he learned languages, like Spanish, English, and French; he even learned some indigenous dialects as well.
du Sable landed in New Orleans in 1765. The colony had fallen under Spanish possession. Since du Sable had lost his identification papers and had sustained an injury during his voyage, he was nearly enslaved by the Spaniards. He was protected from slavery by French priests until he was well enough to travel.
Once healthy enough, du Sable traveled North along the Mississippi River and settled in what is now Peoria, Illinois. It is believed that in 1779, du Sable then settled in what is now Michigan City, Indiana where–during the American Revolutionary War–he was arrested and charged with being a spy. He served a small prison sentence and was then ordered to work the Pinery (woodlands claimed by a British soldier) in Eastern Michigan.
During this time, du Sable also married a Potawatomi Native woman named Kitihawa. They wed in a traditional Potawatomi ceremony. They had two children and later remarried in a traditional Catholic ceremony.
du Sable gathered his family and moved along the Chicago River to a place known to the local native tribes as Eschikagu (“the place of bad smells”). There, he settled on 800 acres of land, establishing a successful trading post, mill, smokehouse, and other small buildings. He had founded what would become modern-day Chicago.
du Sable’s settlement became a major supply station for the traders of the Great Lakes region. His cabin had become filled with fine furniture and paintings. Their granddaughter later became the first person born in what is now Chicago. In May 1800, du Sable sold his trading post to a man named John Kinzie and then moved to St. Charles, Missouri.
While living in Missouri, du Sable worked as a ferry operator. He did not prosper financially as he had with his trading post. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable died in 1818 with almost no money to his name. He was later honored as the first citizen of Chicago. The mouth of the Chicago River–where du Sable settled–is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
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