Who was Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable?
Renaming Chicago's iconic Lake Shore Drive has renewed interest in the multicultural legacy of the city's first non-Native settler.
Before the Chicago City Council voted to rename Lake Shore Drive in June 2021, recognition for Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable was sprinkled throughout the city: a high school, an outdoor statuary bust, and the DuSable Museum of African American History located on Chicago's South Side. The City of Chicago officially recognized DuSable as its first permanent non-Indigenous settler, but still his story isn't widely known.
An entrepreneur and explorer
Born to a French father and an enslaved African mother in St. Marc, St. Domingue (present-day Haiti) around 1745, DuSable's early life is essentially a mystery. We do know that between 1769 and 1770, he was shipwrecked on his way to New Orleans with his friend Jacques Clemorgan and spent time in that region.
An entrepreneur always looking for opportunities to continue his trading enterprise, DuSable worked his way north from New Orleans, relocating several times over the next several years. He formed relationships within several Native American communities in the Great Lakes region and was eventually mentored by Pontiac, or Obwaandi’eyaag, leader of several Great Lakes tribes. DuSable became instrumental in negotiating and preserving peace among several tribes after Pontiac’s War and death.
By 1778, DuSable had established himself in the area that would become Chicago and, in that year, married Kitihawa, a Potawatomi woman also known as Catherine. The pair settled by a place the Potawatomi called Eschecagou, on the north bank of the Chicago River at its junction with Lake Michigan. They had two children, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, Jr. and Suzanne.
Though DuSable wasn't the first trader to pass through the area, he was the first non-Native person to stay and establish a permanent post. His estate would eventually consist of a modest-sized home, a horse mill, a bake house, a dairy, a smokehouse, a poultry house, a workshop, a stable, and a barn.
DuSable is often described as a fur trader, but “to me, that’s a diminutive reference to him,” explained Ezter Cantave, president of DuSable Heritage Association. “It’s been well determined he is an entrepreneur and his business operation was complex.” Cantave adds that, “DuSable had such a business acumen that he took advantage of all the economic possibilities that the area had to offer and then presented them in a way that served his community, that served his partners and developed not only Chicago but the Midwest.”
A naturalized citizen of the Potawatomi
DuSable’s wife Kitihawa was key to building relationships between the area's Indigenous communities. Through the marriage, DuSable became Potawatomi kin, further cementing a multicultural legacy.
Andrea Carlson is an Ojibwe artist who didn't know much about DuSable before moving to Chicago in 2016. However, as she learned more about DuSable and Kitihawa, it seemed the story was being told through a non-Native lens.
To understand how DuSable became Potawotami kin, or family, Carlson said one first needs to understand the concept of Native kinship. Both the Ojibwe and Potawatomi are part of the Anishinaabe cultural group, she said. The system was not originally based on blood quantum, which is a colonial invention. Instead, it was based on relationships, and "there were a lot of natural adoptions" that happened. People became "naturalized" through acceptance by the Native nation.
"So I use the term ‘non-Native, naturalized citizen’ of the Potawatomi people," Carlson explained. "[It's important] to see him in terms of his citizenry to Potawatomi people and that nation—and not the settler state through the colonies. But he had a family relationship naturalized to the Potawatomi people, and that’s why he’s a really important figure to Native people as well."
A legacy of diversity
In May of 1800, DuSable sold all of his property in Chicago. He would eventually leave the area and move to Peoria, Illinois before retiring to St. Charles, Missouri. He died on Aug. 28, 1818, in St. Charles.
DuSable’s legacy, rich in multiculturalism and innovation, is one that resonates with Courtney Joseph, Ph.D. A professor and historian, Dr. Joseph is working on a book about DuSable. “His legacy is important because it reminds us of the Black and Indigenous roots of Chicago,” said Dr. Joseph.
To honor Chicago’s Black and Indigenous roots, artists Chris Pappan (Kanza/Osage, Lakota) and Monica Rickert-Bolter (Potawatomi/African-American/German) collaborated on a piece called Founders in 2019. The inflatable sculpture features four busts facing the four cardinal directions. The form is a mix of interpretations of items from the collections of the DuSable Museum of African American History and the Field Museum, as well as interpretations of various historical figures. The busts reference DuSable, Kitihawa, Chicago’s first African American Mayor Harold Washington, and a bust of a young boy by artist William Artis. The pattern on the inflatable monument was inspired by Potawatomi textiles in the Field Museum collections.
Founders is part of a larger movement to reclaim the narrative about DuSable and Kitihawa. “They built the first thriving settlement, business, family, and network in Chicago together, but their story was written out due to the ways US history silences people of color's existence, let alone contributions,” Dr. Joseph said.
“By reclaiming and commemorating their legacy, we can see the rich and multicultural history of the city that allows all of us to take space and thrive.”
Hear the author of this piece, Bridgette Russell, in conversation with contributors Andrea Carlson and Dr. Courtney Joseph, as well as Dr. Kim Dulaney, Director of Education and Programs at DuSable Museum. The group discusses DuSable’s life and legacy in an hour-long virtual webinar.
Bridgette started her career in journalism as a newspaper reporter as a freelancer for the Houston Chronicle before she finished college at Texas Southern University in Houston. She wrote for print and digital publications in Texas, Ohio, and Illinois, including The Marshall News Messenger and The Springfield News-Sun, before transitioning into public relations, marketing, and advertising. Her love of storytelling paired with a fondness for nonprofits fueled a consulting venture where she worked with dozens of organizations. That path led her to a role at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Rivers, Inc., where she was responsible for external communications and media relations. Before coming to the Field, Bridgette was Director of Marketing and Public Relations of The Columbus Museum in Columbus, GA.
Bridgette has a BA in print journalism from Texas Southern University and an MBA with a concentration in marketing from University of Phoenix. She is a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., Public Relations Society of America, and the National Association of Black Journalists, and has served on a number of advisory boards, including Fertility for Colored Girls (FFCG) nonprofit and the Salvation Army of Columbus, GA, and as the Partners in Education (PIE) Chair-Elect for the Junior League of Columbus, GA. Bridgette lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.