By Norman V. Kelly
When I was a kid growing up in El Vista we had a wonderful woods that we played in year round. Among the many things we did from hunting to sledding was look for arrowheads. We were told stories of the Peoria Indian Tribe that roamed our woods, and of our Indian heritage. My dad told us a story about the Peoria tribe. “A canoe with an Indian family in it was gliding past what is now the foot of Main Street. A small boy told his father that he had to go real bad. So the little lad was passed back to the rear of the canoe to his mother. She situated him and said: ‘Go ahead and pee Oria.’ And…that’s how Peoria, Illinois got its name.” By the way my dad’s name was Orris, and if he were alive today he would be 112 years old. So, he knew a little bit about Native Americans here in our town.
From our beginning as a city in 1845 Peoria was said to have been rich in Native American lore, and the people responsible for bringing in tourists to this area touted our ‘Indian Heritage.’ Since I grew up here that is certainly what I understood to be the truth. The one man that the Chamber of Commerce and the tourist people based all of that on was George Finley.
George Finley was a ‘full-blooded Peoria Indian.’ At least that is how he was sold to us as part of Peoria’s heritage. The truth is he was not a full blood anything, just another member of the Peoria tribe born in 1854. I believed that he lived here, and was a great chief of the local Indian tribe. Of course, none of that was true. Funny about historians, they are always bringing the facts to us, and sometimes the truth is simply not welcomed. There is a lot more interest in myths and legends than there is in the truth, and a lot more fun.
George was born in 1854, the same year Lincoln was here debating The Little Giant at our courthouse. I doubt there were many Native Americans in the audience. The history of the original Peoria tribe shows that they were driven out of Peoria in 1720 and finally kicked out of Illinois all together in 1820. They ended up in Kansas and Oklahoma where George Finley was born in Paola, Kansas. I scoured our records but found no indication that he ever stepped foot in our fair town.
The Peoria Tribe got chased away once again around the time of the Civil War, causing them to wonder about before they ended up near Miami, Oklahoma, naming their little settlement Peoria, Oklahoma. Since they moved around so much the name Peoria means, ‘A Prairie Fire That Moves About,’ appropriate, I’d say. Even though George Finley, known as ‘The Path Of The Storm,’ had nothing to do with our Peoria, Illinois, he was indeed a prominent citizen. George was a 32nd. Degree Mason and a Tribal Policemen in his little settlement. At one time he was a representative for his tribe and traveled to Washington, DC to record authentic Peoria words and phrases. I once suggested that the local museum folks track that recording down within the Smithsonian Museum. We could hear words like Ta-wah-quah-Ke-nongah, which was the Chief’s name and Pe-te-lon-o-zah, which transcribes to Spring Rains, right here in our new museum.
I have a copy of the Congressional Records, which certainly were available to us here in Peoria, Illinois in 1956. Sadly it clearly shows that our friend, George Finely, a/k/a Path Of the Storm was not a full blood Peoria Indian.
But he still belongs to us, and under his picture in a magazine called History Of Peoria the words ‘Our Heritage’ are printed. The Peoria Indian is most certainly our namesake, but I think saying the Peoria Indian was our heritage is stretching things a bit. The old chief died in June of 1933 in Oklahoma and at that time was said to have been Peoria’s last full blood Indian chief.
In 1956, Congress terminated control over the Peoria tribe and as a result a final Federal Register of the members was published. That is available in case you want to see if you had a relative among them. There were 620 listed and only four were full blood Peoria Indians. Okay, I’ll give you the last names of those four. They were Gibson, Blalock, Beaver and Stand. Who knows, maybe I have one of your relative’s arrowheads.
From day one, Peoria has been the butt of a lot of jokes. Peoria is a funny name, I suppose, but at least we can trace it way back to the seventeen hundreds right here in our own backyard. Namesake or heritage, whatever you want to call our history, it has been a long and interesting one indeed.
Editor’s Note: Norm welcomes your comments and you can also e-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org