From Early Canada to Early North America: Why We Stopped Teaching History before the 1860s from a National Perspective

This post was originally published on ActiveHistory.ca

Let’s begin with a question: without help from the internet, can you name the person who founded the city of Chicago?

I suspect that for many of our readers, the answer is ‘no’.

“Founders” are not terribly in vogue these days, anyways.

It was, however, the man who founded Chicago that helped me make a profound shift in how I teach Canadian history. Last month, at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting, I presented about this curricular shift, arguing that people like Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the putative founder of Chicago, help us rethink early North American history, moving us away from national frameworks. The feedback I’ve received since that presentation has been very fruitful and quite diverse, so I’ve decided to post the talk here to continue the conversation.

Bust of Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, next to the DuSable bridge in downtown Chicago. (Photo by Groov3, Wikimedia Commons)

The life lived by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable has all the necessary components for the pre-Confederation Canadian History survey course. Though we know little about his early life, du Sable was supposedly born to a French sailor and an enslaved woman in the French colony of Saint Domingue around 1745; there is also an argument suggesting he was born in the St. Lawrence Valley. Regardless, he was well educated and, by the time concrete evidence emerges about his life, he was active in the fur trade. It was in that capacity that, during the 1770s, he met and married a Potawatomi woman named Kitihawa according to Potawatomi customs and then, years later, in a Catholic ceremony in Kaskaskia in the Illinois Country. By the 1780s Jean Baptiste and Kitihawa moved to the place known as Eschikagu (“the place of the bad smells”), today known as the north bank of the Chicago river, where they established a trading post, a mill, a smokehouse, and a workshop. The businesses they established brought them considerable wealth. In 1800, with the United States now claiming this place, Point du Sable sold his businesses and moved to French Louisiana. There the French governor commissioned him to operate a ferry across the Missouri River.

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