This is an updated reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Nov. 2013, before the launch of this weblog.
Drown’s Peoria city directory of 1844
By Jared Olar
While the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection primarily includes publications and documents pertaining to Pekin and Tazewell County, the collection also encompasses various items related to Illinois history and a broader genealogical interest, as well as reference materials, books and other documents that pertain to the history of nearby communities.
One of those books is a facsimile reprint of a fascinating relic of Peoria’s past – none other than Peoria’s very first city directory, “The Peoria Directory for 1844,” compiled and published by Simeon DeWitt Drown, town surveyor for Peoria.
Drown’s book usually would be of interest to students of the history of the city and county of Peoria, but as a contemporary document and record of one of central Illinois’ largest and most important community, it also would make interesting reading for anyone with central Illinois roots or who might simply be curious to glimpse everyday life and business in the Midwest or Illinois during the middle of the nineteenth century. It would be another 17 years after the publication of Drown’s directory before Pekin’s first city directory would be published.
As Peoria’s town surveyor, Drown was a natural choice for author and editor of a city directory. His skills as a printer, engraver and mapmaker also suited him to the task he had assumed. He came to Peoria from New York in 1838, and in January 1844 his residence and place of work were in a house at the southeast corner of Franklin and Adams streets.
In those days, Peoria was still a small settlement, especially by modern standards – Drown’s personal census counted only 1,619 people, almost all of them living and working in an area close to the river bounded by Liberty, Perry and Green streets.
However, the small city was then a boom town, and Drown noted (boasted?) in his preface that “during the last year, . . . upwards of fifty buildings were erected, and nearly all of a permanent material, — brick or stone.” For those reasons, Drown said, “Peoria ought now to be the seat of government of the state,” mentioning that there had recently been efforts in the Illinois General Assembly to fix the state capital at Peoria. Drown thought his town would make an idea capital since it was almost as centrally located as Springfield and, Drown predicted, would soon surpass Springfield in population.
Besides the compilation of residents, businessmen and professions that were the chief reason such old directories were prepared, Drown also collected and wrote essays for his directory on Peoria’s history. Peoria shares its earliest historical roots with Tazewell County and the cities and villages of Pekin, Creve Coeur and East Peoria which line the Illinois River nearby. Thus, in Drown’s directory, his “History of the Town Down to the Present Time” naturally commences with the adventures of the French explorers Marquette, Joliet and La Salle.
Drown’s historical sketch includes lengthy excerpts from the journals and recollections of the early French explorers, and Drown also reproduced two early maps of the area of Lake Pimiteoui (Peoria Lake) showing the ephemeral Fort Crevecoeur. One of the maps Drown identified as “a fac simile of Hennepin’s map so far as it describes this region of country,” while the other is a facsimile of a map of our area from Daniel Coxe’s 1722 volume, “Coxe’s Carolana,” based on memoirs of Dr. Daniel Coxe, an English physician who made his own explorations of the Illinois River around 1698.