Thursday, November 22, 2018

The 1711 French Settlement is the beginning of today's Peoria, Illinois.

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When I write about the INDIGENOUS PEOPLE, I follow this historical terminology:
  • The use of old commonly used terms, disrespectful today, i.e., REDMAN or REDMEN, SAVAGES, and HALF-BREED are explained in this article.
Writing about AFRICAN-AMERICAN history, I follow these race terms:
  • "NEGRO" was the term used until the mid-1960s.
  • "BLACK" started being used in the mid-1960s.
  • "AFRICAN-AMERICAN" [Afro-American] began usage in the late 1980s.


At what time the French commenced a settlement at Peoria has long been a controverted point on which history and tradition are alike defective. Some believe it began when René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (Sieur de La Salle is a title only: translating to "Lord of the manor.") built Fort de Crévecoeur in the year 1680, and from that time people continued to reside here.

Many claim the first Peoria location dates to 1691, when French soldiers, traders, and missionaries joined several thousand Illinois Indians as they moved from the Village of La Vantum to the Starved Rock area, 65 miles upriver. Add in all the French traders and soldiers who married Illinois Indians, creating a multi-cultural community. 

The Village of La Vantum, aka Grand Village of the Illinois Tribe (home to thousands of Indian residents), Fort St. Louis du Pimiteoui (serving as the administrative center for French military and traders), and the Mission of the Immaculate Conception (continuing the work begun by Father Père Jacques Marquette in 1673).
Others fixed the permanent settlement of the place in 1760 from an old letter in the possession of a descendant of an early pioneer and traditional accounts. It commenced at an early period.

Historians over the years have given this subject much attention, gathering up scraps of history relating to it and conversing with many of the descendants of the Peoria French, some of whom trace their genealogy back to the days of La Salle. By comparing these different accounts, it is shown conclusively that the settlement at Peoria commenced in the year 1711 and under the following circumstances:

In the summer of 1711, Father Marest, a Jesuit priest from Canada, preached to the Indians at Cahokia. By the force of his eloquence, many of them were converted to Christianity. Among these converts was a chief named Kolet from Peoria, who was visiting friends at the time in Cahokia. The chief prevailed on Father Marest to accompany him home to his village at Peoria Lake and proclaim salvation to his people. Late in November, the priest and chief, accompanied by two warriors, started in a bark canoe for Peoria, but after going ten leagues, the river froze up so that further progress by water was out of the question; therefore, the travelers hid their canoe, with most of their baggage, in the thick river timber, and continued their journey on foot.
Lake Pimiteoui, today's Peoria Lake.
They waded through snow and water for twelve days, crossing extensive prairies and through thick timber full of briars and thorns. Sometimes, crossing marshes and streams where the ice would give way, letting them into the water up to their necks. At night, they slept on dry grass or leaves, gathered from under the snow, without shelter or anything but their blankets to protect them from the cold winter blast. The provisions for their journey, as well as their bedding, were left with their canoe. Consequently, they were obliged to subsist on wild grapes and game killed. After many days of fatigue and exposure, their limbs frostbitten, and their bodies reduced in the flesh from starvation, they, at last, reached the village and, from the Indians, received a hearty welcome.

This Indian village (afterward called Opa by the French) was situated on the west bank of Peoria Lake, one mile and a half above its outlet. On La Salle's first visit to this place, thirty-one years before, he found a large town cordially received by the head chief, Niconope. This chief had long since been gathered to his fathers, and his place was occupied by Kolet, as referred to above.

Father Marest found quarters in an Indian lodge and remained in the village until spring without meeting with one of his countrymen. He preached to the Indians almost daily, many of whom embraced Christianity, and their names were afterward enrolled in the church book.

In the following spring, the French at Fort St. Louis established a trading post at Peoria Lake, and several families came there from Canada and built cabins in the Indian village. For fifty years, the French and half-breeds continued to live in the town with the Indians, and during that period, peace and harmony prevailed among them. But this town was abandoned for one that figured extensively in its day and is known in history as La Ville de Maillet.

In the summer of 1761, Robert Maillet, a trader of Peoria, built a dwelling one and a half miles below the town, near the outlet of the lake, and moved his family there. He called it La Ville de Maillet (the New Village). Here, the land rises gradually from the water's edge until it reaches the high prairie in the rear, forming a beautiful sloping plateau unequaled by any spot on the Illinois River. This locality for a town was considered preferable to the old one, with the ground being dryer, the water better, and it was considered healthier. Consequently, others came and built houses by the side of Maillet's.
The New French Village - La Ville de Maillet- is along the river in modern-day downtown Peoria. This substantial trading village was the site of Robert Maillet's fort, built in 1761, and then an American Fur Company post. The town was burned out by American soldiers in 1812, and the Americans built their own fort (Fort Clark) the following year.
The inhabitants gradually deserted the old town for the new one, and within a few years, the latter became a place of great importance.
Fort Maillet was built in 1761. The fort was located along the river in modern-day downtown Peoria.
No French lived in the old town after 1764, but for many years, it remained an Indian village, and the houses vacated by the French were occupied by the natives until they rotted down.

The new town took the name La Ville de Maillet (Maillet's village) after its proprietor and existed for fifty-one years. A fort was built on high ground, overlooking the lake on one side and the sloping prairie on the other. This fort consisted of two large blockhouses, surrounded by earthworks and palisades, with an open gateway to the south next to the town, and was only intended as a place of retreat in case of trouble with the Indians. The fort was never occupied except for a short time by Robert Maillet, who used one of the blockhouses for a dwelling and the other for the sale of goods. Some years afterward, Maillet left the fort for a more desirable place of residence and trade, and it remained vacant for many years, the enclosure within the stockades being used by the citizens in common for a cow yard. 

In 1820, Hypolite Maillet (a decedent), in testifying in the United States Court, in a snit brought on French claims, said that he was forty-five years old and was born in a stockade fort which stood near the southern extremity of Peoria Lake.
In the winter of 1788, a large party of Indians came to Peoria for trade and, by their former practice, took quarters in the old fort. They purchased a cask of brandy to have a spree. All got drunk, had a war dance, and, during their revelry, set blockhouses on fire, and they burned down.

When the Americans commenced a settlement at Peoria in the spring of 1819, 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. The line of earthworks could be traced out by the small embankments; in some places, pieces of pickets were found above ground. Back of the fort was the remains of a blacksmith shop, and nearby grew a wild plum tree. This plum tree was dug up by John Brisket, the owner of the land, and under it was found a vault containing a quantity of old metal, among which were several gun barrels, knives, tomahawks, copper and brass trinkets, etc. Among other things in this vault were silver and brass plates for inlaying gun stocks, ornamenting knife handles, etc. These things appeared to be the stock in trade of a gunsmith and, for some unknown reason, were buried here.

According to the statements of Antoine Des Champs, Thomas Forsyth, and others, who had long been residents of Peoria before its destruction in 1812, it's believed that the town contained a large population. It formed a link between the settlements of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Canada, and it is situated in an Indian country, making it an excellent place for the fur trade. At one time, it contained about sixty houses, besides many lodges occupied by Indians for part of the year. The town was built along the beach of the lake, and to each house was attached an out-lot for a garden, which extended back some distance on the prairie. The houses were all constructed of wood, some with framework and sided up with split timber, while others were built with hewed logs, notched together after the style of a pioneer's cabin. The floors were laid with puncheons, and the chimney was built with mud and sticks.

General Clark conquered Illinois and took possession of the settlements at Kaskaskia and Cahokia in 1778, after which he sent three soldiers with two French Creoles, 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 Nicholas Smith, who was later a resident of Bourbon County, Kentucky, and whose son, Joseph Smith (Dad Joe), was among the first American settlers at Peoria. Through this channel, we have an account of Peoria, which appeared over two centuries ago and agrees well with other traditional accounts.

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. In the back of the city were gardens, stockyards, barns, etc., and a wine press with a large cellar or underground vault for storing wine. A church with a large wooden cross rose above the root and gilt lettering over the door. There was an unoccupied fort on the bank of the lake, and close by it was a windmill 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 inhabitants consisted of French half-breeds and Indians, not one of whom could speak or understand English.
The Old French Village consisted of French settlers and was located near today's Detweiller Marina, 2 Caroline Street, Peoria. The American government recorded portions of the old properties and lot lines in the 1820s.
The inhabitants of Peoria consisted of French Creoles, emigrants from Canada, and half-breeds. Many intermarried with the natives, so their posterity at that time showed strong marks of Indian origin. They were peaceable, quiet, ignorant, superstitious, and influenced very much by the priests. They had no public schools, and few of them, except priests and traders, could read or write. Out of eighteen claimants for the land where Peoria stands, all but three signed their names with a mark. Among the inhabitants were merchants or traders who made annual trips to Canada in canoes, carrying thither pelts and furs and loading back with goods for the Indian market. Mechanics were among them, such as blacksmiths, wagon-makers, carpenters, etc., and most of the implements used in farming and building were home-manufactured. Although isolated from the civilized world and surrounded by savages, their standard of morality was high; theft, murder, and robbery were seldom heard of. They were happy, joyous people, having many social parties, wine suppers, and balls, living in harmony with the Indians, who were their neighbors and friends, and trading with them, they accumulated most of their wealth.

The French settled at Peoria without a grant or permission from any government, and the title to their lands was derived from possession only. But these titles were valid according to usages and a village ordinance, and lands were bought and sold the same as if patented by the government. Each person had a right to claim any portion of the unoccupied land, and his title was regarded sacred when in possession. Every settler had a village lot for a garden attached to his residence, and if a farmer, a portion in the common field.

On the prairie west of the town were extensive farms, all enclosed in one field, and each person contributed his share of fencing. The time spent securing the crops and pasturing the stock was regulated by a town ordinance. The boundaries of these farms could be traced out in the early settlement of Peoria, as the lands showed marks of having been cultivated. When a young man married, a village lot and a tract of land in the common field (if a farmer) were assigned to him, and it was customary for the citizens to turn out and build him a house.

The inhabitants of Peoria had extensive vineyards and each year made a large quantity of wine, much of which they traded to the Indians in exchange for furs. They domesticated the buffalo and crossed them with native cattle, which was found to improve the stock. These cattle could live during the winter without the expense of feeding, but while buffalo remained in the country, they lost many by straying off with the herd. The following summer, after the French were driven away from Peoria, a party of adventurers from St. Clair County came here and drove many of these cattle home. The inhabitants prized these cattle as they would winter on the American Bottom without feeding them. This cattle stock was known here for many years, and their hides were frequently tanned for robes.

For one hundred years after the French made a settlement in the west, they used no horses except Indian ponies, and for the first thirty years, cattle and hogs were unknown. Tradition says two young pigs were brought in a canoe from Canada to Fort St. Louis, and from these, hogs were raised to supply the settlements on the Mississippi River. At Cahokia, the settlers caught a number of buffalo calves and raised them with the expectation of domesticating them, but it proved a failure, for they went off with a herd of wild ones. It Is said when Crozat obtained a patent for the Illinois County in 1771, his agent, Colonel De Mott, employed two half-breeds to drive a herd of cattle through the wilderness from Canada to Kaskaskia, and from these originated the stock in the Mississippi Valley.

When a settlement was commenced at Peoria, the country belonged to France, afterward to Great Britain, and lastly to the United States. When Illinois came under British rule in 1756, Captain Stirling, commanding at Kaskaskia, sent a messenger to Peoria to notify them that they were British subjects. Afterward, when Illinois by conquest came under United States authority, they were again informed of a change in government, but they still remained French in feeling and sympathy. They claimed no allegiance to any government, paid no taxes, and acknowledged no law except their village ordinance. While these people were living in peace and harmony, being two hundred miles from the nearest point of civilization, they were attacked by an armed force, their town burned, and the heads of families carried off prisoners of War. There are many incidents related, showing that trouble existed at different times between the French and their Indian neighbors, among which are the following:

In the year 1781, a Frenchman killed an Indian with whom he had trouble, and for a time, the white population was threatened with destruction. A large party of warriors came to Peoria and demanded the murderer, but he could not be found, having fled down the river, as was afterward shown. But the Indians believed that the murderer was secreted by his friends, so they gave the French three days to deliver him up, and if he was not forthcoming at the specified time, they would burn the town. This caused a great panic; some fled for Cahokia, and others took quarters in the fort, but before the time had expired, the Indians were convinced that the murderer had fled. Consequently, pledges of friendship were renewed.

Again, in 1790, about five hundred warriors came to Peoria and demanded the surrender of a particular trader whom they accused of causing the murder of Pierre de Beuro but finally left without him.

It is claimed that four and seven forts and stockades were constructed along Peoria's waterfront between 1691 and the 1820s.
The remains of the 128 years between the 1691 Peoria settlement and the initial 1819 American settlers have only been found in a few areas. However, the precise locations of the Illinois Indian villages, the Jesuit mission, and various French forts are still unknown. The area outside the pre-1939 flood levels along the shoreline north and south of Detweiller Marina is undoubtedly the prime location for such remains.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

Peoria, Illinois History as Presented Today:
What has become Peoria and the surrounding area bears many remnants of Native Americans. Artifacts and Native American burial mounds show that people lived in the area as far back as 10,000 BC.

The French were the first Europeans to explore the area that would become Peoria in 1673. Father Père Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet explored the region, finding the Illinois Indians who were part of the Algonquian people. Those tribes that were part of the Illinois Confederacy then were the Peoria, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Cahokia, and Tamaroa.

In 1680, two French explorers, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (Sieur de La Salle being a title only), and Henri de Tonti, constructed the first fort on the east bank of the Illinois River and named it Fort de Crévecoeur. Eleven years later, in 1691, another fort was built by Tonti and his cousin, François Dauphin de La Forêt. It is believed the fort was near present-day Mary and Adams Streets. Called Fort Street  Louis II, it is also known as Fort Pimiteoui. The fort and the town established around it was the first European settlement in Illinois.

The settlement became legally British in 1763 after the French and Indian War but remained French. By 1778, the village had become part of the territory of the new United States, and George Rogers Clark appointed Maillet as a military commander. Robert Maillet established a new town, 1½ miles south of the old one. It later became known as "La Ville de Maillet" and was on the present-day site of downtown Peoria. The new village was considered better situated, and by 1796 or 1797, all the inhabitants of the old town had moved to the new location.

Peoria was incorporated as a town in 1835, with a population of about 1,600. In 1845, it was incorporated as a city.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Excellent article - thank you for posting. I´m a relative of Maillet (Malette in Canada).

  2. The history you presented about Peoria is very interesting. I read where my 4th great grandfather married his daughter Elizabeth to Samuel Miller in Peoria.


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