A Tale of Two Founders: Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and Louis Blanchette

grave markers together

Both grave markers together in Borromeo Cemetery (photo by Nicholas Lemen)

Two Founders

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Plaque on modern grave marker for Louis Blanchette (photo by Nicholas Lemen)

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and Louis Blanchette, two minor yet notable figures in American history, spent the end of their lives as residents of St. Charles, Missouri. Both men are remembered as founders of American cities. Interestingly, both were buried in the graveyard of the original St. Charles Borromeo church (named after the Cardinal of Milan, Carlo Borromeo) at Jackson and Main Streets. As the city expanded, the graves were moved to a second location in 1828, then to a third in 1854. Today their graves are marked side-by-side in the St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery on Randolph Street.

Blanchette

Louis Blanchette is known to St. Louisans as the founder of St. Charles, Missouri—long regarded as St. Louis’ provincial sister to the northwest. A French Canadian, Blanchette settled there in the 1760s. There he met local Native Americans (and married a Native American woman) and another French Canadian, who already referred to the place as Les Petites Côtes, literally “The Little Hills.” Blanchette took the extra step of officially recording the name as Les Petites Côtes, and served as a local leader until his death in August 1793. Blanchette helped transform Les Petites Côtes into a small but important trading post on the Missouri River. Despite certainty about Blanchette’s origins in French Canada and his residency in St. Charles, other details of his life are harder to pin down. Under Spanish rule, the village was renamed, but Les Petites Côtes has earned a degree of immortality in the form of St. Charles’ annual Festival of the Little Hills.

Point du Sable

Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable

A modern representation of Point du Sable—there are no known portraits of him created during his lifetime (blackhistoryheroes.com)

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable is notable as the first non-Native American settler of the area that would become Chicago, Illinois. He is very much celebrated as a historical figure in Chicago, but residents of St. Charles and St. Louis often overlook Point du Sable’s historical importance.

Though he has earned fame as the founder of Chicago, historians in the past disagreed about his origins: some thought that he was French Canadian, while others asserted that he was a freed slave, originally from Hispaniola. Despite past disagreements about his biography, Point du Sable’s good fortune in settling near the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1770s earned him an important spot in the history of American cities. In fact, he was born free in Haiti, to a French father and an African mother. He traveled to the territory around the Great Lakes as a young man, eventually settling near the Chicago River. His trading activities are noted several times in accounts of traders in the last quarter of the 18th century. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he and his Potawatomi wife, Kittihawa (Catherine) built a large and successful homestead, comprised of several buildings, which provided a good supply of food to eat and trade. For reasons unclear, he sold his homestead on the Chicago River in 1800. Point du Sable also owned land in Peoria, Illinois where his family lived for a few years after leaving Chicago.

By 1807 Point du Sable had moved to the small French village of St. Charles, Missouri. Local church records allow modern historians to clear up some confusion about Point du Sables origin; he is recorded by St. Charles Borromeo as “Point du Sable negre.” In other local records, however, Point du Sable’s ethnicity was not noted. According to a 2005 University of Illinois-Chicago study, there were three “negre livre,” or “free blacks” living in St. Charles at the time: Point du Sable, his son, and another man named Pierre Rodin. Of the three, only Point du Sable could write. His status as a successful and literate businessman (when the majority of residents were not literate) perhaps gained Point du Sable more respect than was normally afforded to non-white persons. A 1797 census recorded that of the 348 people living in St. Charles, 11 were slaves. An 1817 census shows only two free men of color: Pierre Rodin and Point du Sable—Point du Sable’s son had died three years earlier. Point du Sable’s legal and real estate transactions are well-recorded. Again according to the UIC study, he sold his land in St. Charles to his neighbor, Eulalie Barada, with the understanding that he could live there for the rest of his life, and that she would ensure his burial in the Borromeo Cemetery. He died on August 28, 1818.

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Modern grave marker for Point du Sable, placed by the Illinois Sesquicentennial Commission in 1968 (photo by Nicholas Lemen)

Both men are supposedly buried next to each other in the third Borromeo Cemetery. The UIC research team actually visited Borommeo Cemetery and using “state of the art ground penetrating equipment,” examined the area in which Point du Sable is believed to be buried. They make no clear conclusions, but seem skeptical that either of the men’s bodies are actually buried near their current grave markers (though I, myself, have no reason to doubt the records of the St. Louis Archdiocese).  Regardless the location of their remains, their names live on in St. Charles and elsewhere. Blanchette’s name can be found on a bridge, a park, a street, and a creek; a riverside park is named after Point du Sable.

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5 responses to “A Tale of Two Founders: Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and Louis Blanchette

    • Hi Mary, thanks for the question. Going by my own memory, there is not a lot of clear information about Louis Blanchette. I believe he was included in a published history many years ago, but the reality is that there is little hard evidence with regard to his origins. This is not to say that some determined digging (perhaps in an archive in Canada) could not find some better information about him, but I don’t think there is much more currently available. Without hard evidence, it’s still fair to assume he was French and that he was a fur trader—so my guess is that he came from Montréal or Québec. But that is just a guess.

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