On a warm day in 1973, my wife and I packed our one-year-old into her stroller and headed for the neighborhood Tastee-Freez, a dozen blocks northeast of downtown Peoria. We walked past houses and small businesses that had seen better days, and as we looked downhill across the one-way streets we could glimpse sailboats and barges on Peoria Lake, actually a wide place in the Illinois River. Then we stood on the corner at the Tastee-Freez, chatting over the traffic noise while our daughter lathered herself with ice cream.

We had no more idea than she did that we were standing on a long-sought historic site. The locals believed that a tiny French village had existed somewhere in the vicinity in the 1700s. But no physical evidence of its existence had ever been documented, and the main historical evidence was a land survey made in 1837–40 years after the village had been abandoned. Some experts had come to suspect that 150 years of urbanization on Peoria’s near north side had obliterated all trace of the village.

But on September 12, 2001, two archaeologists made news by finding the first bit of physical evidence a block downhill from the old Tastee-Freez, now Jim’s Sandwich Shop. The bigger news may be all the stuff they didn’t dig up.

The archaeologists weren’t there as part of any plan to find the French village. They were there because the Illinois Department of Transportation was relocating a section of Adams Street to accommodate the nearby O’Brien Steel Company. State law provides funding to seek out and save archaeological evidence in such cases, before construction destroys it forever. The money for this “salvage” work comes from IDOT; the work is done by the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program (ITARP), headed by Thomas Emerson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

So it was that on the morning after 9/11, ITARP archaeologists Robert Mazrim and Dave Nolan went to work in the vacant lot at the corner of Adams and Mary streets. They knew they had a chance to find some sign that the French had been there, but they weren’t breathless with expectation.

They started digging in the yard, avoiding the outline of the house that had once stood there because when it was built the ground had been churned up. The backhoe operator made a trench that ran northwest-southeast, at a right angle to busy Adams Street, carefully scraping away a foot or so of black topsoil and its accumulation of 19th- and 20th-century refuse.

Mazrim and Nolan scanned the yellow clay subsoil at the bottom of the trench, which professional archaeologists can read the way you and I read road signs. “I’ve seen thousand-year-old spade marks in postholes,” says Mazrim. “If you dig a hole more than two feet deep, that little gesture of yours will last a thousand years.”

Nolan spotted it first: a faint discoloration about a foot wide, cutting across the trench in a northeast-southwest direction, not quite parallel to Adams Street. They couldn’t believe their luck. “Technically, Dave,” Mazrim cracked, “that’s exactly what we’re looking for.” Their workday wasn’t an hour old. When additional trenches parallel to the first showed that the stain kept running northeast, they called in help to dig out the “feature,” map it, and systematically photograph it. (Every soil stain or artifact, no matter how small or how faint, is called a “feature.”) Eventually they tracked it for 250 feet.

The stain marked the top of what had been a continuous trench about two feet deep. What had it been? The simplest and most plausible answer was an old fence line. The fence would have been constructed by inserting wooden poles into the earth, making a solid wall of upright stakes to protect crops from free-ranging animals. The wood is long gone, but the signs of disturbance remain.

Two groups of people built fences (and house walls) this way, says Mazrim: Indians of the Mississippian era (600-1,000 years ago) and the French. “There’s no other evidence of Mississippian occupation around here,” he says, “and there are plenty of archival materials saying that the French were here.”

Two months later Mazrim and Nolan returned for another week of work and found even better evidence that the French had been present. In a vacant lot about half a block northeast of the first, they scraped off the topsoil and promptly found another faint stain in the subsoil. “It was a little creepy,” says Mazrim, “hitting something right away.” Instead of running straight, however, this stain turned one corner, then another. It marked the “wall trench” for a two-room cabin with, most likely, a porch running along one side–a shape typical of French cabins. “We spent all day November 8 hand troweling, and finally stood back and saw a beautiful rectangle–a room. That was a good day.”

It was an especially good day because Mazrim could see how the humble cabin they were unearthing fit into known Peoria history. The probate records for one Louis Chatellereau show that he lived in the area until he died, in 1795. (These records–the only known records of this kind for anyone who lived in the Peoria area in French times–are in the Byron R. Lewis Historical Library in Vincennes, Indiana, and were quoted in the Illinois State Museum’s 1995 publication French Peoria and the Illinois Country, by Judith Franke.) The 1837 survey also shows this land as belonging to Chatellereau, whose son accompanied the surveyor. The cabin itself is small, close to the fenced field, and at the edge of where the village probably stood, so it may have been used only by farmhands, slaves, or occasional visitors.

Mazrim and Nolan were excited by their discovery, but they were also starting to be puzzled. The cabin area was yielding almost none of the pottery fragments and other durable debris of everyday life that usually help archaeologists summon up the past. All they found were a three-inch chunk of a wine bottle, a hand-forged nail, and a heel bone (“calcaneus”) that Illinois State Museum archaeozoologist Terrance Martin later identified as having belonged to a bison. The bone was an important find because it dates from the 1770s to 1790s; the next most recent bison remains found in Illinois are from the 1730s. Whoever stayed in that cabin evidently dined on one of the last bison to live in Illinois.

Finding so few artifacts around a dwelling, in ground that hasn’t been disturbed for 200 years, is like finding the Loop deserted at lunchtime: something’s wrong, but you don’t know what. Mazrim says that in the larger French agricultural settlements near present-day Saint Louis, known as the American Bottom, “We’d have found a tableful of pretty artifacts for you to look at.” Either nobody stayed in the cabin very long, or all of their household goods were leather and wood and have long since rotted. No doubt this was French Peoria at last, but where was everything?

“French Peoria” is actually an ambiguous and potentially misleading phrase. It could refer to at least four different French outposts in the vicinity of Peoria Lake over a period of 132 years, from 1680 to 1812. The one Mazrim and Nolan found was the third known settlement. Peoria Lake was a strategic stop on the main route from French Canada to French Louisiana, by way of Lake Michigan, the Chicago portage, the Illinois River, and the Mississippi. But few European-Americans actually lived there, and their outposts shifted in ways that aren’t easily traced.

The first of the French Peorias was Fort Crevecoeur. French explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle built it in 1680, probably just below the lake on the east side of the river. Then he pushed on, leaving behind a crew that mutinied, burned the structure, and threw everything they couldn’t steal into the river. Small wonder that physical evidence of its exact location has been hard to come by.

The second, Fort Saint Louis, was built a decade later, in 1691, by explorer and fur trader Henri de Tonti somewhere on the west side of Peoria Lake (not to be confused with an earlier fort of the same name at Starved Rock). It might have been in the same place as a later village, but again there’s no evidence. The fort’s 1,800 vertical pickets enclosed a lodging, a warehouse, and two houses for soldiers, according to French Peoria and the Illinois Country. (The only book on this subject, it’s available from the Dickson Mounds Museum Shop in downstate Fulton County, kfehr@museum.state.il.us.) Soon after 1700 the mission chapel, trading post, and finally the fort itself fell into disuse, though a few French traders could usually still be found in the Peoria Indian villages on the lake. Like most such villages, they were occupied mainly in the summer and were often abandoned in times of war.

The third French Peoria is the one Mazrim and Nolan found an edge of. Generally known as the Old Fort and Village, it dates from roughly 1750 to 1796, though our knowledge of its origin and abandonment is pretty vague. In 1750 a French fur trader named Descaris built some sort of fort on the west side of Peoria Lake near its north end, probably a few blocks north of where Mazrim and Nolan dug. He built it at the request of the Peoria Indians, who at that time had a village of 1,200 people next to the lake. (Descaris may well be an example of how fluid identity was on the midwestern frontier. A few years later, in what we now call Wisconsin, a man of the same name married a Winnebago woman and became a tribal leader.)

In 1752 a few French soldiers were sent north from Fort de Chartres (south of present-day Saint Louis) to garrison Descaris’ fort. Their commander found it in such bad shape that he could neither defend it nor offer the Peorias refuge in it. His superior at Fort de Chartres recorded his complaint: “For want of transport it is impossible to get it repaired by the voyageurs, the woods being a long way off….It is impossible to have the pickets carried by two men over bad paths.” The Peoria tribe soon moved south to the Cahokia area.

The British took nominal control of the Illinois country in 1765, following the end of the Seven Years War, and the French post on Peoria Lake ceased to exist. Yet some kind of settlement either remained or appeared for the first time. It’s not clear who came there, or when, or from where, though testimony in a later lands-claim case said Antoine Saint-Francois had sowed corn in the area in 1765. From various documents we know the names of more than 60 of the people who lived at the Old Fort and Village between 1765 and 1796; there were probably never more than 30 people there at any one time. “These men were frontiersmen living in a frontier town,” writes Judith Franke. “The conflicts between French, Spanish, British, American, and Indian interests along this stretch of the Illinois resulted in little effective governmental jurisdiction.”

In a few cases we know more than just names. From 1773 to 1783 Jean-Baptiste Point Du Sable owned a house and 30 acres there, before moving to the north bank of the Chicago River with his Potawatomi wife, Catherine, and their two children. Louis Chatellereau lived at the Old Fort and Village from 1778 until his death in 1795. He had a house, farm, and grain mill, which was probably powered by oxen or horses. “Chatellereau grew wheat, fished in the lake, hunted, and had a variety of tools for carpentry and other tasks,” writes Franke. “He had a number of garments and household utensils but almost no furniture.” He also traded with the Indians, probably exchanging Saint Louis merchandise for deerskins. Trade with the Indians led to closer ties; he was the foster father of three Potawatomi orphans, raising them as French-speaking Catholics. Two of them, Gomo and Senachewine, became tribal leaders.

No official notice was taken as the residents of the Old Fort and Village gradually moved away, leaving the area once more uninhabited by about 1796. Some of them probably moved a mile and a half southwest to a new village and trading post, approximately where downtown Peoria is today, that Jean-Baptiste Maillet had established in 1778–the fourth French Peoria. Other inhabitants of this “New Village,” most of them French and Indian, seem to have come from elsewhere.

It’s hard to say what kind of place the New Village was–everyone who wrote down anything about it was either somewhere else or off to somewhere else at the time. A visitor in 1779 said it had “narrow, unpaved streets, and houses constructed of wood.” In 1790 Lieutenant John Armstrong’s expedition recorded it as “a French trading Place.” The Illinois territorial governor at the time, Arthur Saint Clair, called it “a small village…where there are five or six French families.” Yet Maillet is said to have traveled from this humble village (with Gomo) to visit President Washington during the 1790s, and in 1806 an American, Thomas Forsyth, set up trading operations in it.

The inhabitants of the New Village found themselves in an exposed position when the midwest became a battleground in the War of 1812, which pitted the young United States against Britain. Their position deteriorated after August 15, 1812, when a group of Indians ambushed the departing garrison of Fort Dearborn in the sand dunes where Chicago’s near south side is now, killing 53 people and burning the fort.

The Fort Dearborn massacre put the midwest on high alert, making it even more likely than usual that Illinois frontiersmen would shoot Indians first and ask questions later. That October, Illinois territorial governor Ninian Edwards led soldiers north, attacking Indian villages and killing more than two dozen Potawatomi at the head of Peoria Lake. Captain Thomas Craig of Shawneetown followed Edwards north, arriving at the New Village after Edwards had left the area.

When Craig’s troops were fired on during the night, he blamed the inhabitants of the New Village and “arrested” them. As local historian Earnest E. East tells it in the March 1949 issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Craig “set fire to four houses and to four barns, two of the latter containing wheat. He forced forty-one men, women, and children to enter two open boats in which he conducted them to Savage’s Ferry, near Alton [about 200 miles downriver]. Forsyth was refused permission to leave men [at Peoria] to care for two hundred head of cattle and other property. Governor Edwards ordered the release of the prisoners, but not until they had been held four days.”

That ended Peoria as a French settlement, though as a court case it lingered for more than half a century. Thirty-one village residents asked to be compensated for their lost property. Most of their claims were granted, but it took years. Many lawyers, including Abraham Lincoln, worked on the lawsuits, 13 of which went to the Supreme Court before being settled. The last claim, filed by Forsyth’s son Robert, was settled in June 1867 for $31,000.

English-speaking Peoria often dates its start from the U.S. government’s wartime construction of Fort Clark in 1813, about where the New Village was. (It’s commemorated today in the Liberty Park Pavilion on the Peoria riverfront.) Nevertheless many present-day Peorians have been looking for the French past that Captain Craig abruptly terminated. Ten years ago at Detweiler Marina, not far from the recent excavation, the Colonial Dames placed a metal plaque on a boulder stating that “a European settlement in the Illinois country was established by the French at or near this place.” When the archaeologists finally found evidence of a fence and cabin last fall, that statement seemed to have been confirmed.

It was an emotional experience. “The people in the community were totally thrilled,” says Mazrim. “They were bringing us cookies.” Gloria LaHood, a local historian and manager of the Peoria Historical Society’s Flanagan House museum, says, “We’ve tried so long to find something French here. There’s nothing aboveground. After so long you start to think you’re looking for a dream.” When she saw the finds, she says, “I just cried.”

The discoveries attracted lots of media attention, including from the New York-based Archaeology magazine. Many media accounts zeroed in on the wine bottle fragment, which annoyed Mazrim. “The bottle is just a detail,” he says. “Even if it had been completely intact, with dates chiseled on it, one bottle couldn’t tell us when this place was occupied. No one artifact can be definitive. It’s always in the context of everything else,” especially if it’s a distinctive house. (That’s why archaeologists have little use for collectors who dig up individual relics and separate them from their context.)

Once Mazrim and Nolan found the first stain in the subsoil at Adams and Mary, the media question became whether they’d found a French village (new and exciting) or an Indian one (comparatively routine). But the scarcity of artifacts around a French-looking building has made Mazrim wonder if this either-or distinction reflects reality. Does it have to be one or the other? In what sense were the pre-1813 Peoria villages “European settlements in the Illinois country”?

True, the inhabitants’ names were overwhelmingly French–like Du Sable–but that doesn’t tell us how they lived or who their parents and grandparents were. The French midwest, Mazrim explains, was home to two different kinds of settlements in addition to the indigenous villages. One kind was recognizably “European.” The other was an intriguing mixture of French and Indian elements, not dominated by either culture.

To the north, the Canadian French were mostly traders and voyageurs. At their trading posts, farm crops were incidental. These Frenchmen dealt with Indians daily–traded with them, negotiated with them, traveled with them, lived with them, married them, had children with them. Like Descaris, Chatellereau, and Du Sable, they shifted back and forth across the supposed divide between “European” and “Indian.” So did their children and grandchildren.

To the south, the Louisiana French were farmers in largely self-contained French communities. At Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and later Saint Genevieve in the American Bottom along the Mississippi, they raised wheat and corn in commercial quantities, selling them downriver in New Orleans. As early as the 1730s the American Bottom had become an agricultural landscape that looked a lot like northern France.

In 1717 the French colonial authorities made the Illinois country formally part of Louisiana rather than Canada, so it’s been customary to think of French Peoria as a small northern extension of the American Bottom settlements. But Mazrim suspects that its culture and way of life made it more like a southern extension of Canada instead–a largely Indian place with a few Frenchmen and their families.

If borne out by future excavations, his theory would explain several things. It would explain the lack of a paper trail that made the French claims from Captain Craig’s 1812 raid so slow to be settled. Americans were rarely that slow about compensating people who held land under French regimes, says Mazrim, but in this case there were few deeds and records. Many of the records that do survive–such as the 1837 survey of the Old Fort and Village–were created after the fact, as part of the ongoing land-claims dispute. By that time, the claimants had a vested interest in portraying the settlements as a “civilized” French place, so that they’d be more likely to win.

This is where historical archaeology comes into its own, ITARP director Thomas Emerson wrote in a recent E-mail. “One of the real values of the material record [archaeology] is its variation from the written record. We know that virtually all written documents are part propaganda, perceptions, downright lies, etc….Archaeology can give us another window into the reality of French Peoria.”

Mazrim’s theory would also help explain why the various French Peorias have been so hard to find over the years. If he and Nolan had been digging in Cahokia or Kaskaskia or Saint Genevieve they would have found rusty tools, fragments of crockery, bottles, and above all broken faience, a decorative French pottery–all the plentiful detritus of a primitive but reasonably prosperous farming community. In contrast, fur traders travel light. If the old and new villages at Peoria Lake had been primarily Canadian-style posts, then the scarcity of surviving material goods makes more sense. In 1778 the commander at Fort de Chartres described the Peoria area as being inhabited by a few “Canadians,” adding with a touch of hyperbole that they “do not litigate because they own nothing.”

Mazrim’s theory might even make sense of Captain Craig’s actions in 1812. One traveler who passed through the New Village in the 1790s described it as “seven French living among Indians.” If that’s how it looked to him, maybe that’s how it looked to Craig–not all that different from the Potawatomi villages he and Governor Edwards had been burning routinely.

ITARP’s Emerson hopes to do some more archaeological testing along the Peoria Lake shoreline in cooperation with the Peoria Historical Society. Those tests could refute Mazrim’s theory. Maybe he and Nolan happened to hit on a little-used outbuilding in last fall’s dig, and later digs will find French wares aplenty. “Maybe I’m all wrong, and we’ll find a pit full of faience,” Mazrim says. But if he’s right, then Peoria before 1812 was “a Great Lakes kind of place, very native to the very end. The people here spoke the Indian languages well. This place was something special, something we didn’t know about.”

For more on the archaeology of French Peoria see the Visitor’s Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Suzy Poling, courtesy ITARP.