Jean Baptiste Point de Sable was the founder of modern Chicago and its first #black resident. Point de Sable was his chosen legal name; he was never called Du Sable during his lifetime. Point was an inseparable element of his name, which he had assumed by 1778. The prosperous farm he had at the mouth of the Chicagou river (the French spelling) from about 1784 to 1800 helped stabilize a century-old French and Indian fur-trading settlement periodically disrupted by the wars and raids of Indians and Europeans, and abandoned by the French during the Revolution from 1778 to 1782.
The earliest known documents which refer specifically to him establish that in 1778 and 1779, perhaps as early as 1775, Point managed a trading post at the mouth of the Rivière du Chemin (Trail Creek), at present Michigan City, Indiana, not at Chicago, as is usually asserted. Pierre Durand of Detroit was associated with him and Michel Belleau in the ownership of this business. Here is Durand’s own 1784 account of Point’s post translated from his petition to Gen. Frederick Haldimand, then governor of Canada: “I found the waters low in the Chicagou [River]; I did not get to Lake Michigan until the 2nd of October .
Seeing the season so far advanced that I could not reach Canada I decided to leave my packs at the Rivière du Chemin with Baptiste point Sable, free negro, and I returned to the Illinois to finish my business. The 1st of March, 1779, I sent off two canoes to take advantage of the deep water [at Chicagou], and I gave orders to my commis [business manager] to take these two canoes to the Rivière du Chemin loaded with goods and to go ahead of me with all the men, to help me pass at Chicagou…. I met my commis [Michel Belleau] at the start of the bad part [of the portage]…. Some days later I arrived at the Rivière du Chemin, where I found only my packs [of furs]. The guard told me that M. Benette [Lt. William Bennett of the 8th regiment] had taken all my food, tobacco and eau de vie and a canoe to carry them….” Durand also learned that this British force had taken Point prisoner as a suspected rebel back to Michillimackinac, which began an important phase of his career as a minor but valuable member of the British Indian Department.
Up to the time of his capture, Point had been an engagé in the fur trade, travelling on the Great Lakes, the Illinois River and elsewhere from perhaps 1768 to 1779. From 1775 to 1779 his associate Durand was known to have been active in the upper country, under an official trade license. Only British subjects were allowed to work in the fur trade, which was supervised by military officers and the governor of Quebec. All engagés as well as the license holder had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king before the commander at Montreal and sign a printed oath incorporated in the license. Wealthy individuals posted bonds which would be forfeited for the slightest infraction of the rules of the fur trade or acts of disloyalty.
The Durand-Belleau license itself and documents of Point’s hiring at Michillimackinac have not been found. Point would have signed by a mark, since he was illiterate as most engagés were, but he must have been a skilled man by the time Lt. Governor Sinclair hired him in 1780 for his semi-official operation at the Pinery, adjoining Fort Sinclair north of Detroit.
Read More: EarlyChicago – Essays
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