THE FIRST SETTLER
Extract from Chicago: An Alternative History 1800–1900 by Professor Milton Winship, University of Chicago A. C. McClurg & Co., 1902
IN THE BEGINNING was a game of chess, and on the outcome of that game would hinge the destiny of Chicago. That is my proposition, and that is what my Alternative History shall seek to demonstrate. Doubtless, there will be readers who find the notion preposterous. From them, I ask for patience. Just as playing chess takes time, so too does my explanation, and just as chess can be complicated, so too is this history.
Let us cast our minds back to May 6, 1800. Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable was seated in a slat-backed rocker on the front porch of his mansion in the late afternoon. A gentle breeze was up, the air wafted sweet with the flowerful scents of early summer, the mosquitoes were not yet on the wing. There was a magnificent view, had he chosen to admire it: to his left, the setting sun shone a coppery light upon the waters of the great Lake, while directly before him stretched the greenery of the vegetable garden. Beyond, his horse grazed in a paddock that led down to the riverbank where a line of Lombardy poplars he had planted many years before cast lengthy shadows. Pointe de Sable, had he stood up, would have been able to see a chance of sandhills on the far side of the river, marked here and there by stunted cedars, dwarf willows and pine trees. This was the same formation of sandhills that, twelve years later, would provide cover for the Potawatomies who attacked the American garrison in retreat from Fort Dearborn. But on that balmy evening in 1800, no fort had yet been built. There were no soldiers. The only people who lived at Echicagou (as it was called), apart from Pointe de Sable and his family, were a few Frenchmen in his employ.
Normally, at this time in the evening, he would relax with a horn of whiskey and a pipe of tobacco. He might take the opportunity to reflect on his good fortune, on the trade he had developed, on the prosperity he had secured for his family. The extent of that prosperity would have been evident enough to an observer from the cluster of outbuildings that lay on the other side of the mansion. There was a dairy, a bakehouse, a stable, a smoking house, a poultry coop, a workshop and a warehouse. His livestock comprised thirty cattle full grown, two spring calves, thirty-eight hogs, forty-four hens and two mules, in addition to the horse already mentioned. And that is not yet taking into account his wheat field, nor the income he earned as a trader. He dealt in everything from furs to guns, calico to corn, tobacco to whiskey.
Perhaps, though, rather than indulging in self-congratulation, Pointe de Sable might have ventured instead into nostalgia, remembering the day he first crossed the Echicagou portage as a young man in his twenties, bound for a farming life in Peoria, with not a notion in his head that one day this desolate, marshy place would become his home. Nobody lived here then. Echicagou was nothing but a place of passage, a portage between the Lake and the Illinois River, frozen in winter, swampish in spring, and cussed hot in summer.
Those are the kinds of thoughts that might have passed through his mind, had this been any ordinary day. But it was not. Pointe de Sable was tuckered out with anxiety as he sat in his rocker that evening. He drank no whiskey and smoked no pipe. And he admired no view because his eyes were tight shut. All his thoughts were concentrated on one matter only. And it would hardly puzzle a dozen Philadelphia lawyers to unriddle what that matter was. The most important contest of his life was about to take place. If he won, his unwelcome visitor had promised to leave and never come back. But if things went the other way, if the unimaginable happened and he lost, the person to leave Echicagou and never return would be himself.
Presently, all the particulars pertaining to that extraordinary contest shall be revealed. First, let us establish some facts.
Mr. Pointe de Sable was born in about 1745, though exactly where remains a mystery. His father came from the Dandonneau family of La Rochelle in western France, while his mother was a free-born slave. Pointe de Sable, in other words, was a mulatto. And that fact, I believe, is why my fellow historians have attempted to gloss over the identity of the true founder of Chicago, instead conferring the title on a white man called John Kinzie, whose own parentage was of dubious worth, to say nothing of his character.
In the historical records, we first come across Pointe de Sable in 1779, by which time he is about thirty-four years old and a successful trader in furs and sundry other items in what is now Michigan City. It was a time of fighting and confusion. The British, claiming he had sided with the French, imprisoned Pointe de Sable in their fort at Michilimackinac. The remarkable story of how he came to be released from jail and employed by his former captors at the Pinery, we shall leave for our protagonist himself to describe. The Pinery, incidentally, stood on the site now known as St. Clair, and in one of those twists of fate that can only be seen with the benefit of hindsight, much of that district’s fine timber would later be used to build Chicago.
When Pointe de Sable moved to Echicagou in 1785, it was an inhospitable, mosquito-infested wilderness. Over the next few years, he cleared a swath of land (between today’s North Water Street and Michigan Avenue) and built the mansion and outbuildings already mentioned. In these endeavors, he was helped by Catherine (her Indian name was Kitihawa), a squaw from the local Potawatomie tribe who became his wife. And so it came to pass that by 1800, with his land, livestock and trading post, he had become as established and successful at Echicagou, in his own small way, as a Potter Palmer or a Marshall Field.
One afternoon in early May, his six-year-old grandson Wabaunsee alerted Pointe de Sable to the imminent arrival of visitors. Two figures were visible near the landing stage on the far side of the Lake. The boy, having reported this news, ran off to play his “cyotie cat” trick on them. Deep in the woods, overlooking the main path, he kept a wild tabby cat he had trained to hide in the branches of a cottonwood tree, from where it would hiss and spit as strangers drew near. When they passed below, the cat would hurl itself down into the undergrowth, howling like a coyote. It was an act that never failed to startle first-time visitors, and a prank his grandfather had forbidden him to play.
We will now let Pointe de Sable himself describe what happened that afternoon. Please bear in mind that our founder never saw the inside of a schoolroom, and make allowances, therefore, for the quirks of diction and spelling that I transcribe here as they were originally set down.
Extract from the journal of Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable
Mai 2 the yere 1800
This day comes truble to Pointe Sable. Happns like this. I ridin to the lake from Kaskaskia on mine hoss Ladie Strafford when I sees litle Wobonsee runnin my way. I pulls the hoss up sharp and she hisses like a fire puttin out, afore I dissend carefull to ground. My legs ake after ridin and gone done stiff and I spose thats the ole Reeper comin after me. Look at me, too bent to swing a full ax and hair all curlish gray like a cloud tho there aint none today, its a still evenin and nuthin moves nowhere, othrwise the boy skimmin full chisel thro the grass.
Visitrs, tells Wobonsee, yellin in his pipeskweek voice. Visitrs 1/2 league from the landin, and he comes runnin on and dont ware no shirt nor shoes and his hair all streamin blak like a tale, and I deceivd visitrs be good news for that we needs more powdr and shot and whiskey. I tether the ole Lady Strafford and she looks ten times grummer than the one in the painting, for that shes wantin the stable door and fresh hay and a daintie pillow for her proudliness. Next moment Wobonsee comes skiddin to a stop afore me and stands the copy of a brave, tho he onely done six sumers, and togethr we spy the men far off. The boy soon runs away westwind and the world turns peacefull till a flok of wild geese they go aclamorin and beatin them wings in a frenziness and twist high in the air and beak at the pinky sky afore divin to the water, and the waves come risin and frothin and that noise it sounds like a war cry and I feel afeard, lookin at my reflexshun in the water that was clear afore, but is now gone crakked.
When I go home the first thing I sees is a wite man lookin like a gost. Tells me to brung whiskey. I ask him polite his busyness and he tells me stop askin dang stupid questions dont I be seein hes lukky to escape with his life for he been attakt by wild beests in the woods. And I think to tell him no need for worryin hisself for the onely beest in them woods be litle Wobonsees cyotie, that aint nuthin more than a noisome tabby cat, but I dont say nuthin. I brung him whiskey and leeve him alone till my ole frend Lalime arrives, puffin his breth for that he aint no peg pony, and Lalime he tells me this visitr he brung be considrable of a chief from St Josefs, and he called Kinzie man.
After Cathrin feeds us chiken meat and jonniecakes, Kinzie man wipes his mustash and belchs like a bufalo. He dont say much, exept onely that the paintings on my walls be mighty girlish. Then he takes mine rockin chair from off the veranda, unbuttns his cote, stuffs tobcco in his cheek and tells Lalime to brung more whiskey. Lalime, he wants to make us frends. Probly thats why he say Kinzie man is the beatingst chess player in St Josefs. He knows I play chess, but he dont have no idea how deep it lays in mine bones. No, Lalime dont know the way mine father lernt me to play when I was a boy, that I nevr forgotn. I replie we can game, if the visitr wants. But Kinzie man dont want to play nuthin. Lalime has anuther idea, that I tell a story to pass the time, for he knows I have some up mine sleeve. In the end I agree, evn I dont like to raconterise to a man I dont trust.
Chess was still in mine mind. I guess thats why the storie I tellin them goes like this. When I was a prisonr in fort Maklimakinak I oftntimes challinged gainst the gards at chess and beat them. One day the guvner calls for me. Hes herd this Negro he play chess good, and he dont beleeve it. I am brung to sit in the guvners parlor. The chessbord on the table in front of me is prettyer than I evr seen afore with peeces made from walrus ivory and carvd jus fine, and I gottn a hankerin that if I ever escape I find a bord like that misself one day.
The guvner marchs in. He wares a long red cote and brassie butons and a porcpine fether in his hat and he talks in a slantendikular way, like a rope gone done tied up his tonge. I dont like his proudliness, and I knows I must lose gainst him but I thinkin to misself how to take the shine off of his viktry. Thats why I tells him I can beat him even with mine eyes shut, for that I figger his viktry dont be so gloryous if he win a blind man.
The guvner be insultd and his temper go ablazin, and he says if I wantin to play blinded then by Jove and by Darn I shall. When hes cooled down its too late to think again, for I seen this in the English, how they be afeard to look weak and foolsh in front of themselfs and for a guvner to be changin his mind, this a skeery thing to do.
They make me blinded with a blak stokkin. Then the guvnor gets anuther idea, how to shame me propper. If I winnin the game, I can have mine libertie, he tells, wich is just and reasnble, aint it? Yessir, thank you sir, I must say, most reasnble. But if I losin, he go send me in chains on the first ship to the Indies. I sits there, cussin my fat lips that gets me in this predikment, while the guvner makes an Englsh open, wite pawn E4. I take a long breth, and try to remembr all I know. And wen I can see good the pikter of the chessbord in the darkness of mine mind, I tell the guvners adjitant to move for me the blak pawn E6, wich is the French defense.
I always make a pause now in the tellin of this tale. I reckon I do this for to allow the listners to vision the moment and ask what happns next and how kwik I lose and how come I get all the way bak from the Indies. But Kinzie man dont say a word, onely sits there in mine rockin chair, drinkin whiskey and chewin tobcco and spittin on the floor. He looks at me like he dont beleeve a word of it. So I niver tell what happns next and dont say nuthin more, exept onely to misself, that this Kinzie man be the kind that always wants to play the biggst toad in the puddle.
How boorish of Mr. Kinzie not to want to know what happened next. Although we learn later in the journal that Pointe de Sable won the game, and thereby gained his freedom, we never hear how on earth he managed it. We must assume, though, that it was executed with aplomb, given that a further entry reveals the regard in which he would come to be held by the very same English governor who spoke in that “slantendikular” way. Pointe de Sable’s journal discloses that it was the governor—his name was Sinclair—who taught him how to write. It was also the governor who introduced him to the world of fine art. That was doubtless why, at the time of Mr. Kinzie’s visit to Echicagou, there were no less than twenty-eight paintings in Pointe de Sable’s possession, displayed on the walls of his mansion.
His granddaughter Eulalie recalled that, for her, two of those paintings were of particular importance. The first pictured the English Lady Strafford (after whom Pointe de Sable named his horse) at her country seat, surrounded by some of her most prized possessions. One reason she remembered it so well, she would admit to me in conversation late in her life, was she knew it was “a favorite of Gray Curls.” Gray Curls was the secret nickname she used for her grandfather. Many years later, this painting would come into the ownership of Chicago’s first mayor, Mr. William Ogden, and hang in the entrance hall of his imposing North Side house. The second painting was a slight piece called The First Mansion at Echicagou by an unknown artist. Eulalie had a sentimental attachment to this work because it depicted her childhood home, complete with her beloved Gray Curls seated in his rocker on the porch.
I would like to dwell for a little longer on Eulalie as the four-year-old girl she was in 1800. By all accounts, she was strikingly beautiful. Her full lips, limpid eyes and high cheekbones, set off by a light brown skin, lent a particularity to her features that was extremely unusual in a child of such tender age. Most remarkable of all was the bounteous head of fair hair she had inherited from her father, the handsome, dissolute Jean Jacques Pelletier. Those magnificent tresses settled in natural waves and an earlock curl dangled in front of her left ear, a style she copied from the painting already mentioned, Lady Strafford’s Vision. On Sundays, when their neighbors gathered in the Pointe de Sable home for prayer, she would be slicked up like a lady. And all this finery, readers will be surprised to hear, was achieved in complete silence.
For Eulalie, poor child, had never been heard to utter a single, solitary, intelligible word. Communication was achieved through the eyes and hands, through smiles and sighs. Although there was no doubting her intelligence or emotions or powers of observation, she would not speak. Many remedies had been tried, including a mix of herbs, bear dung and crushed elk bone administered by a notable Potawatomie witch doctor. Nothing had worked. It was a mystery to her family and, needless to say, a powerful worry.
On the first morning of Mr. Kinzie’s visit, Eulalie positioned herself in one corner of the spaceful keeping room. It was a splendid day. The front door stood wide open and sunlight streamed inside. There was a dazzle to the polished puncheon floor. At the far end, around a low table draped by an embroidered cloth of French lace, stood the armchairs in which Pointe de Sable and Jean Lalime had sat the night before, together with the rocker appropriated by Mr. Kinzie. In front of the table was a fireplace. The walls were brightened by Pointe de Sable’s paintings, arranged in close proximity to each other. The exception was Lady Strafford’s Vision, which hung alone above the finest piece of furniture in the house, a cabinet of French walnut. Through its glass doors, the family’s best utensils were on display—pewter pots, clay jugs, china plates and a tall pair of fluted silver candlesticks. Beside the cabinet stood one other rarity that must be mentioned for the significant role it shall be called upon to play in this story. Enthroned on its own stool stood the largest copper kettle in the household, said to hold a measure of ten gallons. It was maintained in gleaming, pristine condition.
Mr. Kinzie had risen late. Eulalie watched him cross the room, a high, winding man with pointy whiskers and glittering eyes like boiled candy drops. His skin was the color of tobacco and he had long bent fingers, only the tips of which he used to pick things up. He paused to eye the contents of the cabinet, ran a finger over the surface of the copper kettle and then approached the dining table that fronted the window. She became aware of a mighty rich and, to her young senses, unpleasant smell. The house had plenty of odors, safe scents that drifted through from the bakehouse and the timber store at the back to mix with the cedar-scented soap her grandmother believed could be used to clean everything. Those familiar smells were now overwhelmed by the perfume worn by Mr. Kinzie, a kind of cologne that made Eulalie think of bitter oranges and the bite of salt and the flash of lightning in the sky. It made her eyes water.
Mr. Kinzie sat down at the dining table and Susannah, Eulalie’s mother, put a plate of porridge in front of him, with maple sap to the side.
The porridge was too cold. Where was the coffee? Where was the bread? Were there no ham fixings for a visitor? Not even no eggs? What kind of inn was this? And what is your name, maid, he wanted to know, and where is your husband?
Susannah, who was heating up coffee from the grains, told him there would be no bread until they baked later in the day, that she had seen no sign hanging at the door to advertise an inn, and that it was no business of his to know where her husband might be. (Jean Jacques Pelletier had, in fact, traveled to Peoria with Susannah’s brother—also, confusingly, called Jean Jacques—where the two of them would, no doubt, be on a drunken spree.) She was no maid, she added, but the daughter of Mr. Pointe de Sable, by whom he had been made welcome.
That brisk speech caused Mr. Kinzie to change his attitude. He now behaved with lick-spittle civility. He was charmed to make her acquaintance, he said, touching his hat and smoothing his mustache. And he asked her to forgive him for being in a pucker, but he never slept well in a strange bed—especially, he added, when he had to sleep alone. No, no, she should not suspicion him because of that remark, for it was made with an honest heart. He explained that he had lost his wife but recently in distressing circumstances, and it was “exceedingly irksome to discover the blessed realm of sleep.” It was a habit of his, apparently, to use highfalutin phrases in an attempt to impress.
And it is to her credit that Susannah did not fall, hook, line and sinker, for such bunkum. She was right to be skeptical of his sentimental yarn about a deceased wife. History records the marital affairs of Mr. Kinzie with accuracy, and somewhat differently. At the time of this visit to Echicagou, he was thirty-seven years of age, and recently married for the second time. His first wife, Margaret, together with their three children, had deserted him. He had married his second wife over two years previous, on January 23, 1798. She was expecting their first child.
Mr. Kinzie’s tongue continued to wag. He told Susannah tall tales about his adventures, described the glamorous life to be lived in far-off Quebec and Detroit, and even managed to make St. Joseph sound like a rip-snorting place. Why was a beautiful woman wasting her youth in this backwater? “Trust me. I’ve seen more of life than you. The world is bigger than you think. Even if you does choose to stay here,” he told her, “I can make life better for you, if you cop my meaning.”
Eulalie did not know what he meant by that, but she did know what she thought of him. She stepped out of her corner, marched forward and stared direct at Mr. Kinzie. She pointed one finger at him and, for the first time in her four years on earth, there emerged from her mouth a word.
“Snag!” yelled Eulalie. “Snag!”
Mr. Kinzie jumped back in his chair, knocking his porridge plate off the table. It shattered on the floor.
“Snag, snag, snag!” Eulalie shouted three more times, before stepping outside. She did not run (or so her mother claimed later), as most children would have done. She walked, tresses in place, smoothing her skirt, a proper little lady. Stopping at the open window to look back inside, she felt herself enveloped in a maternal embrace.
Together, they watched Mr. Kinzie finish his coffee. That seemed to calm him down. He stuck his forefinger into the pot of maple sap and twirled it around, before licking off the juice. Doubtless, he found it awful sweet. But he did not notice how the sap had gotten trapped in his mustache. As it dried, the hairs began to curl up at the ends, stuck together, ridiculously erect. He pushed back his chair, stood up and released a long, loud fart.
Nobody could find an explanation for why Eulalie had broken into speech for the first time. Pointe de Sable, though, guessed where the word must have come from. My Euladie (as he fondly called Eulalie) would have heard it used when she accompanied him on a recent river journey. In those days, “snag” was often shouted by the lookout on a boat to alert the pilot to the menace of driftwood hidden in the channels and shallows ahead. With hindsight, we can appreciate that this little girl had foreseen the threat represented by this unwelcome guest, this dangerous piece of human driftwood, if you will. Twelve years on, that diminutive word would be used again by sixteen-year-old Eulalie as another warning of danger. But on that occasion, as we shall hear in due course, the circumstances would be infinitely more terrifying than those that prevailed at breakfast on the first morning of Mr. Kinzie’s visit.
That same afternoon, Eulalie was in the kitchen standing on a stool, helping her mother mix flour for griddlecakes, when Mr. Kinzie returned to the house. She heard a curious thump on the porch followed by a rooting of hogs. His nailed boots mounted the steps. He was in good spirits, whistling a tune that was popular at the time: “Hail Columbia, happy land! Hail ye heroes, heav’n borne band…” Eulalie slid off her stool and took up a position by the door to the keeping room. Gray Curls and Lalime—or Uncle Jean, as she knew him—were seated in the easy chairs surrounding the fireplace.
Unknown to Eulalie, Gray Curls and Uncle Jean were engaged in a heated conversation because Mr. Lalime had finally revealed the true purpose behind their visit. He had brought Mr. Kinzie to Echicagou, he said, at the request of a powerful trader in St. Joseph called Mr. Burnet. Mr. Burnet had instructed Mr. Kinzie to purchase Pointe de Sable’s estate, to include his mansion and its contents, his land, his outbuildings, his livestock and his trading store. Pointe de Sable, taken aback by the news, had given an immediate, unambiguous response. He would sell nothing to nobody. It had long been his desire, as his friend Lalime knew very well, that everything he owned should one day be inherited by his grandson Wabaunsee.
Lalime told Pointe de Sable he might have no choice. “If you refuse,” he said, “they’ll use the law.”
“And what be those laws in particular you talkin’? That a man don’t have the right to live on the land he cleared?”
“Not when an American wants that land. When an American uses the law against someone like you”—Lalime shrugged—“the law goes down on its knee and curtseys. That’s the fact, no matter the way it’s done. You’ll suddenly find the law says it’s not allowed for gens de couleurs libres to own property in Echicagou, even though it did not say that yesterday. Or they’ll prove it was never your land in the first place.”
Lalime reminded Pointe de Sable of the infamous agreement reached at Greenville in 1795 when the Potawatomies were hoodwinked into ceding six square miles of land at the Echicagou Portage to the United States.
“But Greenville don’t mean nothin’ to the Potawat’mies,” exclaimed Pointe de Sable. “They never gone done buyin’ or sellin’ land ’cause they believe all the land everywhere, it belong to the Great Spirit.”
Lalime agreed, but said it made no difference. Powerful people in St. Joseph wanted his land and buildings, and they would stop at nothing to get them. “I think you should accept what is inevitable,” said Lalime, “and negotiate the best price you can. I know these people. If you don’t agree, they’ll use force.”
Despite this warning, Pointe de Sable refused to have any dealings with them. Instead, he made a plan. As he puts it in his journal: “I tell Lalime I shall rip misself to St Josefs on Ladie Strafford for to find an attrney while he be keepin Kinzie man busie, so he dont suspectin nuthin. Let him start makin an account of everthing, noting it all down, from evry plate in the kitchn to the last bushel of grain in the storehouse.”
Mr. Kinzie made his entrance just as this conversation came to a close. He sailed past them to retrieve the rocker off the porch, returned with it, sat down in front of the fireplace, and, as though he were quite alone in the privacy of his own chamber, he removed his boots and socks, and began to wiggle his toes.
Pointe de Sable made a point of treating his guest with civility. He brought Mr. Kinzie a glass of whiskey and asked about his walk around the estate. The inquiry elicited no more than a nod of the head. Rocking back and forth, Mr. Kinzie took out his tobacco pouch, dipped a wad in his cheek and chewed, seemingly lost in his own world. From time to time he smiled, as if at some private joke.
For a few moments more, not a word was spoken. The windows were open. There was a warm, treacly scent to the air, tinged by the aroma of baking bread. From the kitchen came the sound of more dough being beaten. The only strangeness was the snuffling of the hogs who, unknown to Pointe de Sable, Lalime or little Eulalie, were fighting over the remains of the dead “cyotie cat” Mr. Kinzie had deposited on the steps outside.
At last, their visitor broke his silence. Gesturing toward the copper necklace Pointe de Sable was in the habit of wearing, he turned to Mr. Lalime. “What does it mean, Jean,” he said, “that your friend wears Indjun jewelry?”
Lalime looked embarrassed. Pointe de Sable, though, maintained his equanimity and even managed a smile. “The same like it always means,” he said. “I been wearin’ this necklace since I first come to Echicagou, Mr. Kinzie.” He explained that it was a gift he had been given by a Potawatomie chief when he arrived to establish a homestead. He said no more than that, doubtless because he knew Mr. Kinzie would have mocked him were he to claim the necklace had special powers that derived from a Potawatomie legend about a monster called Nambi-Za, who ruled the nether regions of Lake Michigan.
“That one’s wearin’ jewelry as well,” observed Mr. Kinzie, pointing toward the painting of Lady Strafford’s Vision that hung above the French cabinet.
Pointe de Sable agreed that indeed she was. Perhaps in an attempt to allay any suspicions on the part of Mr. Kinzie regarding his newly hatched plan to seek urgent legal advice in St. Joseph, he went on to speak about the picture’s meaning and provenance. Truly, this was one of the most exquisite paintings it had ever been his privilege to behold. As Mr. Kinzie would observe, both Lady Strafford and her horse were depicted with such skill, they might almost be alive. Note the horse’s posture, and the beads of sweat on its flank. See how strands of hair escaped from Lady Strafford’s earlock curl, how the flush on her cheeks changed with the light. And if Mr. Kinzie would care to take a walk around the room, he would find her eyes seemed to follow him everywhere, never once averting their gaze.
“What a hussy!” growled Kinzie, not shifting from the rocker.
Pointe de Sable was not put off his stride. As always when talking about Lady Strafford’s Vision, he got carried away. “Look closely, Mr. Kinzie,” he continued. “Is not everything authentic? Do you not feel the delicate mist in the air? Does it not seem possible to stroke with your own hands the velvet of Lady Strafford’s crimson gown and the flimsy white lace at the cuffs?”
“I’d settle for stroking what lies underneath,” said Mr. Kinzie, spitting on the puncheon floor. “You too, eh Jean?”
Mr. Lalime pretended to be examining his hands.
Pointe de Sable described the other features of the painting that delighted him, the mansion in the background with its Corinthian colonnades: the sweeping lawns and flower beds in bloom, the ornamental lake, and the small oval building in the foreground. Pointe de Sable believed this to be an oracle.
“And what does she ask the oracle?” Kinzie inquired.
Pointe de Sable told Mr. Kinzie he did not know.
His journal, though, explains otherwise. There, we learn that he considered it no accident that Lady Strafford had posed for the painting in the midst of her estate, surrounded by her possessions. She was a worried lady. These were troubled times, and she wanted to find out from the oracle what would happen to her property, to her family and to herself.
“This the first picture I purchas’d,” said Pointe de Sable, “from Governor Sinclair at Michilmackinac. That gentlem’n brung it cross the seas from England. The painter that gone done it, he wern’t no greenhorn.”
Had Mr. Kinzie taken note of the signature at the bottom of that canvas, and mentioned it to the more refined folk in St. Joseph, he might have figured the painting was worth a great deal more than a few shiners. But he did not, so he remained ignorant of the fact that Lady Strafford’s Vision was executed by George Stubbs, one of the eighteenth century’s most celebrated English painters.
“You oughtta be selling more of this firewater,” said Kinzie. He leaned forward, clearing his throat with a mix of a hem and a cough, and spat out a wad of masticated tobacco (which “gone done slidin like a brown slug cross the polshed timbrs”). “That’s your problem. You don’t understan’ the mind of the Indjun. You ain’t serious about bringing them grog.”
Pointe de Sable was about to speak out, about to tell Mr. Kinzie he did not run a low-down drinking den. He was about to speechify along the lines that if you make the Potawatomies drunken on whiskey today, how they gonna pick up a hoe tomorrow? And if they don’t pick up them hoes, how they gonna pay for the whiskey? He was about to punch Mr. Kinzie with those points. But he never got to do it because there was a sudden rumpus, a high-pitched whooping, a burst of color, a flash of steel, a degree of youthful rowdiness the Pointe de Sable homestead had likely never seen before. All eyes turned to the open doorway. There stood six-year-old Wabaunsee, ululating, his eyes in a trance, painted for war like a Potawatomie brave. His slight back was arched as he thrust forward first one stamping foot, and then the other. From the corner of the room, Eulalie had a clear view of her cousin. Lines of red paint crossed his cheeks and chest. He had tied his hair into a scalp lock and planted it with feathers. In his hands he was clutching what looked like a real tomahawk. She had no idea where that had come from, but she did not trust him with it. Her cousin could be plenty wild and dangerous, even without a weapon.
Mr. Kinzie leaped out of his chair, coughing out the tobacco in his cheek. Uncle Jean began to sweat profusely. Only Gray Curls stayed calm. He stood up and raised a hand. Wabaunsee was advancing, waving his tomahawk this way and that. “I’ll hang your scalp,” he screamed at Mr. Kinzie, “from my belt.”
Eulalie was scared. She feared he might do it, and though not certain it would be wrong, given the identity of Wabaunsee’s proposed victim, she thought it likely would be. Her cousin had never attacked her with a blade, but she had often been on the receiving end of his temper and she knew what that felt like. So it did not seem inconceivable to her four-year-old self that he might take on a bad grown-up and win.
At this point, though, Gray Curls intervened. He seized hold of the tomahawk in Wabaunsee’s hand and told him to wait outside.
“That savagerous little animal,” hissed Mr. Kinzie. “I will make him pay.”
“You have children?” asked Gray Curls. His voice sounded deep and soft as the big feather bed in his room, where Eulalie would go to hide beneath the covers when she wanted to be alone. “Because if you do, you know how deep they feelin’ sometimes, even they not able to put the feelins into words.”
Eulalie could feel her grandfather’s eyes on her.
“And what kinda man is it, Mr. Kinzie,” continued Gray Curls, “that gits hisself huffed over a tabby cat?”
Mr. Kinzie swapped a new wad of tobacco from one cheek to the other. He talked about a man in St. Joseph, about buying land and buying buildings, about Gray Curls being allowed as a “favor that ain’t deserved” to take his paintings with him when he left Echicagou, like the one of “that hussy” on the wall.
“And you and your friends,” asked Gray Curls, “where you expectin’ us to go?”
Mr. Kinzie twitched his shoulders. “It’s a big country, ain’t it?”
Eulalie did not know what all the talk meant, but it frightened her. She did not want to go anywhere. She certainly did not want to leave her home. And whereas before she merely disliked her cousin, now she hated him. Because it was obvious to her that none of this would be happening if it wasn’t for Wabaunsee and his “cyotie cat.”
In view of what will happen in the future, perhaps the fractious relationship between Eulalie and Wabaunsee as children should be placed in a broader context. Wabaunsee was a bully, though perhaps no more so than any other boy of that age. He would play tricks on Eulalie, pull her hair, trip her up and encourage his “cyotie cat” to hiss at her. No wonder, then, that she kept her distance from him. But perhaps, too, she resented what she had doubtless already intuited, though she was too young to understand why: Wabaunsee was her grandfather’s favorite.
Pointe de Sable doted on the boy not, as some might assume, because he was his only male grandchild. He doted on him out of shame. To explain: Wabaunsee was the illegitimate child of Pointe de Sable’s son Jean Jacques and a Potawatomie woman to whom Pointe de Sable had never been introduced. Maybe that would not have mattered overmuch, had Jean Jacques been a responsible father. But he was unreliable, lazy and frequently drunken. Pointe de Sable tried to shoulder as much as he could of his son’s neglected parental responsibility. That was why he wanted his estate to bypass Jean Jacques in favor of Wabaunsee, and that was why the boy would always be his blind spot.
Maybe it happened that evening. Maybe the next. She could not be certain. In later life, when she had frequent nightmares, Eulalie would look back with disbelief at how deeply she had been able to sleep as a child, before, that is, the arrival of Mr. Kinzie. It was as though she were someone else in those days, a fairy-tale girl with fancy clothes who lived in the magic world of her grandparents with its comforting smells of baking, of newly split timber and cedar-scented soap.
She could tell, before opening her eyes, that it was still dark outside. Even so, she woke up instantly. She reckoned it must have been the perfume that jolted her into consciousness—the sharp mix of bitter oranges and the bite of salt and the flash of lightning. The door was closing, softly, to the room she shared with her mother at the far end of the house’s long corridor. Only a moonlit gleam came in through the shutter, enough to illuminate Mr. Kinzie’s shape curving away into the darkness, like one of those trees on the riverbank bent over by a big wind. Her mother was sitting upright, holding the blanket to her chin. She was whispering questions: why are you here, what do you want? “Please go away, Mr. Kinzie. You’ll wake Eulalie.” He was kneeling in front of her mother’s low bed.
She could not hear or understand everything Mr. Kinzie said but, despite her tender age, she knew he was trying to persuade her mother to do something she did not want to do. There was nothing normal about the way he spoke. Sometimes he sounded too kind, sometimes he seemed to be threatening her. Over the last few days, Mr. Kinzie had paid a lot of attention to her mother. Eulalie hated Mr. Kinzie for that.
The tone of his voice changed again. He was lonely. He had feelings for her. If she let him come underneath that blanket, he promised all Pointe de Sable’s problems would disappear and nobody would take his property away from him. Mr. Kinzie would return to St. Joseph and never come back. St. Joseph was a fine town, and he wanted her mother to go there with him. “I like you very much, Susannah. Fate has brought us together. I will change your life.” Her mother interrupted, pushing his hand away, telling him to stop this silly talk. He would wake the child. Eulalie shut her eyes tight and held her breath. There was a rustle of cloth and she smelled his grunty breath. A finger touched her lips, and stayed there. It was terribly cold, like a piece of ice.
“Out like a log,” Mr. Kinzie informed her mother.
As if they were communicating in the same unspoken language, she understood that the freezing finger was an order to stay silent. After what seemed like ages, the finger withdrew.
Her mother asked him to leave.
“Send me away, Susannah, and your lives here are finished. Your father will lose everything. It’s an easy decision, ain’t it?”
There was another burst of the bitter perfume as Mr. Kinzie rose from his knees. He was trying to get into the bed. Her mother was holding the blanket tight, pushing him away. Where Eulalie’s strength came from, she had no idea. Her fear seemed to evaporate. She threw herself at Mr. Kinzie’s back. She bit through his shirt and scratched at him and maybe she would have screamed except that his hand was pressed down on her mouth and he was throttling her with the other, and his face was against hers, full of stinky breath. Her mother was begging him to let her go. “She’s only a child.”
Mr. Kinzie hissed instructions at Eulalie. She was to wait in the corridor, “in silence, not a squeak out of you. Understand?” If she did that for him, he promised she would be safe and her mother would be safe. “But if not…” He squeezed her throat until she was choking again and there were tears in her eyes. Her mother was begging Mr. Kinzie to leave her be. At last, he released her.
“Do what he says,” whispered her mother in a halting voice. “Everything here is fine.”
“That’s better,” said Mr. Kinzie. “Much better.”
He opened the door, pushed Eulalie outside and pressed his finger once more against her lips. As soon as the door closed behind him, she ran.
The timbers pounded beneath her feet, and in no time at all she was past the bedroom doors of that long dark corridor and inside the keeping room where the night air was still heavy with smoke and whiskey, damp and warm against her cheeks, with no thoughts inside her head except that she must stop Mr. Kinzie and save her mother and save Gray Curls and if she did that she would save everything and nothing would have to change, and they could stay there for ever and ever.
She must have picked up a wooden bowl because that was what she used, with both hands, to pound the nearest, shiniest object she could see, which was her grandmother’s favorite copper kettle, the biggest of all her kettles, the one displayed on its own small stool, the one Eulalie had never seen her use. It sounded like a gong, then a bell, then a drum, and then—as it toppled to the floor—like all three of them together.
The house awoke. It exploded with shouts and people and lamps, and there was running and guns and fear, and someone must have taken away the wooden bowl because the next thing Eulalie remembered was finding herself hidden in the folds of her grandmother’s nightdress.
That old copper kettle would survive both the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and a subsequent fire in 1874 at the home of lawyer J. Young Scammon where it was being held in temporary storage, along with other items of interest to the Chicago Historical Society. You can still see the dents made on its surface, all those years ago, by the four-year-old granddaughter of Mr. Pointe de Sable.
Everyone assumed that Eulalie’s outburst was caused by a nightmare. And she, poor girl, whose utterances had gone no further yet than “snag,” was able neither to explain nor to understand what she had witnessed. When she grew older, though, she would be under no illusions about what had almost happened that night.
The copper kettle was placed back on its stand and calm restored. Everyone returned to bed. Everyone, that is, except Wabaunsee. He waited until all were fast asleep again before stealing into the room where the guests, Uncle Jean and Mr. Kinzie (now back in his allotted bed), were lodged. As Pointe de Sable put it in his journal, Wabaunsee “fans the bag of Kinzie man, finds a perfum in a silvry pot engravd with flowres and lettrs, and empties it over the visitrs face. Kinzie man wakns, cryin out that his eyes be on fire, and that probly not far from the truth neither because next day they be glowin red and streamin like a tragdy.”
Pointe de Sable was a man whose behavior was guided by an innate sense of right and wrong. In his journals, he refers more than once to his belief that “there is indeed justice in the world,” as if he imagines the existence of heavenly scales in which all our deeds on earth will one day be weighed. Those scales, he thinks, will ultimately favor right over wrong, truth over falsehood, honesty over deceit, and the triumph of reason over force. It is an inspiring, optimistic doctrine that history has all too often proven to be misplaced. But it was presumably this conviction that persuaded Pointe de Sable to concede that the visitor be permitted to punish Wabaunsee. For however rude Mr. Kinzie might be, however sinister his intentions, however wrongful his killing of the “cyotie cat,” he was still a guest of the household. Wabaunsee had acted toward their visitor in a way that could not be condoned.
Pointe de Sable left the house with Mr. Lalime early the next morning to work on a new storehouse he was building. This was a terrible miscalculation. A distraught Eulalie appeared some time later and tugged frantically at his sleeve, while pointing toward the house. Though he dropped everything and ran as fast as he could, he arrived too late to stop the worst of the beating. Mr. Kinzie, instead of waiting for Pointe de Sable to bear witness to the punishment, had chosen to exact his revenge at once in an empty household. He was still crouching over Wabaunsee, who lay prone on the puncheon floor, limp and defenseless. Blood wept out of purple welts (“big like wagon weels”) across his back. As yet another blow rained down, the boy neither flinched nor uttered a sound. Pointe de Sable hurled himself at Mr. Kinzie, who was now in the process of taking a knife to Wabaunsee’s cheek. “The wild beest wants to be an Indjun savidge, says Kinzie man, then by damnashun he can look like one.” Before it could be stopped, the boy’s cheek had been slashed. He would be scarred for life.
Pointe de Sable ordered Mr. Kinzie to leave his house at once, or he would personally take the whip on him. “You try to whup me, ole mulatto man, says Kinzie man, and I brake your legs. He swallws anuther horn of mine whiskey, and then he leeves.”
Wabaunsee, despite his fragile state, remained impassive as his wounds were tended by the ladies of the house. Pointe de Sable sat by his side for the rest of the afternoon. At some point, he removed the copper necklace he wore and placed it around the boy’s neck, telling him to wear it always for protection. It would keep him safe in the future, he said, in times of danger and misfortune. He does not mention in his journal whether, as he handed it over, he also told Wabaunsee the Potawatomie story about Nambi-Za, to explain the necklace’s significance; probably, though, he would have recounted that tale often enough before. Nor does he record his own feelings at surrendering the necklace to his grandson. There is little doubt, given his belief in the power of the talisman, that he would have been only too aware of how vulnerable its loss rendered him. As to whether Wabaunsee was a worthy recipient of that precious gift, only time would tell.
One can assume that his brutal treatment at the hands of Mr. Kinzie did much to harden the boy’s immature heart against white men. A few days later, when a group of Potawatomies passed through Echicagou, Wabaunsee asked his grandfather whether he could travel with them to visit his mother. This was not an unusual occurrence, so Pointe de Sable saw no reason to object. Although he had never met the boy’s mother, he suspected she was a kindly influence on Wabaunsee, and that after such an ordeal it was a good idea for the boy to seek her support.
The decision to allow him to leave was one he would revisit time and time again. Wabaunsee departed with that group of Potawatomies, never to return. The loss of his grandson would break Pointe de Sable’s heart, and trouble his conscience for the rest of his life.
Mr. Kinzie did not leave the house that afternoon, as had been demanded of him. When at last he rose from Wabaunsee’s bedside in the early evening, Pointe de Sable found the visitor making a list of his household possessions. “I sees the list. 1 coper kettle 10 gal (damagd), 1 coper kettle 7 gal, 1 coper kettle 3½ gal.” And so on. He called Jean Lalime aside and insisted that Mr. Kinzie leave at once and never come back, only to be reminded that the visitor was backed by powerful men in St. Joseph. Despite his abhorrent cruelty toward Wabaunsee, said Lalime, nothing would be achieved by sending Mr. Kinzie away. He would only return with reinforcements. These men wanted Pointe de Sable’s house, his land and outbuildings and trading post, and, one way or another, they would have it. One must wonder, given this response, whether Lalime was merely being realistic, whether he was utterly spineless, or—worst of all—whether he was in league with those “powerful men” himself. Pointe de Sable never seems to doubt his friend, despite the fact that Lalime had acted as the conduit for Mr. Kinzie in the first place.
Despite this warning from Lalime, Pointe de Sable refused to capitulate. “Then we must be findin’ a way,” he said, “to stop them wantin’ it.” Mr. Kinzie, he told Lalime, had to be persuaded to return to St. Joseph and tell those “powerful men” they were wasting their time, that the Pointe de Sable house had no value, that the land was a swamp, and that the trading post did no business worth the name. But why on earth, asked Lalime, would Mr. Kinzie do that?
Pointe de Sable drew him close and revealed an ingenious, madcap plan. Mr. Kinzie was one of the best chess players in St. Joseph? Very well. Lalime should tell Mr. Kinzie that Pointe de Sable was willing to wager his entire estate on the outcome of a game of chess. Not only that, but Pointe de Sable would offer to play the game blindfolded. Lalime was alarmed by the idea. And, anyway, what would happen if there was no winner? “Then we goe play till there be one. Dont be worryin, Jean, I seen this kinda man afore. He cant say no to a challinge from an ‘ole mulatto man.’ He nevr dream he could be losin. Beleeve me, he will.”
Lalime tried to persuade him it was a foolish idea, that Pointe de Sable could never win, not even with his eyes wide open, because Kinzie was a brilliant player. Pointe de Sable, though, simply repeated his proposal and set conditions. First, Lalime would referee the game; second, Kinzie would sign an agreement strong enough to put before an attorney in Washington that, if he lost the game, he would report back to those “powerful men” in St. Joseph that the Pointe de Sable land, property, possessions and trading post were worthless. And if Mr. Kinzie won the game? “Then I sell ever’thing to you, Jean.” But why would he sell it to him? “’Cause if I have to sell to someone, I bettr sell to a frend than a nogood. But dont be worryin. This nevr gonna happn, Jean. Nevr.”
The entry in Pointe de Sable’s journal that describes the chess contest is touching, and it is worth repeating here, but I must warn my readers that the account breaks off shortly after the game itself begins. Only many years after the event took place, did Eulalie reveal to me how that evening ended.
Extract from the Journal of Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable
Its a prettie sumer evenin. I sit with mine eyes tite shut for that I figgerin if I done rite or wrong. I dont touch mine pipe nor whiskey but start thinkin on the bord, on evry peece waitin in its place to play, for to make the pikter strongr in mine mind. Lalime comes out. He tells me Kinzie man he made the consent and signalized the agreement, and it can be brung afore all the attrneys in St Josef and Detroit and Washingtn and nobodie nevr find no leak. And he garanty it all writ down lawful with warranty deeds. I thank my frend from mine hart. You, I say, you be a trustin kind of man. But tell me this, Jean, why you sweatin so bad? He tells me mebbe he comin down with the agues or fevers, it that time of year. Then he looks away. I know it aint no fever. Hes skeered bout wot happns. Thats cause hes afeard for me and I thinkin mebbe I should tell the truth how that my father lernt me chess with the blindfold, the bettr to see the storie on the bord in the darknss of mine mind. Mebbe I should tell him it was no surprse I win guvner Sinclare with mine eyes blinded cause thats how I play the best. Mebbe I should tell that the guvner be so impressd he set me free and give me the walrus ivry chessbord for a gift. Mebbe I should tell that for a Englsh, the guvner was a trusting kind of man, the same as you, Jean Lalime. Mebbe I should tell mine frend these things, but I nevr do for that we go inside straitways to play the game.
Cathrin and Susanna are lookin afeard as deer by the door, and My littel Euladie tugs at mine cote, pointin at Kinzie man. I run mine fingers thro her goldish curls, and wisper that I hope them curls never go gray like mine. She repeatin to me the word she lernt, the first word she ever talkd, wich word be SNAG. I unnerstan. She tellin me go carefull of Kinzie man, that he like to a snag hiddn up ahead in the great rivr of life.
Lalime brung out the set of walrus ivry and counts evry peece and puts them in the propper place. And afore Kinzie put the blak stockin on me so tite my eyes cant take breth I lookin at that bord close for the last time and I see it in mine mind like a gloryous pikter, evry peece in its place and ready to move. And I smile for that in front of all the roylty and nobilty, the pawns awready skrapin there hoofs on the bord, ready to surprse that paleface Kinzie man like the pawns in the world, they always do brung surprse. For its the pawns of the 3rd rank that do the winnin, not the bishps or nites or castls, and they be the soul of chess, like we pawns be the soul of the world too, also.
Mine eyes go into the blakness. Lalime says that Kinzie’s made an Englsh open, wite pawn E4, so I tell him to move the blak pawn E6 wich is the French defense I use gainst guvner Sinclare and thats how we start, and this is a good sign because I know if there be any justce in the world, I wont nevr lose to Kinzie man.
Copyright © 2019 by Jonathan Carr Ltd.