Long after French explorers first traveled up the Illinois River, the town of Peoria was officially established in 1835.
In the summer of 1818, when the Illinois Territory was advancing toward becoming the 21st state in the union, there were no Americans living along the shores of Lake Pimiteoui in the area that would eventually become Peoria. During the War of 1812, members of the American militia had burned parts of the French village located along the river, stretching from Liberty to State Street. The French inhabitants were arrested and forced to abandon their homes, farms, livestock and trading operations. None of the French ever returned.
The following year, in 1813, American military forces returned to the Lake Pimiteoui site and constructed Fort Clark at the foot of Liberty Street. When the Native Americans living in the vicinity of Fort Clark recognized that the British had been defeated in the war, they negotiated a peace treaty with the Americans, and a relative calm settled on the river valley. The American military maintained troops at Fort Clark for only a few years; once it was abandoned, the Native Americans quickly set torch to it, burning it almost completely.
Thus, there were no Peoria delegates to the Illinois Constitutional Convention during the summer of 1818. The convention completed a constitution on August 26, 1818—the date shown on the state seal—and submitted it to Congress for consideration. In November, both the U.S. House and the Senate approved the Illinois constitution, and on December 3, 1818, President James Monroe signed the resolution approving Illinois statehood.
1819: The First American Settlers Arrive
It was not until the following spring—when the vast majority of the 40,000 people residing in Illinois were still celebrating the new status of statehood—that the first group of hardy American settlers arrived at the burned-out remains of Fort Clark on April 15, 1819. They had been living in the St. Louis area and had heard stories about the beauty and abundance of the central Illinois River valley from members of the military who had been stationed at the fort.
One of these seven settlers, Josiah Fulton, was only 19 years old when the group arrived at Peoria. He lived here for the next 75 years before passing away in 1894 at the age of 94. Fortunately, in his later years, Fulton recounted in detail how and why those first seven settlers arrived in Peoria.
Several months later, in June 1819, the family of Abner Eads, one of the first seven settlers, arrived in Peoria, including his wife and three children. The second family arrived the following year, in 1820. The father, Douglas Thompson, was a shoemaker, but the family found the living conditions quite primitive and departed after only a few years.
1821: New Residents and a Ferry
By 1821, a ferry began to operate between the east and west sides of the river, and the first school classes were organized and taught. Josiah Fulton reported that the first school teacher was Peter Grant, whose classes varied between four and a dozen pupils, evidence that the small village was attracting new residents.
In 1823, John Hamlin, who had been appointed and commissioned as a justice of the peace, established the first factory in the small village, producing chairs. A year later, he built the first modern framed structure in the village, which stood at the corner of what is now Main and Perry streets. The first hotel in the growing community was also established in 1824.
1825: Peoria County is Born
On January 13, 1825, in response to the growing population of settlers along the shores of the Illinois River, the Illinois State Legislature created Peoria County. At the time, the new county included, for administrative purposes, all lands north of Peoria to the northern state line, thereby including both Chicago and Galena. The overall territory was sparsely populated, with just 1,236 residents reported in the entire region. In the organizing meeting for Peoria County, held at the house of William Eads on March 8, 1825, there were only 66 votes cast in the election that elected the initial county officers.
The following year, the newly-elected county commissioners employed surveyors to lay out the quarter section of land put aside by the legislature for the county seat. William S. Hamilton, son of Alexander Hamilton, was hired and paid a total of $58.75 to complete the survey of 147 acres. He paid tribute to his distinguished father by designating the broad street that parallels Main Street and borders the Courthouse Square as Hamilton Boulevard.
The new county seat proved to be a natural center for all types of commerce. The first steamboat, The Mechanic, arrived in 1827. The thriving village extended its boundaries and began to take on a prosperous appearance for a frontier settlement. By 1830, this settlement consisted of 21 log cabins and seven frame houses. On March 1st of the following year, Illinois passed legislation under which the village of Peoria was allowed to incorporate as a town.
1832: The Black Hawk War
Before the residents of Peoria could act on this new opportunity, the celebrated Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk and his band of followers crossed the Mississippi River from Iowa back to their traditional homelands in Illinois near the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi rivers. In response to the incursion, Illinois Governor John Reynolds summoned a militia. The volunteers who initially assembled at Beardstown included a future president, Abraham Lincoln, and the conflict became known as the Black Hawk War.
As the army regulars and militia chased Black Hawk’s band up the Rock River valley toward Wisconsin, the residents of Peoria were busy preparing a defensive position for the village. Some sources state that a “Peoria Guard” was organized that attempted to rebuild Fort Clark; others report that a new fortification was built more centrally located in the village, further from the river. The Black Hawk War lasted only four months and was a devastating tragedy for the Sauk tribe. It effectively ended any significant conflict between the Native Americans and settlers in Illinois.
1835: From Village to Town
With the Black Hawk War concluded, the still-unincorporated village of Peoria began to be transformed from a frontier settlement into a progressive town. In 1833, its first physician, Dr. Rudolphus Rouse, arrived on horseback from New York. By the following year, the first newspaper, The Illinois Champion and Peoria Herald, was being published and a courthouse was under construction, as was a county jail.
Court disputes concerning land titles filed by the former French residents also delayed the people of Peoria from moving forward to incorporate the village. Finally, enough progress had been achieved in resolving the land claims, that on July 18th in the summer of 1835, a vote was taken and the village was duly incorporated as a town. Five men were elected as trustees: Rudolphus Rouse, Chester Hamlin, Rufus P. Burlingame, Charles W. McClallen and Isaac Evans. Later that same day, the five trustees elected Rouse president, and as Evans declined to serve, they elected Cyrus Leland in his place.
Five days later, the trustees met at the store of Rufus Burlingame and elected Leland as clerk. At the same time, they appointed Burlingame treasurer and passed a resolution that the town’s boundary should embrace an area of one square mile. And so, 162 years after the French explorers Marquette and Joliet first traveled up the Illinois River, the town of Peoria was officially established in 1835. iBi
Mark Johnson is president of the Peoria Historical Society Board of Directors.