Fort Clark Constructed at Peoria in 1813

Just over 200 years ago, the small village at Lake Pimiteoui, which was to grow into today’s city of Peoria, was gradually adjusting to life as a part of the new nation of the United States.

On February 3, 1809, Congress had established the Territory of Illinois, which included all of modern Illinois, Wisconsin, the upper western peninsula of Michigan, and northeastern Minnesota, as shown in the map below. Ninian Edwards, Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals in Kentucky, was appointed by President James Madison as the governor of the new territory, and he served in that position until Illinois was granted statehood eight years later.

In the 1810 federal census, just 12,181 white settlers lived in the Illinois Territory. At that time, the village of Peoria was attached to St. Clair County, and the census gave the village a population of 93. Most of these early Peorians were of French descent, having arrived from Canada, and were primarily trappers and traders. During the year, a series of raids were staged by Indians within the Illinois Territory, which resulted in a great deal of anxiety and trepidation among the settlers. Throughout the next year, British representatives from Canada, still upset over their defeat in the Revolutionary War, continued to encourage the Indians to attack the white settlers throughout the Illinois Territory.

The War of 1812, launched by the U.S. in June of 1812, again brought Peoria’s French settlers into the position of being at war with the British and their Indian allies, including the Potawatomi. Because the Peoria French had a close association with the Potawatomi, who lived nearby and traded at the Peoria settlement, the position of the French settlers was difficult.

In August of 1812, Fort Dearborn, the American post at Chicago, was taken by the Potawatomi, and many of the inhabitants were killed or taken prisoner. Thomas Forsyth of Peoria, half-brother and partner of the Chicago trader, John Kinzie, went north to negotiate with the Indians for the return of captives.

Governor Edwards had received reports that Peoria was a hotbed of Indian troubles. In October, 1812, just a few months after the Indian raid on Fort Dearborn, the governor led an attack of mounted troops across the prairies from Fort Russell, near Edwardsville, and destroyed the Potawatomi village of Chief Black Partridge at the upper end of Lake Peoria, on the east side of the river. Although the soldiers found the village deserted, they plundered and burned it. In clashes with Indians in the vicinity of the village, 25 to 30 Indians were killed.

After the raid, Captain Thomas E. Craig of Shawneetown and a company of troops boarded boats that were anchored in the river offshore from the French village. Some time during the evening, shots were fired at their vessels. The troops stormed ashore to loot and burn the village. Craig then arrested the inhabitants; forced 41 men, women and children to board the two vessels; and brought them to Savage’s Ferry, near present-day Alton. After the prisoners had been held for four days, Governor Edwards ordered their release. Captain Craig later reported to Governor Edwards, “I burnt down about half of the town. The damned rascals may think themselves well off that they were not scalped.” This episode marked the end of the French settlement at Peoria.

A year later, in September 1813, Brigadier General Benjamin Howard led another expedition of about 1,400 men against Indian villages around Lake Pimiteoui. The first portion of the expedition, a detachment of 150 troops of the First United States Infantry under the command of Lt. Colonel Robert Carter Nicholas, arrived at Lake Pimiteoui on August 29th. The troops came from St. Louis in reinforced keel boats and immediately began to build a stockade adjacent to the river at the former French village. Trees were cut on the eastern shore of the lake and rafted across to the western shore. While the first blockhouse was under construction, 150 Indians under the command of Black Partridge made an attack on the troops, but were driven off.

Eight hundred mounted rangers from the Illinois and Missouri militia reached the settlement three days after the arrival of the regulars. The rangers marched to the two Indian villages at the head of Lake Pimiteoui; on the eastern shore was the village of Black Partridge, and on the western shore was a Potawatomi village, led by Chief Gomo. When the rangers arrived, the occupants of both villages had already fled. The rangers burned what remained of the villages and returned to the French village.

With over 1,000 men to assist, the construction of a new fort was completed on September 23rd. A brass six-pound cannon was mounted and fired in celebration. The fort was named Fort Clark, in honor of General George Rogers Clark, the celebrated hero of the War of 1812 and victories against the British at both Vincennes and Kaskaskia. General Howard sent a force in two boats under Major William Christy to pursue the Indians on the upper Illinois River. Another force, under Major Nathan Boone, followed the course of the Spoon River for 50 miles. Upon their return to Fort Clark, both officers reported that their troops were unable to overtake the fleeing Indians. The rangers were relieved of duty at Fort Clark in mid-October and returned to their home stations, leaving the regulars to garrison the post.

Charles Ballance, in his 1870 book, The History of Peoria, Illinois, described the fort as follows:
This fort was a simple stockade, constructed by planting two rows of logs firmly in the ground, near each other and filling the space between with earth. This, of course, was not intended as a defense against artillery, of which the Indians had none. This fort was about a hundred feet square, with a ditch along each side. It did not stand with a side to the lake, but with a corner toward it. The corner farthest from the lake was on the upper side of Water Street, near the intersection of the upper line of Water and Liberty streets. From there the west line ran diagonally across the intersection of Water and Liberty streets, at the lower corner of Liberty and Water Streets. At this corner was what I suppose military men would call a bastion; that is, there was a projecting corner made in the same manner as the side walls, and so constructed, as I imagine, as to accommodate a small cannon to command the ditches. And the same had no doubt been at the opposite corner.

The War of 1812 was finally settled by the Treaty of Ghent (diplomats from the U.S. and England met at Ghent in the Netherlands) on December 24, 1814. Although this treaty did eliminate the British encouragement and support for Indian raids in the Illinois Territory, the settlement at Lake Pimiteoui remained unoccupied, save for the troops occasionally stationed at the fort, occasional trappers or Indians. Indians apparently set fire to the fort and burned most of the structure in 1818.

The first group of American settlers to come to the Fort Clark location after Illinois became a state in 1818 arrived in April 1819. These settlers were Abner Eads, Josiah Fulton and his brother, Seth Fulton, from Virginia; Joseph Hersey of New York; and S. Daugherty, J. Davis and T. Russell of Kentucky. Eads and Hersey arrived with pack horses, and the rest arrived on a keel boat, apparently poled upriver.

When the French village in Peoria, known as La Ville de Maillet, or “new village,” was destroyed by American soldiers, the resulting dispute would drag on for decades, until after the Civil War, including one case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. After they were deported downriver in 1812, a number of the displaced French settlers petitioned Congress for the return of their land at Peoria. Detailed surveys of the French claims were made to assist in their settlement, but the legal process moved very slowly, which in turn slowed the development of downtown Peoria. As a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln worked on some of these cases in the 1850s. Eventually, the displaced settlers were paid thousands of dollars in reparations for the loss of their homes. The last case was settled in 1867.

Upon their arrival, they reportedly found the walls of two deserted log cabins standing close to the river. It is possible that the soldiers garrisoned here when Fort Clark was built six years earlier had erected these cabins. They were made suitable for use and became the first two residences in Peoria. The settlers also reportedly found sufficient remains of Fort Clark to determine that it had indeed been a fort.

Ballance described what remained of Fort Clark when he arrived in Peoria:
When I came to the country in November 1831, there was no vestige of it remaining. In fact, at that time there was little to show that there had ever been a fortification there, except some burnt posts along the west side, and a square of some 10 or 12 feet at the south corner, and a ditch nearly filled up, on two sides of this square and on the west side of the fort. The fort had been burnt down to the embankment of this square and of the west side, after which the embankments had been mostly worn away by the rains and other means, until that part of the logs that was underground had become charred posts. Some of them, however, had become entirely decayed and were gone. On the other sides there was but little to be seen of logs or embankment.

Today, the site of Fort Clark, at the foot of Liberty Street on the shore of the Illinois River in downtown Peoria, is commemorated by a pavilion in Liberty Park. iBi

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