By Judith A. Franke
From the Introduction…
Many histories of Illinois begin at statehood, a little more than 150 years ago, when Americans—mostly of British descent—settled the area. These histories often ignore or only briefly touch upon the 150 years before that time, when the Illinois Country was explored and settled by the French. In commemoration of the three-hundredth year of European settlement at Peoria, this book is concerned with the little-known first half of its history.
Peoria was first the southernmost part of New France, then the northernmost part of the French Colony of Louisiana, and finally the westernmost part of the newly formed United States. It is interesting, therefore, that in the perception of many Americans today, Peoria is the quintessential middle American town.
French interests were dominant at Peoria for well over a hundred years, from the time the first French explorers came up the Illinois River in 1673 until the first “American” settlers began to move into the area in about 1815. A small French presence persisted for a time on the east bank of the river but was gone by about 1846. Today only faint echoes of French Peoria survive in the street plan of downtown Peoria, and int he name of the occasional street, school, or hotel meeting room—”Joliet,” “Marquette,” “LaSalle.”
The French were not only gone from Peoria by the mid-19th century, they were forgotten by most Peorians and historians. Over the years, however, there were a few who persisted in the search for Peoria’s French past. Several people became involved in the subject through their work on historical articles for the Peoria Journal Star or through involvement with the Peoria Historical Society. The most prominent of these was Ernest E. East, who was long associated with both organizations. For many years East collected information on French Peoria from widely scattered sources. He published a number of important journal and newspaper articles but never a complete synthesis of his findings. His valuable pamphlet listing the known inhabitants French Peoria published in 1933 is reprinted here with the generous permission of his family (Appendix VII).
A brief glance at the pages that follow will show that this book was not written chiefly with scholars in mind—there are no footnotes. It is, on the other hand, the surprising end-product of a proposal that I made to the Dickson Mounds Museum Staff in 1989 to produce an exhibit on the French and historic Indians of Illinois in conjunction with the Peoria Tricentennial celebration which was to begin in 1991. We felt that an exhibit on this theme would not only be timely but useful to the museum since we know very little about the subject. Developing the exhibit would provide us with material to present to the public on a topic we had previously neglected in our interpretive programs.
Illinois State Museum Society, 1995