Peoria’s Riverboat Men

by Brian “Fox” Ellis

Four prominent Peorians whose lives were inseparable from our beloved river

The Illinois River has been—and will always be—an important resource in the ongoing history of the Peoria area. Its bounty brought our ancestors to this valley, and if well respected, it will continue to be a source of life and renewal. Here are brief biographies of four men who traveled this river and recognized its importance in our cultural and economic growth:

French Explorer and Founder of Peoria
Henri de Tonti was LaSalle’s right-hand man… with no right hand. He was a French-born son of Italian immigrants who became a well-known mercenary. In the battle of Creve Coeur in Belgium, a grenade blew off most of his hand—he cut away the rest and continued to fight! It was also at the battle of Creve Coeur that he met René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who hired him for his expedition to New France. The two of them paddled birch-bark canoes thousands of miles across the heartland of America.

A leader among men, de Tonti was also known as a fierce negotiator with the Indians. During a battle at la Roche—later known as Starved Rock—he waded into the massacre with the calumet, a peace pipe, held high above his head. The battle stopped. De Tonti lied to the Iroquois about the number of French and American Indian warriors in an unsuccessful effort to deter the onslaught.

Along with LaSalle, de Tonti was the first European to paddle his canoe the full length of the Mississippi. They planted a cross claiming the entire river drainage system for the King of France, naming the soon-to-be-built town New Orleans for the Duke of Orleans, and the territory Louisiana for the patron saint of King Louis. When LaSalle’s mission to build New Orleans stumbled and then failed, de Tonti moved the base of his fur-trading empire, establishing the first European outpost along the western shores of Lake Pimiteoui, which helped lay the groundwork for what became Peoria. Today, he is honored as the namesake for an annual award given by the Peoria Historical Society for community leadership.

 

Potawatomi Chief and Peacemaker
Gomo was one of the most respected American Indian leaders in the Illinois River Valley. When more than 26 chiefs gathered at Cahokia to powwow with General William Clark and Illinois Territorial Governor Ninian Edwards, every other chief stood and said, “Gomo is our leader; Gomo speaks for us.”

Gomo stood up and spoke eloquently of broken promises and the rights of the American Indians to live in peace. His village was on the northwest shore of Peoria Lake, near where Chillicothe’s Shore Acres Park stands today. His brother was Chief Senachwine, another peacemaker.

In 1812, Ninian Edwards attacked and burned the French village of Peoria, arresting all of the Frenchmen, including those who were our allies. He then abandoned the women and children, deserting them in the wilderness without food or shelter. Gomo happened to be out hunting along the river that night. He heard the uproar, saw the flames and carefully scouted the scene. He then risked his life to help the French women and children, leading them to his village, where each of them was fed and housed. The next day, he sent a flotilla of canoes downriver so the French could be reunited with their families in St. Louis. Today, he is remembered with a short, dead-end street on Peoria’s south side.

 

Explorer and Fur Trader, Founder of Chicago
Born in the Caribbean of French and African parentage, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable was highly educated for a man of his time. When he visited New Orleans, he was captured and sold into slavery, but a priest discovered his intelligence and was so impressed he helped du Sable escape. Du Sable fled upstream and lived in Peoria for a number of years. He owned several hundred acres of what is now downtown Peoria, and he married a Potawatomi woman.

Du Sable then moved his family further upstream and founded a fur trading emporium, which later became Chicago. (It is intriguing that both New Orleans and Chicago were founded by men from Peoria!) He later sold his fur trade empire to the American, John Kinzie, who had political connections. Secretary of War Henry Dearborn commissioned the fort which bore du Sable’s name, and modern Chicago grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. Today, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable is honored with a statue created by Preston Jackson, which stands outside the Carver Center.

 

Steamboat Captain and Civil War Hero
Born in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, Henry Detweiller immigrated to Peoria when he was just a boy, and pursued his dream to become a riverboat captain. He plied the rivers for more than 30 years and was good friends with the young lawyer and politician, Abraham Lincoln. The last time Lincoln visited Peoria, it was Captain Detweiller who ferried him here and got him checked into the hotel.

Throughout the Civil War, Detweiller delivered troops and supplies, running missions deep into the South. He helped General Ulysses S. Grant run the gauntlet at Vicksburg, and after the war, he got into the ice business with a young Edward Woodruff. When Woodruff became mayor of Peoria, Detweiller was the city treasurer. What was once the Detweiller Ice Company became the Detweiller Marina.

Today, there is a major thoroughfare and park named for him. His children donated Detweiller Park and Detweiller Marina to the city so the public would always have access to his river.

Let us celebrate these men and their legacy by renewing our commitment to clean water and the health of the river, which quite literally flows through our bloodstreams! iBi

Brian “Fox” Ellis is a professional storyteller, author and riverlorian for the Spirit of Peoria riverboat. He and his wife run The Twinflower Inn, a bed and breakfast in Bishop Hill, Illinois.

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