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Columbus, DuSable and the myth of the “Founder”

If Columbus was the beginning of the settler-colonial invasion, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable was in the second wave to hit the beach.

A bust dedicated to Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, near 401 N. Michigan Av.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

It is ironic that less than a year after Chicago’s statues of Columbus were hauled away in ignominy, the City Council is considering a proposal to place Jean Baptiste Point DuSable’s name on iconic Lake Shore Drive.

Ald. David Moore has referred to DuSable as Chicago’s “founding father,” establishing his priority over the thousands of Native Americans who lived here in the long centuries that preceded DuSable’s fur trading post.

What is lost and what is gained by enshrining DuSable with the patriarchal status of a “founding father”? Is it only a multicultural variation on the myth-making process that elevated 1492 to America’s moment of birth?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Columbus was embraced by Catholic immigrants as a symbol that they and their faith were part of the American story. It was a time when they faced anti-immigrant legislation in Washington and attacks by hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. It was an inconvenient fact that the Italian navigator had never set foot on land that became the United States.

From the beginning, the powerful Columbian myth obscured the explorer’s role in enslaving American Indians while it made a place for immigrants in the nation’s founding.

Today, renaming Lake Shore Drive after DuSable is seen as a necessary way to recognize Chicago’s African American roots — and DuSable is in many ways a good choice for such symbolic recognition. With his Potawatomi wife, Kitiwaha, he established a settlement on the Chicago River that included a farm and a trading post. Here, he raised his children Jean Baptiste Jr. and Suzanne.

Yet, like the symbol of Columbus, there is an inconvenient fact. In 1800, DuSable sold his Chicago possessions and followed the expanding frontier west to Missouri.

The story of a man of African ancestry building a business here and raising a mixed-race family is attractive to contemporary sensibilities. Nonetheless, the DuSable narrative shares unsettling similarities to the Columbian myth. The story of both “founding” figures promotes a past that privileges late arrivals to an area and relegates to the shadows those who had come before. Columbus and DuSable were active participants in the American republic’s settler-colonial past.

We have become a nation composed of peoples from all over the world because of policies and population pressure that pushed the original residents of our land to forlorn and impoverished corners of the continent. Budding recognition of this history is in part behind the movement to question the appropriateness of Columbus statues in Chicago. Yet if Columbus was the beginning of the settler-colonial invasion, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable was in the second wave to hit the beach.

DuSable was a fur trader. Across the continent, fur traders were the advance guard of the international capitalist market and invasive settlement. Many traders were welcomed by Indians because they brought metal tools and, just as important, wool and cotton cloth.

Sadly, another staple of the trade was alcohol. Because there were only so many skinning knives, copper pots or guns Indian hunters needed. Alcohol was an addictive substance that had little place in pre-Columbian American Indian societies. Hence, they initially had few cultural mechanisms for coping with it.

Like most other traders, DuSable trafficked in liquor. In 1779, his trading post at the current site of Michigan City, Indiana, was raided by British troops. There, they confiscated ten barrels of rum. Fur traders played a role in introducing the indigenous people to a drug with an enduring and damaging legacy.

The scant historical record of DuSable’s life suggests he enjoyed good relations with the Potawatomi living in the Chicago area, but those Indians had no illusions as to the danger posed by the spread of American settlement. In the wake of DuSable’s pioneering Chicago River settlement, the U.S. Army erected Fort Dearborn, an event memorialized today by a star on Chicago’s flag.

But Chicago area Indians saw the building of the fort for what it was, the military occupation of their homeland.

In 1812, Indians attacked the garrison and burned the fort. However, the settler-colonial nation would not be deterred. In the decades that followed, the fort was rebuilt and the government instituted a regime of ethnic cleansing that removed the majority of native people.

Chicago rose to urban greatness from the burial grounds of its native and true founders.

Columbus and DuSable are figures of genuine historical significance, but like us they were people of their time, with the foibles and virtues of their era. Both have a special symbolic value to segments of our community. Yet, if we are sincere about facing our true history, we need to move beyond patriarchal myth-making that erases Native American experience and accept their deep connection to a legacy of conquest.

Theodore J. Karamanski is professor of public history at Loyola University Chicago and author of “Mastering the Inland Sea: How Lighthouses, Harbors, and Navigational Aids Transformed the Great Lakes and America.”

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