By Chris Kaergard
Of the Journal Star of Peoria
If schoolchildren learn one thing about the War of 1812, it’s that the British marched on and burned Washington, D.C.
But Illinois schoolchildren studying the war could also learn about the burning of a settlement in their own territory, one set ablaze by their own countrymen: the village located where Peoria stands today, in a location that had been settled since the late 1600s.
The conflagration there, almost certainly unplanned, gave rise to a half-century-long legal fight and slowed the city’s development.
In the early months of that conflict between the British and Americans, tensions grew in the western territories of the United States, including the Illinois Territory, because of fears that local American Indian tribes were either loyal to the British or being induced to attack American settlers, particularly after such an attack at Fort Dearborn.
Hence the decision by the state’s territorial governor, Ninian Edwards, to send a group of militiamen — some from Missouri — up the Illinois River in November 1812 to check into conditions in the village of fewer than 100 people.
“The Missourians were deeply suspicious of this thriving and peaceful village, unmolested within 10 miles of the main council site for Indian tribes that swarmed Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa,” a Journal Star archival piece from 1962 reads.
Capt. Thomas Craig’s men began to sack the town while residents were at Sunday Mass.
“In the face of protests from Thomas Forsythe, an official Indian agent and … the village priest, the property was temporarily returned,” according to another Journal Star historical recounting from 1963. “Harmless shots from across the river, probably by hunters, led Craig to say his boats had been fired upon. The French denied it, but Craig demanded the attackers be turned over to him. When the villagers protested, Craig sacked the town.
Its buildings were burned, cattle killed, the wine vaults raided and villagers were taken prisoner and shipped down river. Belated orders from the governor to belay and free the prisoners finally reached the group, with men, women and children being turned loose with few provisions in freezing weather near modern-day Alton. One of the survivors later became the wife of the state’s fourth governor, John Reynolds, who called out the state’s militia for the Black Hawk War.
The burning of the village and the stranding of its members in fact helped turn some local Indians against the American settlers.
The destruction cleared the way for the construction of Fort Clark at the corner of what is now Liberty and Water streets in 1813 as a bulwark against now-hostile Indian tribes. It remained on the site for only a few years until rebuilding of residential properties resumed nearby.
One problem: The displaced residents from 1812 had deeds to the property, dating back to the original French settlements there and began to petition Congress in 1813 to be reimbursed for their lost land. That process continued as Illinois entered its early days of statehood.
“By 1837, when surveys were made, American settlers were occupying these lots — but the sales to these inhabitants were made subject to the French claims,” Ernest E. East writes in an unpublished “History of Peoria” volume, as later recounted by local historian Bill Adams.
Some 32 former residents or their heirs subsequently filed claims on 70 lots — some of which devolved into lawsuits in county court or federal court. A piece by the Peoria Historical Society explains:
“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.”
A handful of those cases first had to go to the state Supreme Court, and one to the U.S. Supreme Court, the latter with Lincoln as one of the attorneys involved.
The litigation ended when real estate baron Charles Balance finally bought out the remaining claims on eight lots for $31,000 in 1867 — about $500,000 in today’s funds.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government for the Journal Star in Peoria. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.