Settlers pour into Peoria and Tazewell counties

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, March 2, at 11 a.m., the Pekin Public Library will present the third video in its Illinois Bicentennial Series in the Community Room. The video that will be shown is 34 minutes in length and is entitled, “Farming in Tazewell County During the ’30s and ’40s,” presented by Tom Finson. Like last month’s Finson video, it includes vintage film footage from around the county. Admission is free and the public is invited.

For the pioneer settlers of central Illinois, farming wasn’t merely a business, but was crucial for a settler family’s survival. Our column this week recall the first of the post-War of 1812 settlers in our area.

The summer before Illinois was admitted as the 21st state of the Union in 1818, a territorial census counted 40,258 souls living in the soon-to-be state – but the new state’s population rapidly increased over the next decade. Up to that time, American settlers in Illinois had come chiefly from southern states and had settled almost exclusively in southern Illinois.

But with the dawn of statehood a new wave of migration arrived, in which settlers from southern Illinois began to move north, joined by newcomers from states north of the Ohio River. These new arrivals to central Illinois came up the Illinois River or overland from southern Illinois to Fort Clark (Peoria) and its environs – and as we shall see, these newcomers included William Blanchard and Nathan Dillon, names prominent in early Tazewell County history.

As we saw previously, American soldiers built Fort Clark in 1813 on the ruins of the old French village of La Ville de Maillet, which Capt. Thomas Craig had burned the year before during an Illinois militia campaign meant to warn the Indians of Peoria Lake not to ally with Britain during the War of 1812 (but which likely had the opposite effect).

In relating the story of Craig’s burning of the French village, S. DeWitt Drown’s “Peoria Directory for 1844” says (italics as in original), “Capt. Craig excused himself for this act of devastation, by accusing the French of being in league with the Indians, with whom the United States were at war; but more especially, by alledging (sic) that his boats were fired upon from the town, while lying at anchor before it. All this the French have ever denied, and charge Capt. Craig with unprovoked, malignant cruelty.”

Craig’s accusation that the French Americans of Peoria Lake were in league with Indians hostile to the U.S. was based on the fact that the French not only lived peaceably with the tribes of the area, but even sometimes intermarried with them. But the tribes of Peoria Lake had declined to join Tecumseh’s confederacy and were considered to be friendly until the unprovoked attacks of Territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards and Capt. Craig.

The destruction of La Ville de Maillet essentially ended the French phase of the European settlement of central Illinois – afterwards only the French fur traders of Opa Post at the present site of Creve Coeur were left in the area. The early historians of Peoria and Tazewell counties tended to disparage the early French settlers of central Illinois, even to the point of claiming that they weren’t really settlers at all. For example, Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” described the men and women of Opa Post in this way:

“These French traders cannot be classed as settlers, at least in the light we wish to view the meaning of that term. They made no improvements; they cultivated no land; they established none of those bulwarks of civilization brought hither a half century ago by the sturdy pioneer. On the other hand, however, they associated with the natives; they adopted their ways, habits and customs; they intermarried and in every way, almost, became as one of them.”

Chapman’s comments reveal that his disparaging appraisal of the French fur traders was due not only to disdain for the social class and lifestyle of a fur trader, but also the pervasive racist bias against Native Americans that spread westward with American expansion. Other influences included the age-old enmity between England and France that stemmed from the medieval Hundred Year’s War, with religious estrangement and animosity between Protestants and Catholics also thrown into the mix.

Those same attitudes toward the Indians and the French were also exhibited by Charles Ballance in his 1870 “History of Peoria.” In his history, Ballance argues at length that the French Americans of La Ville de Maillet were culturally and socially greatly inferior to the Americans of British origin who supplanted them, finding fault with the style of the homes they built and even denying the reports of the village’s former inhabitants that their settlement included a wine cellar and a Catholic church or chapel. Maybe behind Ballance’s common ethnic, racial, and social disdain for the Indians and French, there was an uneasy conscience over the fact that the city of Peoria of Ballance’s day only existed because the French settlement had been wiped out in 1812.

The construction of Fort Clark at the site of the French village in 1813 planted the seed of the present city of Peoria, for a new village quickly grew up around the fort (the site is today Liberty Park on the Peoria Riverfront, at Liberty and Water streets). According to Chapman, the fort itself burned down five years later. But in 1819, one year after Illinois statehood, the pioneer founders of Peoria arrived: Joseph Fulton, Abner Eads, William Blanchard (1797-1883), and four other men, who had traveled by keelboat and on horseback.

The next few years saw the arrivals of even more settlers. In 1825 the state legislature created Peoria County, which originally covered a large area of central and northern Illinois, including the future Cook County and the soon-to-be formed Tazewell County. Ten years later, Peoria was officially incorporated as a town, and by 1845 Peoria was large enough to incorporate as a city.

Three years after William Blanchard’s arrival at Fort Clark, he and a few companions crossed Peoria Lake to present-day Fon du Lac Township in Tazewell County, building a dwelling and growing crops south of the future Woodford County border. Here is how Chapman told the story of Blanchard’s earliest pioneer activities:

“Wm. Blanchard, Jr., is a native of Vermont, where he was born in 1797; left that State when seven years of age, and with his parents went to Washington Co., N. Y., where his father, William, died. When seventeen years of age he enlisted in the regular army, and took an active part in the war of 1812, serving five years, when he, with Charles Sargeant, Theodore Sargeant and David Barnes, veterans of the war, started West, coming to Detroit, Mich., thence to Ft. Wayne, whence they journeyed in a canoe to Vincennes, thence to St. Louis. From there they came up the Illinois in a keel boat manned by a fishing crew, and commanded by a man named Warner, and landed at Ft. Clark, now Peoria, in the spring of 1819.

“Crossing the river to what is known as the bottom lands they found a cleared spot, and with such tools as they could arrange from wood put in a patch of corn and potatoes. This land is now embodied in Fond du Lac township. Looking farther down the stream they found, in 1822, an old French field of about ten acres, on which they erected a rude habitation, and soon this soil was filled with a growth of blooming corn and potatoes. This was the first settlement between Ft. Clark and Chicago, and was the first dwelling erected. The site is now covered by the fine farm of Jacob Ames.”

In this map detail from an 1873 atlas of Tazewell County, the farm of Jacob Ames —
designated on the map as land owned by “Rachael Ames” — is shown in Sections 11 and 12 of Fondulac Township, around the area of Grosenbach Road. William Blanchard’s “rude habitation” is said to have been built in 1822 on land that later was included in the farm of Jacob Ames.

One year before Blanchard came to the future Tazewell County, North Carolina native Nathan Dillon (1793-1868) brought his family overland from Ohio to Sangamon County, first dwelling on Sugar Creek south of Springfield. Dillon then struck out north, arriving in the future Tazewell County in 1823.

Dillon has traditionally been called Tazewell County’s first white settler, but he arrived here a year after Blanchard and long after the Frenchmen of Opa Post. The confusion arose from the haste with which Chapman’s 1879 Tazewell County history was compiled and edited – Chapman didn’t learn that Blanchard preceded Dillon until the printing of his book was underway, so Chapman’s book at first states that Dillon was the earliest, then later on corrects and apologizes for that error. The monument at Dillon’s grave erroneously pronouncing him the county’s first white settler stems from Chapman’s mistake.

But regardless who was first, Blanchard and Dillon both possessed pioneering courage and grit, paving the way for many others who were soon to follow.

Next week we’ll review the story of the creation of Tazewell County.

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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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The French settlement of Peoria Lake

By Jared L. Olar
Library assistant

French colonists were the first Europeans to settle in the Illinois Country – including the future Tazewell and Peoria counties. The Illinois Country passed from French to British control in 1763, and then to American control in 1783. However, as we have seen in our review of the early history of our state, regardless of which national government claimed the lands of the future state of Illinois, they remained a sparsely populated area, inhabited chiefly by Native American tribes and relatively small groups of French colonists.

During the Revolutionary War, Britain’s attention was fixed upon its rebellious colonists in eastern North America, which gave George Rogers Clark of Virginia the opportunity he needed to capture the Illinois Country for his home state in 1778-1779 – with the help of Indian tribes and French colonists.

It was against the background of Clark’s Illinois Campaign that a group of French colonists and fur traders in 1778 established a village on the west shore of Peoria Lake – the area of the broadening of the Illinois River known to the native tribes as Pimiteoui. The village was located about where an Indian village had been in the days of Marquette and La Salle and afterwards. The site had also been the location of a French fort named Fort St. Louis du Pimiteoui, built by Henry Tonti in 1691, but a French presence was not continuous from Tonti’s day until Clark’s Illinois Campaign. The village of 1778 was the predecessor of the present city of Peoria.

Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 193, briefly tells the story of this village in these words:

“The next attempt to settle this section of Illinois [after La Salle’s expedition] was made at the upper end of Peoria lake in 1778. The country in the vicinity of this lake was called by the Indians Pim-i-te-wi, that is, a place where there are many fat beasts. Here the town of Laville de Meillet, named after its founder, was started. Within the next twenty years, however, the town was moved down to the lower end of the lake to the present site of Peoria. In 1812 the town was destroyed and the inhabitants carried away by Captain Craig. In 1813 Fort Clark was erected there by Illinois troops engaged in the war of 1812. Five years later it was destroyed by fire.”

The French predecessor of the city of Peoria is more accurately spelled “La Ville de Maillet,” meaning “Maillet’s village.” According to Peoria Historical Society records, the town’s founder was a French trader named Robert Maillet, who built a cabin for himself and his family near the outlet of Peoria Lake in 1761. The small village that grew up around Maillet’s cabin moved upriver to the future site of Peoria in 1778, growing to become a town and flourishing as a trading link between Canada and the French settlements on the Mississippi until the War of 1812. During that war, the town was destroyed in an attack that American militia forces of the Illinois Territory launched against the Indian tribes around Peoria Lake. Although the townsfolk were U.S. citizens, they were taken prisoner and carried off to southern Illinois – but a few returned after the War of 1812.

Shown is an artist’s conception of La Ville de Maillet, predecessor of the city of Peoria, as it may have appeared on the eve of its wanton destruction by Illinois Territorial militia during the War of 1812. Tazewell County’s first permanent settlers of European descent included refugees from the sack of La Ville de Maillet. ILLUSTRATION BY KAY MARSHALL-SMART COURTESY OF THE PEORIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Nehemiah Matson’s 1882 book “Pioneers of Illinois” includes the following eyewitness descriptions of La Ville de Maillet:

“In 1820 Hypolite Maillet, in his sworn testimony before Edward Cole, register of title land-office at Edwardsville, in relation to French claims, said that he was forty-five years old, and born in a stockade fort which stood near the southern extremity of Peoria Lake. In the winter of 1788 a party of Indians came to Peoria to trade, and, in accordance with their former practice, took quarters in the fort, but getting on a drunken spree they burned it down. In the spring of 1819, [when] Americans commenced a settlement here at Peoria, the outlines of the old French fort were plain to be seen on the high ground near the lake, and a short distance above the present site of the Chicago and Rock Island depot. . . .

“According to the statements of Antoine Des Champs, Thomas Forsyth, and others, who had long been residents of Peoria previous to its destruction in 1812, we infer that the town contained a large population . . . The town was built along the beach of the lake, and to each house was attached an outlet for a garden, which extended back on the prairie.

“The houses were all constructed of wood, one story high, with porches on two sides, and located in a garden surrounded with fruit and flowers. Some of the dwellings were built of hewed timbers set upright, and the space between the posts filled in with stone and mortar, while others were built of hewed logs notched together after the style of a pioneer’s cabin. The floors were laid with puncheons, and the chimney built with mud and sticks. When Colonel Clark took possession of Illinois in 1778 he sent three soldiers, accompanied by two Frenchmen, in a canoe to Peoria to notify the people that they were no longer under British rule but citizens of the United States.

“Among these soldiers was a man named Nicholas Smith, a resident of Bourbon county, Kentucky, and whose son, Joseph Smith (Dod Joe), was among the first American settlers of Peoria . . . Mr. Smith said Peoria at the time of his visit was a large town, built along the beach of the lake, with narrow, unpaved streets, and houses constructed of wood. Back of the town were gardens, stock-yards, barns, etc., and among these was a wine-press, with a large cellar or under-ground vault for storing wine. There was a church with a large wooden cross raised above the roof, and with gilt lettering over the door. There was an unoccupied fort on the bank of the lake, and close by it a wind-mill for grinding grain. The town contained six stores or places of trade, all of which were well filled with goods for the Indian market.”

The destruction 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, setting up a trading post and small settlement near the Illinois River in what was to become Tazewell County.

Next week we will review the story of that French trading post.

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Pieces from Creve Coeur’s past

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in April 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .

Pieces from Creve Coeur’s past

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Among the books in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection are a few histories of local communities in or near Tazewell County. Of that sort of publication, one recent addition to our collection is Vivian Higdon’s 116-page “Pieces From Our Past: Creve Coeur 1680-1998,” a gift to the library from Tyler Chasco. This week we’ll look back at Creve Coeur’s past with the help of Higdon’s book.

As noted in this column about a year ago, Creve Coeur is best known for its ties to Fort Crevecoeur, which was built by French explorer Rene Robert Chevalier de La Salle in January 1680. Consequently, Creve Coeur can boast a history much longer than any other Tazewell County community.
That’s not to say that the modern Village of Creve Coeur has an unbroken history tracing back to 1680, of course. It was not until May 5, 1921, that community voted to incorporate as the Village of “Crevecoeur.” Later, as Higdon explains, Mayor Carroll Patten in 1960 petitioned to have the official spelling of the village changed to “Creve Coeur,” because he believed “Crevecoeur” was a misspelling.

The village’s name was chosen because it included the site that traditionally was believed to be where La Salle’s stockade fort had briefly stood. Others doubt they had correctly identified the fort’s location, and Dan Sheen of Peoria in 1919 offered compelling arguments that the correct spot was a site in what is today East Peoria. Despite the contending theories of historians and archaeologists, the story of Fort Crevecoeur is integrally connected with Creve Coeur’s history and heritage, which is commemorated through Fort Crevecoeur Park and the events held there each year.

Prior to the incorporation of Crevecoeur, the community was known as Wesley City, an unincorporated settlement on the Illinois River which was first platted in 1836. An echo of the name of Wesley City lingers on in the name of Creve Coeur’s Wesley Road that tracks the riverfront. With the shifting of the Illinois River over the years, however, most of the streets of the original Wesley City are today submerged.

This detail from the 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell County shows Wesley City, former name of Creve Coeur. Most of the streets shown on this map are now under water.

This detail from the 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell County shows Wesley City, former name of Creve Coeur. Most of the streets shown on this map are now under water.

Wesley City had grown up near the site of an old French trading post which was built around 1775, nearly a century after La Salle’s ephemeral fort. Among the French Catholic fur traders who lived and worked there were Toussant Tromley and Louis Buisson (or Besaw), “both of whom were well-known to some of the pioneers” of Tazewell County, according to Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 history of the county.

The trading post at Wesley City, located about three miles south of the Franklin Street Bridge, carried on a prosperous business with the Native Americans and white settlers until Pekin and Peoria established themselves, after which the old fur trade dwindled away. Also called “Opa Post” or Trading House, the log building was the home over the years to several French families, some of whom took Native American wives. When 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.

In the meantime, a Methodist preacher named Phillips and a few other settlers built a grist and sawmill near the trading post, which led to the founding of the community that they named Wesley City, after the Methodist leader John Wesley. Around that same time, the Rusche family arrived in Illinois from Alsace-Lorraine and settled in Wesley City. Over the generations, the Rusches had a prominent role in the development of their community, and their place in the history of Wesley City/Creve Coeur is commemorated with the naming of Rusche Lane.

#creve-coeur, #fort-crevecoeur, #opa-post, #preblog-columns, #vivian-higdon, #wesley-city