Tazewell County’s first European settlers

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, Feb. 2, at 11 a.m., the Pekin Public Library will present the second video in its Illinois Bicentennial Series in the Community Room. The video that will be shown is “Tazewell County Memories 1932-1970,” presented by Tom Finson. It includes vintage film footage from around the county, including Pekin. Admission is free and the public is invited.

Our column this week is also about “Tazewell County Memories” – but these memories are much older than the 20th century, for they reach back to the late 1700s and early 1800s, the time when the first permanent European settlers arrived in the lands that would become Tazewell County.

Taking up again our review of the early history of Illinois, let us resume the story of the French colonization of the Illinois Country where we left off last time – with the Illinois Territorial Militia’s destruction of the town of La Ville de Maillet, predecessor of the city of Peoria, during the War of 1812.

To understand why La Ville de Maillet was destroyed by an American militia and its inhabitants – who were all American citizens mostly of French ethnicity – were forcibly carried from their land, one would need to learn about the formation and early history of the Illinois Territory. We will begin to look at those crucial events of our state’s “prehistory” next time, and instead turn our attention to the immediate aftermath of La Ville de Maillet’s destruction.

As we commented before, the end of La Ville de Maillet was not the end of early French settlement in our area, for several of the French former inhabitants of La Ville de Maillet returned to Peoria Lake after the war. There, at a spot near the Illinois River in what was to become Tazewell County, in the area where Fort Crevecoeur had briefly existed, they maintained a trading post and a small settlement – located about three miles south of where the Cedar Street Bridge is today.

The French called it “Opa Post,” but it is often remembered simply as “Trading House.” In a newspaper article entitled “First American Settlers Here Found Trading Post Inhabited by the French” (printed in the Oct. 15, 1933 Peoria Journal-Transcript), Illinois historian Ernest East wrote, “Evidence indicates that Trading House was founded shortly before 1818 when the American Fur company established an agency there.”

On the other hand, Chapman’s 1879 Tazewell County history, pages 193-194, stated that Trading House may have been around as early as the 1780s or 1790s:

“During the period from the time Laville de Meillet was founded in 1778, or at least after it was moved to the lower extremity of the lake, French traders had a regular established trading post on the Illinois near the site of old Fort Crevecoeur. They carried on an extensive commerce with the neighboring Indians, buying their furs with notions. At this business they became quite wealthy.”

Whenever Opa Post was established, it was certainly already in existence before Illinois became a state in 1818. Consequently, despite Chapman’s absurd (to us) assertion that, “These French traders cannot be classed as settlers,” there can be no question that Opa Post holds the historic title of being the first permanent European (“white”) settlement in what was soon to become Tazewell County. The French trading post dwellings and nearby burying ground were the seed from which Wesley City (today Creve Coeur) would later grow.

This diagram, drawn by Illinois historian Ernest East for a talk he gave in the 1930s, indicates the location of the old burying ground used by the inhabitants of the French Trading House in present day Creve Coeur that predated Illinois statehood. East examined the site on April 20, 1937. IMAGE COURTESY CHRISTAL DAGIT

Here is Chapman’s description of Trading House and its inhabitants:

“The ‘old French trading post,’ by which name it was known, remained at Wesley City for almost a quarter of a century after the first settlers came to the county. A large log building, about 30 by 60 feet in size and 10 feet high, was their principal store-house. Mr. B. F. Montgomery tells us that he visited the place in 1836, and in this building found a very large stock of skins and furs, which they told him were worth in their present state $2,000. The collection contained the covering of almost every animal of any value from the weasel to the buffalo. The principal traders at this point during the early settlement of the county were Tromly and Besau, both of whom were well known by some of the pioneers. These French traders had lived, traded and intermarried with the Indians until there were many half-breeds throughout the neighborhood. They were quiet, peaceable people, and treated the settlers with the neatest kindness. Besau died at the old post many years ago. Tromly went to Kansas in 1844. The former had married an Indian squaw and reared a large family. One of his daughters, Mary Besau, who is said to have been quite beautiful and her personal appearance and bearing graceful, was married to a man by the name of Anderson. About the year 1845 he moved to Kansas, where, near Leavenworth, he resided when last heard from by any Tazewell county people.”

The French trader “Besau” was Louis Buisson, a former inhabitant of La Ville de Maillet, while “Tromly” was Buisson’s brother-in-law and colleague Toussant or Trousoint Tremblay, whose wife Archange Ouilmette was a daughter of Francois Shobonnier, a Pottawatomi chief. The trading post carried on a prosperous business with the Native Americans and the early pioneers of Tazewell County until Pekin and Peoria established themselves, after which the old fur trade dwindled away. The main log dwelling at the post was the home over the years to several Frenchmen and their families, some of whom, as Chapman said, took Native American wives (Buisson’s wife also was a Pottawatomi, a sister of Archange). After the State of Illinois expelled all the Indians after the 1832 Black Hawk War, some of these intermarried French-Indian families left Tazewell County and accompanied their Native American kin to reservations in Kansas.

According to Ernest East’s 1933 article, Buisson was so well known in this area that the stretch of the Illinois River between Peoria and Pekin used to be known as Bee-saw Lake. Along with other former inhabitants of La Ville de Maillet such as Trading House residents Antoine Bourbonne, Francois Bourbonne, and Antoine Deschamp, Buisson is a notable figure in the early history of both Tazewell and Peoria counties.

“Old Buisson owned a log cabin in the village of Peoria after [Peoria] county was organized,” East wrote. “In 1827 Buisson rented this cabin to the county for use as a court house. He likely purchased the property from Joseph Ogee, who earlier rented a cabin to the county.”

Further on in his article, East supplemented Chapman’s account with the information that Buisson’s daughter Marie or Mary “became the wife of John Anderson. Records of Tazewell county show they were married December 14, 1833, by Justice of the Peace Amasa Turner. The bride’s name is spelled ‘Besaw’ in the record.”

Further information about Marie Buisson Anderson is found in Sept. 26, 1904 letter by Pekin pioneer James Haines, who said “Mary Besaw was greatly [admired] or famed for her beauty and education [which she] obtained in a Convent of the Catholic Church of America, whether at St. Louis or Kaskaskia or farther west, I can’t recall.” Continuing further, Haines wrote, “Mary often visited with my sisters at my father’s cabin home, 3 miles south east of Pekin. Was gay, sprightly, French in fashion, and conduct, but spoke English well and was an agreeable associate with the young folks . . .”

East also noted in a historical report that Mary and her husband John were among the founders of Wesley City, their signatures appearing among the “proprietor” plat-holders on the original plat map of the town filed from a survey taken Sept. 5-6, 1836, about a year after Mary was listed on the property tax rolls for Tazewell County for lands in Section 1 of Pekin Township.

Tazewell County’s old French trading post which predated Illinois statehood apparently endured until the 1840s. It is uncertain when Old Buisson died at Opa Post, but the post apparently did not long survive his death, and his daughter Mary and his colleague Tremblay joined their kin and friends on Indian reservations out west in 1844-45 – only a few years before Pekin became a city.

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