A Vision for Something Better

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"Baptiste Point DeSaible, a handsome negro, well educated, and settled at Eschikagou." British commander in report about DuSable, 1779

Not all blacks in early Illinois were slaves. A small number of African Americans were free, and some even enjoyed a level of equality and acceptance among whites. We know very little about Illinois' free black residents, but some of their stories appear in legal records held at Fort de Chartres, the seat of French government in the Illinois Country.

Jean Baptiste Point DuSable was born in St. Marc, St. Domingue (now known as Haiti) around 1745. His father was French and his mother was an African slave. About 1765, he moved to New Orleans and from there journeyed up the Mississippi river to modern-day Peoria, Illinois, where he built a home and farmed. There he married Catherine, the daughter of a Potawatomi chief. Years later, in 1778, he travelled all the way back to Cahokia to have the marriage formalized in the Church of the Holy Family.

By 1779, DuSable had moved from Peoria to settle on the north bank of the Chicago River at its junction with Lake Michigan. The settlement was at a natural crossroads for both Native Americans and Europeans seeking access to the Mississippi River, which made it a perfect hub for transportation and trade. But the Revolutionary War initially foiled his plans. DuSable, who supported American interests over those of the British, was labeled a spy and arrested by British forces. He remained in their custody for nearly four years, but so impressed the British governor he was put in charge of one of their outposts, which he managed for three years. When the war ended, DuSable returned to his home to rebuild his business, and he and Catherine lived there for twenty years. The DuSables raised two children and oversaw the birth of a grandchild in the first permanent settlement at what would become the heart of downtown Chicago.

It is clear that DuSable was very successful in his enterprises. Those who knew him described DuSable as "a handsome negro," a man well-liked and respected for his business sense and his good character.

"I want every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition — That is the true system." Abraham Lincoln, 1860

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