|Bust of DuSable, Chicago's founding father, at Pioneer Court.|
The "forgotten history" hook of these sort of tours and advertising is sound though, because every place does have a forgotten or hidden history to it. But the most overlooked histories have less to do with quirk or sights off the beaten path and more to do with the people and individuals whose accomplishments and contributions tend to be pushed aside or even suppressed in favor of more powerful groups in a society. Women, people of color, gays, the local poor or working class, disabled citizens--all these groups have members who've made important contributions to world and local histories alike, but often you won't hear that in "the official guide to" anywhere or even the so-called local's guides. One example of this from my own hometown, Chicago, is the story of the city's founding father, a man named Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable.
|Looking north across the Chicago River, Tribune building is on the right. This is where DuSable's homestead was from the 1780s to the early 1800s.|
So if DuSable was the guy who actually started it all, who first settled in the area for more than just a few weeks or months or a couple years at most (as did the French and French-Canadian explorers who first came to the region in the 1600s) and built the future city's first substantial homestead and business, what took so long for Chicago to honor him, to stamp his name around town?
|DuSable Bridge (aka Michigan Ave. Bridge), downtown Chicago. The bridge essentially runs from original site of Fort Dearborn on the south bank to original site of DuSable's home on the north bank.|
Like the life histories of a lot of American pioneers, DuSable's comes with many gaps in the record. Here's what we seem to know about him. He was born in Saint-Marc in Haiti around 1745 or 1750 to a white Frenchman and a black Caribbean woman of African descent. He was free born and made his way to North America and the Great Lakes region by the 1770s. He was married to Kittihawa (also known as Catherine), the daughter of a Potawatomi chief, by 1778, when their marriage was registered in the Catholic Church after a ceremony performed by a priest at Cahokia, a town on the Mississippi River in southern Illinois that has an ancient history as a once-immense Native American settlement. A tribal marriage ceremony most likely predated the 1778 Catholic one, but by how much time isn't known. DuSable and Kittihawa had two children, a son and a daughter.
DuSable and his family may have been living and trading in the area that would become Chicago as early as this time, while some biographies place him at present-day Peoria, but most biographies claim he was living in Indiana by the late 1770s, at present-day Michigan City (just south of the Michigan border and just northeast of the Indiana Dunes). In 1779, during the American Revolution, he was arrested by British forces for suspicion of sympathizing with the Americans and was detained at Fort Mackinac in Michigan. From 1780 to 1783 or 1784 he managed for his captors a trading post on the Pine River near present-day St. Clair, Michigan.
After the Revolution, DuSable made his way (back?) to the Chicago area. By 1788 he was definitely settled there, with a homestead and a thriving trading post located in what is now downtown Chicago, on the north side of the Chicago River, right by the Tribune Tower and the start of Michigan Avenue's "Magnificent Mile." He lived and traded there until 1800, when he sold his property to a man named Jean Lalime, a trade agent with ties to another trader named John Kinzie. Kinzie eventually took over DuSable's former property, and within a few years the U.S. government would build a fort right across the river from the old DuSable homestead. Fort Dearborn, as it was called, would draw more settlers to the area, despite the instability at the time caused by volatile relations between the remaining Indian tribes in the region and the increasing number of settlers from French Canada, Europe, and the American East Coast. Fort Dearborn was decommissioned in 1837, the same year Chicago became an official city. The city would eventually plant markers at the sites of the fort and the "Kinzie House" (sometimes even ludicrously referred to as the "Kinzie Mansion")--never mind that the Kinzie house started out as the DuSable homestead.
|Sculpture on the southwest bridgehouse at Michigan Avenue and Upper Wacker depicting Battle of Fort Dearborn in 1812. This bridgehouse is at the approximate site of Fort Dearborn, on the south bank of the Chicago River.|
|Marking site of Fort Dearborn on south riverbank sidewalks.|
Billy Caldwell, was biracial, the son of a Potawatomi woman and a British officer. His Indian name was Sauganash, now the name of a neighborhood in Chicago where Caldwell owned land.) Chicago was diverse from its earliest formation. It remains a city of tremendous ethnic diversity to this day, as well as a city notable for producing powerful and globally influential black leaders in business, politics, and the arts. It's also a city consistently troubled by institutional racism and segregation--negative counter-influences and systems of erasure apparently as old as the days of the Kinzies.
The reclamation of Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable as Chicago's true founding father began in the 1930s, when black Chicagoans campaigned for DuSable to be recognized in some way at the city's second World's Fair, which indeed featured a replica of DuSable's cabin. (The replica was actually much smaller than the real thing--maybe only a 3rd of the size of DuSable's actual home.) A school on the south side eventually graced DuSable's name, but it wasn't until the 1960s when another reclamation movement made strides. In 1963 Mayor Daley proclaimed the 3rd week in August DuSable Week. Within a decade, a museum in Washington Park devoted to African American history renamed itself the DuSable Museum. More recently, there are proposals of a DuSable Park, the Michigan Avenue bridge across the Chicago River has been renamed after DuSable, and a bust of his imagined likeness stands at Pioneer Court, a plaza on the north bank of the river near the Tribune building, where DuSable's old home used to be.
|Bust and plaque commemorating Jean-Baptiste DuSable at site of his home.|
|The bridge with two names--Michigan and DuSable.|
Currently we're at a time when a black man is employed in the highest office in the U.S. and holds the most powerful position on the planet. We're also at a time when there seems to be a systems-wide campaign of aggression against so many black citizens in the U.S. (Personally I don't think it's coincidence--I think the whites in this country who are attacking ordinary black citizens with such persistence lately are really going after President Obama by proxy, punishment for the "crime" of gaining power, rising above racism, and subverting white supremacy.) In the midst of so much accomplishment and oppression, the celebration of one American city's early black resident and mixed-race pioneers with a few prominently placed plaques and street signs might seem frivolous or small compensation. To some degree it is small compensation--but it's also visible compensation, a sure way of making the forgotten and the suppressed and the erased finally visible and known and appreciated. If you want a local's guide to Chicago, you should start with Chicago's first local--Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable.