Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable: A Historical Account of an Immigrant's Entrepreneurial Spirit

Updated on May 3, 2018
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Beverley Byer has been published offline in magazines and newspapers as well as online. Topics include religion, inspiration, health, food.

The Haitian Immigrant

When I wrote the title of this article, I was thinking of the immigrants who come to the United States of America from countries where the majority of the citizenry are black and/ or brown. I harkened back to the 18th century and to a man known today as the “Father of Chicago.” That man was born in the Saint-Marc (also written St. Marc and San Marc) region of Haiti in 1745. His mother was a free African slave and his father a white French seaman who owned a fleet of ships. His name was Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable. You might also see his surname written as Pointe du Sable, Point Dusable, or Point Du Sable among others.

Bust of Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable
Bust of Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable | Source

Long Journey to America

Du Sable’s journey to America was no easier than today’s immigrants. In fact, it was much more difficult because slavery had not yet ended. It is believed that his mother was killed when the Spaniards raided their Haitian town in 1755. The then ten-year-old du Sable had to swim out to sea to the refuge of one of his father’s ships. His father eventually took him to France where he gained an education.

After his education, Jean-Baptiste was working on one of his father’s ships, which had travelled from Haiti to the French-occupied territory of New Orleans. The ship got damaged and began to sink. Though injured du Sable and his childhood friend Jacques Clemorgan swam to land only to find that the Spanish had taken control. Du Sable’s free papers, also called identity papers, were lost in his flea for safety. Fortunately, French Jesuits came to his rescue from possible enslavement. Still saddled with feelings of vulnerability, and seeded with the desire for exploration, he and his friend Clemorgan decided to head North for safer territory.

The Mentoring Program

Before embarking on their journey, they met and befriended a Choctaw Indian from the Great Lakes region, who worked at a Catholic mission. The Choctaw decided to join them on their trek along the Mississippi River. He taught them how to trap animals as well as other survival techniques. Later in springtime they met Chief Pontiac, leader of the Great Lakes tribes. Impressed with their skills, he welcomed them into his territory, and taught them more about the wilderness lifestyle. A bond of trust must’ve developed because Chief Pontiac chose du Sable (and Clemorgan) to negotiate a peace treaty between area tribes the Miami, the Ottawa, and the Illinois.

Chicago River from Michigan Avenue Bridge, part of the du Sable Homesite,
Chicago River from Michigan Avenue Bridge, part of the du Sable Homesite, | Source
Wrigley building, Chicago, Illinois
Wrigley building, Chicago, Illinois | Source

Developing the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Du Sable and his two business partners, Clemorgan and the Choctaw Indian, journeyed and traded with the tribes and the Europeans alike from present-day Michigan all the way to present-day Peoria, Illinois, where they had settled in the 1770s. He gained the confidence and respect of the surrounding Potawatomi tribe, learned several of their languages, and later became a member. He established a trading post at the ‘mouth of the now Chicago River,’ which at the time was called Eschikagou by the natives due to the bad odor of the wild onions that grew there. All the while, du Sable acquired land which eventually amounted to more than 800 acres.

By the time the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, the Haitian American immigrant owned several commercial buildings, including a supply station, a smokehouse, a mill, and a dairy, plus orchards, horses, hogs, and livestock. He also employed members of the Potawatomi tribe. Besides the indigenous Indian tongues, du Sable was also versed in French, Spanish, and English. Mastery of those dialects and languages allowed him to do business with everyone in the region, including the white British and French pioneers, trappers, and others from America and Canada who passed through the area. It led to the Indians titling him the “Black Chief.”

Du Sable built a luxurious house with all of the conveniences and comforts of the 1800s. He married a Potawatomi woman and they had two children, a boy and a girl. He was now so wealthy that when French pioneers, who came to the region from Canada asked to purchase some of his land, he gave it to them.

Entrepreneurialism Suspended, But Only for a Moment

Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable’s conglomerate was forcibly frozen during the American Revolution. In 1778 the British army actually built a fort on his land, accused him of being a French spy, and held him a political prisoner because he was a free, highly educated, rich black man. Amusingly, the French did not trust him either and for the same reasons. Of course, neither side were able to prove those incendiary assertions. When the war ended, the industrious Point du Sable revived his entrepreneurial spirit, and he and his family reclaimed their land and businesses in 1784.

Records show that in 1800 Jean-Baptiste sold the business to one of his employees, who later sold it to someone else. Some historians write that he was grieving the passing of his wife and son at the time of the first sale. Others write he made a purchase in what is now Peoria while his wife was still alive and moved to St. Louis, Missouri after her death to live with his daughter. Whatever the true story (and maybe neither story is true), du Sable can still be heralded as the example of an immigrant of color from a poor, third-world country who came to this United States of America struggled, yet worked hard, and build a great life for himself and his family.

Musical Tribute to Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable

du Sable Homesite NHL plaque
du Sable Homesite NHL plaque | Source

Honoring Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable

Once recognized as the first person, black or white, to settle in Chicago, Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable was given multiple honors for his achievements in those perilous times. Some of the honors bestowed on “The Father of The Chi” include the creation of the 1968 DuSable Museum of African American History on Chicago’s South Side, the 1976 designation of his homesite as a National Historic landmark, and the construction of a 2009 bronze bust donated by a Haitian family who founded the DuSable Heritage Association near his former home on Michigan Avenue.

United States Presidential Liberty coin
United States Presidential Liberty coin | Source

The Immigrant Entrepreneurial Spirit Still Alive Today

Du Sable may have been one of the first, but today’s immigrants, and I refer specifically to immigrants of color, still carry that pioneering and industrialist spirit of hard work, despite what others may have you believe, or they would not be immigrants. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. The United States of America touts itself as the “land of opportunity.” That’s an attractive proposition for anyone who wants to do better for themselves and their family regardless of color, race, ethnicity, or religion. If America is now choosing to be something else, that moniker needs to change as well.

Who Was Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable?

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Sources

. Schmidt, John R. "The Father of Chicago: Jean Baptiste Point DUSable." August 8, 2011 https://www.wbez.org/shows/wbez-blogs/the-father-of-Chicago-jean-baptiste-pointe-dusable/

. Schaaf, Bryan. "The Legacy of Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable." Haiti Innovation - Choice, Partnership, Community. March 8, 2013 <http://haitiinnovation.org/legacy-jean-baptiste-point-du-sable>

. "Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable: Father of Chicago." February, 2010. www.blackhistoryheroes.com/2010/02/jean-baptiste-point-dusable-father-of-Chicago.html

. The DuSable Museum of African History, www.dusablemuseum.org/


Questions & Answers

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      • beverley byer profile image
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        Beverley Byer 3 weeks ago from United States of America

        Indeed! Thank you for your commentary!

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 3 weeks ago from The Caribbean

        Thank you for sharing this inspirational tale. What an invincible spirit, despite the fact that he probably struggled harder than immigrants like me who came much later!

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