By Norman V. Kelly

For those of you that read my story about Rudolphus Rouse, you are well aware of how quickly Peoria became a sophisticated city. Through out our history we had a plethora of men and women that stepped up to give us a boost, and I spent over three decades trying to praise them. I thought I would bring you some early history in a form of a diary that was devotedly kept and guarded by our keeper of the records, the folks at the Peoria Public Library. Even before we became a city in 1845, there were newspapers located here, followed quickly by a library and record keepers, court files, and police reports. That record was scrupulously kept. The only time it was distorted was during the time our pet gangster Bernie Shelton lived here. Then our uncles and grandfathers took over with gangster stories that they loved to perpetuate upon gullible listeners. A lot of so-called historians did the same thing. Me? Why I stuck to the record, but it is always more fun to read fiction than it is musty old historical records. I did it because that is where you will find the truth about Peoria, Illinois, its people and its history.

We are not a city yet, and there is a lot of activity way out in the county by January 1843. By then Philander Chase, founder of Jubilee College, let it be known that “No baptismal rite performed on a Mormon by a

Mormon had any saving value in the eyes of Heaven.” Strong language and of course there were repercussions to Philander’s statement.

On February 1, 1843 somebody must have had the authority and control of the town’s purse strings to issue this rule. Anyway the Peoria Waterworks Company was authorized by legislature to improve any spring water within two miles of Peoria.

On the evening of February 13, 1843 an Abolitionist meeting being held by The Anti-Slavery Society to pick officers was broken up by slavery sympathizers, led by Mr. Underwood. Now this was a private meeting being held at the Main Street Presbyterian Church. Didn’t we name a street after Underwood? Remember way back then, because of our Constitution and Bill Of Rights folks had the same inalienable rights as we do today. Apparently Underwood and his gang did not believe that to be true.

During the very early spring folks still tried to cross the river to East Peoria on horse and buggy even though the local authorities warned people of the dangerous conditions. Two children riding with the Rodecker and Parker families drowned when their buggy broke through the ice on the Illinois River. That was February 28, 1843 at the foot of Main Street.

Newspapers were established in Peoria even before we became a Town in 1835. By 1845 when we became a City and for decades the newspapers competed with each other not only politically but for the almighty dollar as well. Many local politicians, business men and women and police officers felt their wrath. A sample was this zinger:

“The thing called a ‘jail’ in this county is not worthy the name.”

Peoria: January 1844.
Printed on 2-7-1844, The Democratic Press went against the local newspapers in trying to squelch the rumor that folks in the Town of Peoria, Illinois were suffering and dying from a mysterious disease known only as ‘The Black Lung.’ The editor pointed out that the last death among the 1,600 inhabits was recorded way back on December 8, 1843. Some folks laughed at this statement and the rumors persisted.

On November 4, 1844 certain newspapers gleefully reported that The County of Peoria registered their usual Democratic majority by casting 1,169 votes for James Polk, Democrat and 846 for Henry Clay, Whig… for President of the United States. By the way Lincoln never won here either. Polk won the election.

On December 10, 1844, Charles Owen died. Owen had declared that he was 110 years old and came to Peoria from Virginia in 1822. The article went on to state that Mr. Owens came to Peoria carrying a load of whiskey, which he sold to one of the local Indian tribes. No not the Peoria Indian who had been driven out of this area by 1720.

A man that took it upon himself to be Peoria’s first census taker and local historian, S.D.W. Drown let the folks know on January 16, 1844

that Peoria’s population was 1,619. Mr. Drown also published a ‘Town Directory’ which evolved into ‘The City Directory.’ There would be very little recorded history of early Peoria without the dedication of Mr. Drown.

By March of 1844 steamboats were a vital link to the outside world and along with our whiskey moved Peoria along head and shoulders above all the other villages and towns that sprung up along the Illinois River. However, none grew so substantially as Peoria, Illinois, ‘The Gem along the Illinois.’

Watch for another peek into the ‘Peoria Diary’ and see just how our forefathers prospered in Peoria, Illinois, ‘The Pearl on the Illinois.’

Editor’s Note: Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: