Ninian Edwards played a major role in creating Peoria as an American city. Illinois’ first territorial governor, he helped us become a state and write our state constitution, served as one of our first senators, and was later elected our third governor. But Edwards’ relationship with the Native Americans of the Peoria area was less than admirable.
As more and more Americans were tumbling over the Appalachian Mountains and pouring down the Ohio River to settle the Northwest Territory, the tribes of the east were reluctantly and violently being pushed further to the west. This caused great hardship and conflict among the tribes of this region.
As territorial governor, it was Edwards’ responsibility to defend the settlers from frequent attacks from the Indians. Remote cabins were often burned. Women and children were brutally mutilated. There was genuine fear in the hearts of Illinois’ early pioneer families. Edwards felt it was his duty to protect his fellow citizens.
He and Missouri Territorial Governor William Clark held council with the tribes and admonished them to cease these depredations against the white settlers. He sent a representative to Peoria to demand the tribes turn over the young men who had committed these crimes. In all of his speeches, there is an overt patronizing tone, often calling the tribesmen “Oh, my children….” When he did not get what he demanded, and sensing that the British were stirring the Native Americans to make war against our new nation, Edwards decided to take the offensive and attack the village around Pimiteoui.
His intention was the removal of all Native Americans from the territory, though his speeches repeatedly state he “seeks to live in peace” with them. Some might argue all is fair in love and war, but Edwards’ orders were in effect the same crimes he complained against. His men burned homes and killed women and children. Most egregiously, he not only burned villages along the way to his attack on Peoria, but made the extra effort to burn crops—so there was no food for the winter—and dig up and destroy seed corn—so there was no sustenance for the future.
When he met with Gomo, the Potawatomi chief whose village was near Chillicothe, Gomo chided Edwards, asking where justice was for his people. He asked about the white men who had murdered Indians and told how he was fired upon when he went to meet with Edwards and Clark for a peace treaty. Edwards’ response was to push the Potawatomi and all of the tribes from the Peoria area and order the construction of Fort Clark to defend the settlers.
This fort was the foundation that became our city on the shore. iBi
Brian “Fox” Ellis is a local historian and storyteller who portrays Ninian Edwards in a first-person monologue. For more information, visit foxtalesint.com.