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FRENCH PEORIA: a New Inquiry

by John F. Swenson, © 2011, all rights reserved.

Peoria, a city on the Illinois River, is the seat of Peoria County. Its name was originally Pimiteoui, an Illinois word referring to the abundance of fat (pimi) wild game there, particularly at the shallow south end of Peoria Lake. The name Peoria, from the Peouareoua Indians first encountered there by Marquette in 1673, probably means `dreamer`, from the Illinois word peouara, "he dreams," as recorded at Peoria about 1696 by the Jesuit missionary Jacques Gravier in his manuscript dictionary. The first European settlement was La Salle’s Fort Crevecoeur, built in January 1680, but destroyed by his deserting employes in August of that year. Father Membré, his chaplain, recorded the meaning of Pimiteoui. Fort St. Louis de Pimiteoui was built by Tonti in 1691, when the French abandoned Fort St. Louis des Illinois at present Starved Rock. This fort stood among the Indian settlements at the south end of the lake, on a slight elevation on the east bank near the outlet; various French forts occupied this site, described by Patrick Kennedy in 1773, until the last of the occasional French garrisons was withdrawn in 1763 and the fort was burned. Peoria was until after 1790 a trading and farming outpost of Cahokia, some 150 miles to the south, and the French inhabitants were mostly residents of Cahokia, Vincennes and other permanent communities.

Until 1784 southern Illinois was part of Virginia, up to the 41st degree of latitude, under its 1609 royal charter; this line crosses Peoria Lake several miles north of the present city. In 1778 Virginia created Illinois County, following the conquest by George Rogers Clark’s Virginia militia. The Illinois country was well known in the populous East, whose traders and land speculators had been there since about 1765 under British rule. French traders, settlers, priests and missionaries had established villages along the Mississippi, principally Cahokia and Kaskaskia, starting shortly before 1700. Some of these French had trading posts and farms at Peoria, but the villages on the Mississippi and Vincennes were where they had their homes and churches and did their military duty. The Illinois economy was based on furs and foodstuffs exported to Montreal and New Orleans: Peoria was a source of furs, horses and cattle for the most part. It was in the heart of Indian-controlled territory, and almost constant depredations by the natives made this outpost a hazardous place to live, even for French people with Indian blood and families. While regular censuses were taken in places like Cahokia and Vincennes, and churches provided religious and community centers, none was taken at Peoria; it was never more than an outpost until after 1790, except for a few brave people who lived near the French fort when it was garrisoned. The French of Peoria had their churches, law courts and families elsewhere. When the American Revolution ended in 1783, Virginia had enormous debts accumulated since Clark’s conquest. There was little money to pay the accounts owing the Illinois people who had, largely under duress, financed the Virginia occupation. A major part of the resolution of these debts was the plan for Virginia to cede its claims to Illinois lands to the United States, which would then sell them, along with other public lands, to pay the national debts and the state debts which the federal government had assumed. The United States, of course, had to "extinguish" Indian titles to these lands by treaties before it could sell them to its citizens.

Recognizing that the mostly French inhabitants of Illinois and Vincennes had not only helped finance Virginia’s conquest but had built valuable communities, the authorities who drafted Virginia’s 1784 deed of cession knew that their claims must be dealt with. The deed of cession thus reserved the "possessions and titles" of these ancient inhabitants. Significantly, neither the deed of cession nor the Congressional acts of 1788 and 1791 which authorized land claims for these residents (few of whom could produce a valid deed to their habitations) mentioned Peoria as a place where people had "possessions and titles." The official language of these documents specifically mentions Vincennes and the Illinois settlements along the Mississippi which were well known permanent communities, but deliberately omits Peoria. Peoria as a strategic location was well known; British authorities had wanted to build a new fort there in 1767 and 1768, and the Treaty of Greenville forced the defeated Indians to grant the United States a six-mile square tract at the southern end of the lake in 1795. The U.S. War Department in 1796 proposed to build a fort there, a plan finally realized in 1813 with the erection of Fort Clark, at the height of the War of 1812.

The 1787 ordinance creating the Northwest Territory, which included Illinois, also recognized the claims of the settlers. Arthur St. Clair became governor, and he visited the area in 1790 under specific instructions from President George Washington. One of St. Clair’s duties was to make lists of people who had been residents and declared themselves to be citizens of the United States or Virginia in 1783, when the war ended, and of men who were members of local militias in 1790 which he was expected to organize during his visit. These lists were a means of identifying those settlers who were eligible to claim lands under the laws of 1788 and 1791. None of these 1790 lists, nor additional ones made from 1795 to 1797, mentions Peoria, although some men who were at Peoria occasionally, like Jean Baptiste Maillet (christened Mallet in 1749) of Vincennes, or Louis Chatellereau of Cahokia, who farmed there, were listed in the communities of their residence or militia service. Peoria was abandoned during the Revolution, and people began to return in 1784, well after the 1783 date for eligibility. It should be noted that [see] Jean Baptiste Point de Sable, who lived at Detroit and Chicago during this period, is not mentioned in any of these lists. The 1800 census of Indiana Territory mentions in a footnote that there were "100 souls" at Peoria, but Maillet, an experienced Indian agent who had extensive conferences with St. Clair at Cahokia in May and June of 1790, was one of about ten men encountered at Peoria earlier in May by the respected trader Hugh Heward. Maillet had just come to Peoria from his home in Vincennes where his daughter Veronique was married in April. Heward met no families at Peoria. Clearly Governor St. Clair knew that Peoria was not a permanent, settled community in 1783 or 1790. In fact, he appointed Maillet a captain in the militia, not of St. Clair County, which was based at Cahokia, but of Knox County, which had headquarters at Vincennes where Maillet and his family lived. Maillet, who had been a judge of the Vincennes court in 1788, was to be stationed at Peoria, which was in Knox County. As captain of the Knox militia, he was basically a peace officer and Indian agent; in case of Indian troubles, he was instructed to send to Cahokia for help. Maillet’s Peoria, where he had been a trader and from 1779 to 1780, militia captain under Virginia authority, was what is now called East Peoria, at the south end of the lake but on the east bank of the Illinois River. St. Clair made this portion of the river part of the northern boundary of Knox County, presumably after consultation with Maillet who had just come to Cahokia from there. This is where Heward had just visited several French "settled among the Indians" there. Louis Chatellereau’s farm was on the west bank of the river, just outside the newly created Knox County.

Peoria began to grow slowly after 1790. In 1796 two distinguished travellers, Father Levadoux of Detroit and General Collot of France, found some 15 or 20 very poor French families there. In 1792 Chatellereau mortgaged his farm equipment, livestock and personal belongings, including his Indian slave "Pointe Sable," but no real estate, to the trader Gabriel Cerré of St. Louis; the document was drawn up and signed in the presence of Maillet, "commandant" of Peoria and recorded at Vincennes, the seat of Knox County. When Chatellereau died in 1795, his estate, again not including the land, was probated in the Knox Co. court at Vincennes. Michel Lonval of Cahokia was the administrator and signed the inventory; he acknowledged the assistance of two residents of Peoria.

About this time, real estate speculators began buying up the land claims of the old French settlers along the Mississippi, most of whom had left the chaotic Illinois country for Spanish Louisiana across the river, settling in places like St. Louis and St. Charles. These claims were bought for a few dollars and frequently sold and resold for about ten years, until in 1804 the United States finally set up a land office at Kaskaskia to evaluate the rights created by Congress for citizen-residents of 1783 and militia members of 1790. Chaos reigned, however, because there were few land title records, even of the occasional valid deed. To compound the confusion, Governor St. Clair’s lists of eligible claimants had disappeared and could not be found in Illinois. The two land office commissioners, Jones and Backus, moved to Kaskaskia in 1804 and began to receive enormous numbers of written claims. Their rules of evidence were fairly casual, and they began to suspect that many of the claims were fraudulent, filed on behalf of people who did not exist for example, and supported by affidavits of suspicious origin often created by unscrupulous speculators and sworn to before corrupt judges. When these beleaguered commissioners began to make inquiries of the local people with personal knowledge of land occupation and usage, they were unable to speak French, the language of their witnesses. They hired a local bilingual trader to interpret for them, but this man, William Arundel, turned out to be another speculator and fabricator of false documents. They allowed many claims which turned out to be fraudulent, and had to reverse themselves when they were tipped off to the schemes of the land-jobbers. Among the miscreants whom they exposed in their 1809 report to Washington was Judge Robert Reynolds, who had taken many false affidavits from witnesses, some of whom turned out to be imposters. They excoriated him and his son [see] John Reynolds, who was punished ultimately by being elected governor of Illinois in 1830, and then a member of Congress in 1834, the year the Jones and Backus’ report was published.

Two of the most ingenious speculators and fabricators of fraudulent claims were the lawyer Isaac Darneille and the trader Nicolas Jarrot. President Thomas Jefferson had enough bad experiences with Darneille, a bold political operator as well, to label him "an unmitigated dissipated swindler" in 1803. These two men presented huge numbers of claims, many of which the commissioners, even under the handicap of inadequate or false information, flatly rejected. Despite their vigilance, the commissioners were not able to expose every fraud or imposition that had been worked on them. To make matters worse, Washington ignored their requests for a copy of St. Clair’s missing lists, and the first copy of their report, which detailed the detected frauds of speculators, was stolen from the mail.

Among the many claims Jones and Backus rejected were those originating largely with Darneille and Jarrot for lands supposedly settled at Peoria. The basis for their original rejection, in addition to lack of proof, was that Peoria was not mentioned in the Congressional acts authorizing claims. By about 1806 they had decided not to proceed with these dubious Peoria claims, but the well-connected Jarrot had other ideas. Probably in league with Darneille, bluntly characterized by Jefferson as a "swindler," he concocted a largely fictitious memorial to Congress on behalf of mostly imaginary Peoria residents (few of whose names appear in St. Clair’s lists for any place) asking that the laws be amended to include Peoria claims. Jarrot signed most of the names himself for both real people (like the illiterate Point de Sable, a Chicagoan from 1784 to 1800, and since 1800 a resident of St. Charles) and fictitious ones. He even faked a "mark" of Michel Lonval, whose florid signature appears on his inventory of Chatellereau’s estate. It is interesting to note that in 1809 Lonval prepared the inventory of Jean Dumoulin of Cahokia, in which he listed a promissory note of Point de Sable as "desperate," meaning uncollectible. The only legitimate signature on this memorial other than Jarrot’s was probably William Arundel’s, who like Jarrot put his name to a document in which they posed as residents of Peoria, when in fact they lived in Cahokia and Kaskaskia respectively. Congress received this unsupported document in February 1807, and in 1809 amended the law to allow the consideration of the Peoria claims, ignoring the clear evidence gathered on the spot by Governor St. Clair a few years earlier. The role, if any, of Jarrot’s contact in Washington is not known.

The Jarrot-Darneille memorial and Congress’ gullibility in accepting it opened a floodgate to a host of fraudulent Peoria claims, which has left behind a severely tainted historical record which has seduced practically every historian of Peoria. From 1807 to 1815 and beyond, Jones and Backus and their successors struggled to dismiss the claims of the importunate and well-connected speculators. Finally in 1815, in a report (published in 1834) which has eluded the scrutiny of Peoria historians, they abdicated the decision to Congress, which had allowed the farce to occur with its 1809 amendment. The land office commissioners wisely recommended, however, that if Congress were to allow any of these dubious claims at Peoria, the award should be made only to the original settler or his heirs; the law of April 1816 adopted their suggestion and allowed claims only by the settler or his "legal representative." This discouraged the speculators, who abandoned their spurious Peoria claims. The only Chicago resident who could have benefited from the unlikely granting of such a claim was [see] Jean Baptiste Point de Sable, who has been documented as living elsewhere than Peoria in the period of eligibility, 1783 to 1790, and who was in 1815 living in poverty and hounded by creditors in St. Charles, Missouri Territory. He never received a dime, and died destitute in 1818. This was a proper result, however, because Point had never lived at Peoria, despite Darneille’s spurious claim that he had, under a fictitious 1773 British "grant" from Maillet which he never produced and would have been illegal if it had ever existed. In any event, Jones and Backus concluded that no valid British land grant had been presented to them.

Reliable documentation of Peoria history began to reappear in 1813, in the aftermath of Captain Craig’s destruction of Peoria and the mass deportation of most of its residents, including the Indian agent Thomas Forsyth, the stepbrother and partner of Chicago’s [see] John Kinzie. By 1817 Forsyth and a few former French residents of Peoria, still living in exile in the Missouri Territory, had begun to persuade Congress to reimburse them for their losses of buildings and personal property. They did not claim any lands, probably because they could not assert ownership within the six-mile square tract owned by the United States. Congress responded, not by reimbursing them, but by passing a law in 1820 for the relief of Peoria settlers, basically Craig’s victims, providing for a new land claim process. Hearings were held at the land office at Edwardsville, and some 70 claims were presented, most of them supported by the testimony of witnesses appearing before the commissioner, Edward Coles. The published report of these proceedings pointedly observes that the French settled at Peoria without any claims of title (the vernacular would label them squatters), and sold only their improvements, not the land; it sheds considerable light on Peoria history from 1765 to 1812. However, it would be unwise to accept this record at face value.

Central to the testimony of all witnesses was the story, inconsistent with earlier documents, that the original French fort and village had been located on the west bank of the river, more than a mile north of the outlet of the lake, where in fact Heward had found only Chatellereau in 1790. The well-rehearsed story was that about 1778 the villagers, unhappy with the poor quality of the stagnant river water supposedly existing there, moved downstream to the outlet of the lake, where Maillet built a fort as the nucleus of the new Ville de Maillet. In fact, the river at both sites was deep and fast-flowing; the water quality could not have been an issue. Further, there is no independent documentation of a fort at Peoria from 1763 to 1813; a British plan to destroy a fort at Peoria in 1779 or 1780 was cancelled because witnesses including Pierre Durand, Point de Sable’s associate, had said there was no fort there. The witnesses occasionally contradicted each other as to who had lived where, but they were all in agreement that they and their ancestors and predecessors had always lived along the west bank of the river, either in the "old" or the "new" village.

There is, however, considerable evidence, from 1691 to 1816, that the French fort and the preponderance of settlement were at the south end of Peoria Lake, on the east bank of the river. Perhaps by 1820 this old location was no longer fashionable, because none of the claimants whom Coles heard claimed lands in this area. A study of the topography and hydrography of the area, in a section of the highly detailed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1902-1904 map of the Illinois River, helps elucidate the issue of where people lived. There was a gently sloping prairie over a mile deep at the south end of the lake, with very shallow water extending several hundred feet from shore, a condition likely to produce the stagnant water supposedly at the "old" village. From this pleasant site the entire surface of the lake was visible. From the west bank for several miles north of the outlet, however, the view was more limited; the river bank was steep and high, at the edge of a deep and fast-moving river, with a narrow, flat table land at the foot of steep hills. Liette, describing conditions in the 1690s (which changed little until the river was dredged about 1904) remarked that at times the southern shoreline was so crowded with wading animals browsing on aquatic vegetation that it was difficult for a small boat to reach the shore. There is no place along the entire west bank shallow enough to produce this phenomenon of abundance, reflected in the name Pimiteoui, which Father Membré in 1680 learned meant "plenty of fat beasts here." In 1816 Richard Graham (brother of [see] George Graham), the new Indian agent at Peoria, had complained to his superiors about these shallow, stagnant, grass-choked waters fronting the place in the actual "old" village of Peoria where he was ordered to set up his post. He thought a location on the west bank would be better, much as the French of 1778 had concluded when they began to move across the river, not downstream as the story had been recast by 1820. Patrick Kennedy’s description of the south shore site of the fort, the ruins of which he visited in 1773, mentions the "summit" on which the fort had stood. His description does not fit any site on the west bank; his "summit" was probably a low triangular hill, perhaps the remains of a French construction project, within gunshot range of the river outlet, which the fort was built to control. Kennedy also remarked on the view of the entire lake available from this location. There were always a few settlers on the west bank before 1800, of whom Chatellereau is the best documented, but the south shore location was much more defensible, liveable and accessible both by water and by land. French Peoria was not at the site of the present city, but along the Illinois River about two miles below the southern outlet of Peoria Lake. The site of the present city was in fact a native village until it was destroyed by American troops in 1813. These facts were commonly known until 1820 when Congress, enacting a bill introduced by Senator Ninian Edwards, authorized proceedings at Edwardsville which defied history and placed the French habitation at the city site. This fabrication soon became known as La Ville de Maillet, which seems to have been the informal name of the old French place. This late fiction has largely foreclosed further inquiry.

Thomas Hutchins’ map of 1778 shows an “old Piorias Fort and Village” there, a clear reference to a long period of native and not French presence. This map also places an “old Piorias Wintering Ground” further down the Illinois River, a usage which confirms this interpretation. Hugh Heward of Detroit, a frequent traveler along the Illinois and prominent seasonal resident of Cahokia, left a well-known narrative of 1790 which places a native village at the southwest part of the lake, and the presence of Frenchmen, including Jean Baptiste Maillet, below the outlet of the lake called Le Petit Detroit. This narrow strait was about a league, or 2.4 miles, long, a unique feature which was a major determinant of early settlement patterns in Illinois. Maillet, in an extensive 1790 interview with Winthrop Sargent, the Secretary of the Northwest Territory, unambiguously placed Peoria below Le Petit Detroit.

American troops fought battles with the native inhabitants who had fled their numerous wooden huts in 1813 above Le Petit Detroit while the short-lived Fort Clark was being built in its midst. They found two or three abandoned French buildings there in the native village. They chose a site for the fort in a village of people hostile to American expansionism, and not the site downstream which had long been occupied by mostly French people from a country which had been an important ally during the Revolutionary War. Hutchins’ omission of the more significant French presence near Le Petit Detroit is one of the matters which have led to more than two centuries of confusion about the location of French Peoria. American settlement of the present site of the city of Peoria began only in 1819 after the destruction of Fort Clark.

Contemporary documents, particularly of the 18th century, make it clear that the French establishment, anchored by a series of modest forts at the mouth of Le Petit Detroit, the Little Detroit, in what is now East Peoria, was most likely on both banks of the river ranging from the mouth of this narrows to about present Wesley. In fact the East Peoria post office founded there in 1833 was originally called Little Detroit. Heward definitely placed eight Frenchmen, including Maillet, whom he encountered “settled among the Indians” on the south or west bank of the river in May of 1790 below the little strait. The Kaskaskia trader Patrick Kennedy in 1773 reported the ruins of a fort at the present Peoria site which was the “old Piorias Fort and Village” noted by Hutchins. This fort probably had been replaced by a small fort built by the French trader de Cary at the request of the Peorias in 1748, near the outlet of Le Petit Detroit, but the native village remained at the present city site until 1813.

Fort Crèvecoeur, built by La Salle in January-March of 1680 and quickly and easily destroyed by mutineers about April 15th of that year, was at the mouth of this strait, a strategic location for forts because, as La Salle noted, the main current was within half a musket shot [about 50 yards] from the shore. Thus traffic on the river could be easily controlled from the east bank of the river. The last of these structures was visited by the traveler Hamburgh in the summer of 1763, who noted that, as La Salle knew, this place was the head of navigation “for Large Sloops” on the river. The fort was abandoned by French forces under Toulon and his token force of about five soldiers soon after this visit. In subsequent years it was known as “the old Peoria fort,” which has long produced confusion with Hutchins’ “old Piorias Fort and Village” on the site of the present city, because it was not clearly identified as the French fort.

Pierre Potier, the Jesuit priest from 1747 to 1781 at present Windsor, Ontario, was an avid collector of information and documents and obtained two detailed travel descriptions of the river route from Ft. St. Joseph at present Niles, Michigan, to Cahokia. The author of these narratives seems to have been a trader named Charleau or Charlot, possibly Charlot Chevalier, who mentioned his own habitation along the upper Kankakee. The features of the Illinois River were named as he traveled downstream. He traveled on “lac Pimiteoui” or Peoria Lake, which was six leagues long, then entered Le Petit Detroit, passed “le fort des Pés” or “les Pés” and then the Gatineau River, present Kickapoo Creek. From the mention of a fort of the Peoria people, it is possible to date this account to about 1748, when the trader de Cary built a small fort at the request of the Peorias, who wanted some control over the often predatory conduct of other traders. De Cary was their trusted adviser and representative in their dealings with the French. This fort seems to have been garrisoned by French troops from 1751 until 1763.

A previously unpublished and generally unknown manuscript recording the observations of Jean Baptiste Maillet, the leading figure of French Peoria until his murder in 1801, was written by Col. Winthrop Sargent, the Secretary and sometime acting governor of the Northwest Territory in the summer of 1790. Maillet gave details of features along the Illinois River and elsewhere, and noted that near the old Peoria fort below the little strait there were “17 Frenchmen,” as opposed to the nine men, including Maillet, named by Heward. Sargent had appointed Maillet captain of the Knox County militia at Peoria. He had served there in a similar, seasonal capacity since at least 1778, when he was also appointed an officer of the Vincennes militia under George Rogers Clark. Governor Arthur St. Clair, after interviewing him in April of 1790 about the strategic importance of this location, seems to have understood that there were only five French families. These discrepancies confirm the fluctuating and seasonal, rather than permanent, occupancy of French Peoria by people whose homes and families, as recorded by Sargent in 1790, were mostly at Vincennes and Cahokia. Maillet and his family were enumerated in the 1787 census of French people at Vincennes, and by Sargent as a resident and landowner of Vincennes in 1790, where he was a prominent citizen. Significantly, Sargent did not attempt to enumerate inhabitants of Peoria because he knew it was not a permanent settlement. “La Ville de Maillet,” widely believed to have been established by Maillet in 1778 at the present city site is a fiction not supported by contemporary evidence. It was in fact near Le Petit Detroit.

St. Clair proposed to the Secretary of War that river traffic could be easily controlled by musket fire from the river bank at this very narrow portion of the river. The main current, he reported in agreement with La Salle, was about 50 yards from the eastern bank. This measure would have been impossible at the present city site, where Peoria Lake was nearly a mile wide, a fact which made Fort Clark useless for this purpose during its brief existence. Sargent had just established Knox County, the boundary of which in this area ran up the channel of the Illinois from present Pekin almost to Chicago, thus including present Tazewell County and East Peoria while excluding the site of the present city on the west bank.

Why Fort Clark was so poorly situated is not understood. The army of several hundred American soldiers who built it at the site of a native village must certainly have known that only a league, about two miles, downstream was an old French settlement, begun about 1691, which had been largely but not completely destroyed in the previous year. Howard may have been under orders not to disturb this ancient community. Although in early November of 1812 an Illinois militia unit under Capt. Thomas Craig had destroyed most of the French village and taken many of the occupants down to the Mississippi River, there were still French people, such as Louis Buisson, on this site. One can imagine that the leaders of Howard’s army, who were under orders to deal harshly with the native population, had no scruples about destroying their village and its occupants. The entire expedition was under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Howard, who had been governor of Missouri until he was commissioned to this rank by the United States on March 12, 1813. His lack of military experience might have been a factor in his choice of this obviously inappropriate site. The first detachment of American troops came from the forts at Portage des Sioux, which Howard and General Bissell had built in April to protect St. Louis. These soldiers would have known much about the old Peoria, especially from people displaced from there in the previous year.

Nobody in St. Louis was more knowledgeable than Howard, who had been in constant communication with Forsyth. He might have hesitated to dispossess people of French descent, in whose midst there had lived Forsyth, whose extensive property and trade goods had been destroyed or stolen in this 1812 raid. Forsyth was a secret Indian agent of the American government who regularly reported from Peoria to governors Ninian Edwards of Illinois and Howard of Missouri as late as September, 1812. Craig did not know this, but Howard did, and he may have been reluctant to order a fort built near Forsyth’s property. Forsyth had great influence in the area since his arrival in 1806. His trade records created there survive and show extensive business dealings with natives and Europeans at Peoria and St. Louis. He had been living at St. Louis since Craig’s impetuous attack and would have continued his association with Howard, who also lived there. It is surprising that Forsyth was not a part of the forces which built this fort, although he must have provided intelligence about Peoria to Howard. He returned to Peoria in late May of 1814 on a diplomatic mission to the natives along the Illiinois River for Governor Edwards. He wrote letters from Fort Clark to both Edwards and Howard. He was there until the middle of August and certainly would have visited the site where his trading post had been.

In claims presented to Congress in 1813 for damages caused by Craig, former residents of Peoria including Forsyth and Racine detailed their considerable losses. These monetary claims were ultimately disallowed, and the 1820 act conceived by Edwards and guided through the Senate by him and Sen. Jesse B. Thomas, and in the House by Daniel Pope Cook, proposed to compensate Peoria inhabitants with land instead of money. While they did not give the location of their Peoria village, it seems fair to conclude that this area below the Little Detroit was the location of French Peoria. Craig did not destroy a native settlement; that was done by American soldiers under Edwards in October of 1812 and again in 1813 when they burned the wood of the natives’ huts in their campfires. He asserted that his boats were attacked by natives firing from a French habitation, the native settlements having just been destroyed by Edwards, which was his justification for the destruction he wrought. Shortly before this he had visited with the occupants, including Forsyth, whom he characterized as the commander of the place.

Taken together these documents strongly suggest that the Peoria land claims of 1804 to 1820 were almost entirely fictional, and in effect created an imaginary French settlement at the former native village on the present site of the city. The largest number of claims was made pursuant to a May 15, 1820 act of Congress, originated in the Senate by Ninian Edwards, which was designed for the relief of Peoria residents who suffered losses in the savage 1812 raid by Capt. Thomas Craig. The 70 vaguely described claims of 1820, when closely examined, place dozens of French traders and farmers and their families at the present city site in 1790, in sharp contrast to the reports of Maillet and Heward and the official censuses which suggest a merely seasonal occupation near Le Petit Detroit. The sole witnesses to these assertions were the claimants themselves and their friends.

Edward Coles, the future governor of Illinois who presided over these proceedings at Edwardsville, seems not to have called and examined independent witnesses who might have exposed the falsity of this entire scheme. Coles was a man of conscience and an ardent abolitionist, so it is curious that he conducted hearings which were based on the false premise that French Peoria was on the site of the present city. Edwards, who as a Senator from Illinois had introduced the Congressional bill under which Coles acted, certainly knew that this premise was false, for he had led a raid on the native villages there in 1812, probably including the village at the present city site. Coles heard little testimony placing any French people at the correct site, which suggests that there had been a decision at high levels of government to choose this fictional location. It could be expected that there would be no testimony opposing this foregone conclusion.

Coles had been appointed Register of the land office at Edwardsville by President Monroe in January of 1820, where his principal duty was to deal with land sales and ownership. His colleague there was Col. Benjamin Stephenson, a fellow Virginian and Edwardsville resident, who as Receiver of Public Money handled the large sums of money tendered in payment of land transactions. Edwardsville was the most important land office in Illinois and perhaps in the country. Coles might have acquired much information about Peoria from two sources who also lived in Edwardsville Township a few miles southeast of his home on Indian Creek in the northwest corner of the township. One source was Ninian Edwards, who had been governor of the Illinois Territory from 1809 to 1818 and was elected United States Senator in 1818. He had extensive knowledge of the state and had specific knowledge of the Peoria area from his command of a militia raid against natives there in late October of 1812, in which they burned several native villages. This raid took place just before Craig’s attack from the 5th to the 9th of November. He also had constant communication with his confidential Indian agent there, Thomas Forsyth. A near neighbor of Edwards was Jacques Metté, a trader and interpreter of the native languages in several Indian treaties with the United States who had lived there from 1801 until Craig’s raid in 1812. Metté was the principal witness in 1820 to the occupancy of several claims, most of which he testified were in the old native village site, and not at the actual location where he lived, below Le Petit Detroit. He claimed ownership of city site Lots 14 and 15, having acquired them as a successor of Maillet in 1801 and having been removed by Craig in 1812. Coles’ unquestioning acceptance of the evidence given by Metté and other improbable testimony, much of it in the form of depositions of absent witnesses and unsupported by documentation, suggests that he was committed to acceptance of all these improbable assertions. There is no evidence that he challenged Metté, whose extensive testimony was inherently incredible. Coles was a man of conscience and an ardent abolitionist, so it would be surprising that he consented to this entire scheme, unless he was under instructions to comply with claims and testimony contrary to the well-known facts. Edwards, Forsyth and Metté were longtime associates and had all participated in four Indian treaties negotiated at Portage des Sioux, Missouri in 1815 and one at St. Louis in 1816. Metté was the sole interpreter at the Edwardsville treaty of 1819 with the Illinois Kickapoo, at which Edwards was present.

Coles’ earlier career for six years [1809-1815] as confidential secretary and principal political operative to President James Madison had exposed him to major figures and issues of government. He regularly delivered the official messages of the President to Congress, including his appointment of Josiah Meigs to be head of the General Land Office in October of 1814. He had inherited a plantation and slaves in Virginia, but wanted to live in free territory. He visited the Northwest Territory and St. Louis in the autumn of 1815 and traveled widely in search of a new home. By 1816 he had decided to move to Edwardsville Township in Madison County, Illinois, but at that time President Madison sent him on a delicate diplomatic mission to the Tsar of Russia. After successfully conducting his assignment he returned by way of Berlin and Paris, where he was warmly accepted into French society and was introduced to King Louis XVIII. Upon his return to the United States he was a participant, along with Edwards and Stephenson, in the Illinois constitutional convention held at Kaskaskia in 1818, and had considerable knowledge of the new state. He freed all his slaves at Pittsburgh in 1819 while moving to his new home. He would have been aware of the report of land claims in the Kaskaskia land office, beginning in 1804, which was finally received at Washington in December, 1810 detailing both valid and fraudulent claims. These included five for lands at Peoria, which were rejected for lack of proof and because they were alleged to be on the west side of the river in what became Peoria County and outside the jurisdiction of the Kaskaskia commissioners. This problem was solved by an 1809 act of Congress adding the questionable area to the jurisdiction of the Kaskaskia land office, and by the creation of the Edwardsville office in 1816.

The 1820 claims tellingly do not mention a church or Catholic mission, a glaring deficiency for a purported French settlement. The religious needs of the Catholic population were supplied by occasional visits from priests settled at Kaskaskia, Cahokia and elsewhere from 1768 to 1796 and beyond. It has never been explained why Congress looked favorably on these claims, first made to it in 1813, for properties which were obviously in the Military Bounty Lands appropriated by that body in 1816 to reward veterans of the War of 1812. Twenty-two patents, or deeds, of lands in present Peoria County were issued at Washington to former soldiers in 1817 and 1818, two of them within the limits of this imaginary French village. Coles admitted that most of these claims were within the bounty lands. This fact seems not to have bothered Congress when, after extensive debate, it approved these claims in 1823, which were in derogation of the national grants to veterans. He and Stephenson, as highly placed officials of the national government responsible for the bounty lands, would have been familiar with the entire subject. Several hundred land patents had been issued at Washington in 1817 and 1818 for the bounty lands under their jurisdiction. Few veterans actually settled on the lands awarded to them, but they sold their properties to speculators who registered their titles at Edwardsville.

It is reasonable to infer that these Peoria claims were contrived for locations in an abandoned native village, to avoid conflict with the potential truthful claims of any undeclared French interests. Perjury and forged documents were a common feature of land claim proceedings, and hundreds of outrageous examples were forcefully brought to the attention of Congress as early as 1810. Perhaps Coles became interested in the prospect of living in Illinois at this time, when he was secretary to President Madison.

The very arrangement of the new Peoria would have aroused the suspicion of Coles. The imaginary grid of streets and blocks in Peoria cannot have been a feature of this frontier French trading village. Old French riparian villages such as Kaskaskia, which Coles knew well, were characterized by typical “long lots,” fronting on a river. Access to these vital travel routes was absolutely necessary to a population which favored rivers and lakes over land routes, which were usually hazardous because of constant hostility of the native population. But many Peoria claims were for lots behind roads and riparian tracts with no direct access to the river. A street supposedly ran along the bank of the river. The fact that Coles never declared any of these claims to be false would have been out of character for him if their acceptance had not been generally decided in advance.

Strong evidence of the falsity of these claims is found in Claims 4 and 6, based on habitation by Louis Chatellereau from 1778 to his death in 1795 in this place. His estate was administered at Vincennes, the seat of Knox County, in 1795, because he lived in that county on the east bank of the river. The local boundary of this county, established in 1790, was the Illinois River. It is difficult to believe that the son’s contrary testimony was not perjured. Louis fils was about 10 years old when Heward visited Peoria. Heward, who knew Chatellereau well during his years of seasonal residence at Cahokia, definitely located him near the lower end of the Little Detroit in 1790.

Another example was that of Thomas Forsyth, the trader who established himself at Peoria in 1806 as a partner of John Kinzie of Chicago. He falsely claimed Lots 7 and 8 which, according to witnesses in 1820, were near the outlet of Peoria Lake. These witnesses said under oath that in 1790 these tracts had been occupied and cultivated by Maillet until he was killed there in 1801, and that Forsyth was among the many occupants of Peoria who were forced to abandon their property in 1812 by the raid of Thomas Craig of the Illinois Militia. Heward unambiguously placed a native village where Forsyth made this claim, and found Maillet in 1790 on the south side or west bank of the river downstream from Chatellereau who was at the mouth of the Little Detroit some two miles below the outlet of the lake.

Curiously, an 1806 petition to Congress by several inhabitants of “the village of Peoria,” in whose names many 1820 and earlier claims were presented, stated that it was on the “north side” of the river, clearly in present East Peoria, where the river runs easterly for about a mile from the mouth of the Little Detroit, after which it resumes its southerly course. Forsyth was not one of these petitioners, because his establishment was on the “south side” of the river; his unpublished trade records from Peoria show that he was there in 1806 without specifying his exact location. About this time a claim [Number 122] was presented at Kaskaskia by Nicolas Jarrot for lands at Peoria occupied by Jean Baptiste Point de Sable, the founder of modern Chicago. Point de Sable was one of the petitioners of the 1806 document created by Jarrot, who falsely described himself as also a resident of Peoria. The commissioners hearing the claim rejected it for lack of proof. An entry in Forsyth’s records suggests that Point de Sable moved to St. Charles, Missouri in the autumn of 1806, where his presence has been documented until his death in 1818.

Fortunately for the present inquiry, however, there were five claims, Numbers 9, 32, 35 38 and 53 in which it was credibly asserted that there was French occupancy on the banks of the Rivière Gatineau, later called Kickapoo Creek, about one league or two miles below the imaginary French village on the actual native village site. These lands were on the west bank of the Illinois in present Peoria County and were where Heward found eight of the nine French occupants in 1790, including Maillet. Because the river runs easterly from the outlet of the Little Detroit, this bank of the river was Heward’s “south” bank of the small “lake” formed by the widening of the river as it left the narrow strait. One of these men was a blacksmith, who practiced a trade which was vital to any frontier habitation. Two others were engagés, which shows that they worked for a trader, probably Maillet, who was established there. In Maillet’s 1790 report to Sargent, he specifically stated that to travel to the great Sac village near present Rock Island, one first crossed the “Kartinoo” River, which suggests that he lived on the south bank of that stream, and confirms Heward’s account of finding him there. These were fairly large tracts, which almost certainly were farmed by Thomas Forsyth, François Racine and others, in 1812 when Craig destroyed Peoria. Metté was a witness to Forsyth’s claim to Lot 9, to which Forsyth moved in 1806, which may be the only time Metté testified truthfully.


The real growth of Peoria began about 1818, after the War of 1812. Peoria was the effective county seat for Chicago from 1825 to 1832. Both places grew rapidly from that time on, but by 1850 Chicago was far larger and has so remained to the present day.

[PRINCIPAL SOURCES: 9, 10a, 101, 259, 456, 470, 656a]


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