History About Peoria, Illinois

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Peoria is the largest city on the Illinois River and the county seat of Peoria County in the U.S. state of Illinois. As of the 2020 census, the city had a population of 115,007, making it the eighth-most populated city in Illinois and the second-most populated city in the state outside the Chicago metropolitan area.

Peoria has a long and fascinating history dating back to 1691 when French explorers first traveled up the Illinois River. For centuries, Peoria has been an important hub for transportation, industry, entertainment, culture, and innovation.

From its beginnings as a French fur trading outpost to its development into a thriving industrial city, Peoria reflects the story of Midwestern growth in America.In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the full history of Peoria from its earliest roots to the present day.

Native American Settlement

The Peoria area was originally inhabited by various Native American tribes for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. The Illiniwek confederacy dominated the region in the 17th century until around 1680 when the Iroquois pushed them out.

By the early 18th century, the Sauk, Fox and Potawatomi tribes inhabited the land around present-day Peoria. These tribes lived along the Illinois River valley hunting, fishing, gathering food and trading. Native Americans called the Peoria area “Pimiteoui” meaning “place of fatness” referring to the abundance of game and fertile land.

French Colonization

The first Europeans to visit the Peoria area were the French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet in 1673. As they traveled along the Illinois River, they encountered the Peoria tribe, who inhabited the banks near Lake Pimiteoui.

In 1691, French fur trader Henri de Tonti established Fort St. Louis along the Illinois River in present-day Peoria. It became the first European settlement in Illinois.

The fort served as a major trading hub for French fur traders and a peace-keeping alliance with local tribes. De Tonti named the settlement La Ville de Maillet after his boss, Jean Baptiste Maillet.

The French controlled the Peoria area for the next 100 years, though the population remained small. French colonists intermarried with Native Americans, creating a Creole culture. The settlement was home to fur trading, farming, and the Catholic mission of St. Joseph.

British and Early American Settlement

After the French and Indian War, France ceded its territories east of the Mississippi River to Britain in 1763. The British put Capt. Thomas Sterling briefly in command of Fort St. Louis in Peoria before abandoning the fort in 1769.

For the next 30 years, Peoria was sparsely inhabited by French-Native American families and migrating tribes. The United States gained control of the region after the Revolutionary War in the late 1700s.

In 1812, the U.S. government built Fort Clark near present-day Peoria to protect against Native American raids during the War of 1812. The fort attracted the first American settlers to the area. However, Fort Clark was abandoned after the war in 1818.

Peoria was established as a town in 1825 by George Davenport and three others. It was named after the Peoria tribe, though the Peoria people had left the area by this time. That same year, Peoria County was incorporated with its county seat at Fort Clark.

##19th Century Growth

Peoria was chartered as a city in 1845. Thanks to its prime location on the Illinois River, Peoria grew rapidly as an important trading and transportation hub.

  • Grain elevators, distilleries and mills powered the local economy. The first steamboat arrived in Peoria in 1823, allowing goods to be shipped to and from the area via the Illinois River.
  • The Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848, connecting Peoria to Chicago and the Great Lakes. This sparked industrial growth.
  • In 1846, Robert G. Ingersoll, a lawyer and abolitionist, became Peoria’s first mayor.
  • During the 1800s, Peoria became a central Illinois hub for wagon, rail and river transportation. This spurred major business and industrial growth.

Some key industries that drove Peoria’s success in the 1800’s include:

  • Distilleries: By the 1880s, Peoria was the whiskey capital of the world with major companies like Hiram Walker and others.
  • Farm machinery: Cyrus McCormick brought his innovative mechanical reaper to Peoria in 1847, leading to the development of farm machinery manufacturing.
  • Steamboats and barges: Peoria’s location on the Illinois River made it an ideal stopover point for steamboats shipping goods and people up and down the waterway. Hundreds of barges and steamboats operated out of Peoria.
  • Railroads: As railroad lines extended across America, Peoria became a major rail center for the emerging cross-country network. This allowed further shipping of goods and economic growth.

By 1890, Peoria had grown to almost 30,000 residents as industries flourished. The Whiskey Trust formed in Peoria in 1887 as local distilleries came under common ownership. The city also became a center of innovation, with Charles Thurber inventing a new gasoline/kerosene engine in Peoria in 1885.

Early 20th Century

At the turn of the 20th century, Peoria cemented its position as an important economic and cultural hub in Illinois and the Midwest.

Some notable developments include:

  • Caterpillar Inc was founded in Peoria in 1925 and developed into the world’s leading construction equipment manufacturer.
  • In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Peoria, bringing national attention.
  • The Grand Army of the Republic Peoria Memorial Hall was built in 1889 to honor Civil War veterans.
  • The city’s riverfront and arts scene thrived in the early 1900s. The Madison and Fulton Sheldon Theatres opened.
  • The Peoria Public Library opened a new main branch in 1903 with generous donations from Andrew Carnegie.
  • In 1916, the Peoria Association of Commerce formed, further promoting business growth.
  • Distilleries continued booming, with Peoria producing 10-13 million gallons of whiskey annually by the 1920s. However, Prohibition from 1920-1933 halted this.

From innovation to arts to vice, Peoria was a diverse, thriving city entering the 20th century. However, conflict and hardship loomed with the Great Depression and World Wars ahead.

The World Wars

Peoria’s industries played a major role in U.S. efforts during World Wars I and II. However, the wars also brought shortages and tragedies.

World War I:

  • Caterpillar and Keystone Steel & Wire became major suppliers of tractors, engines and wire for the war effort.
  • Citizens participated in bond drives and joined the Red Cross and Victory Corps.
  • A steamboat engine factory switched to making 8 inch shells. Distilleries began producing industrial alcohol instead of whiskey.
  • 116 Peoria men died in the war. Memorial Stadium was built in 1925 in their honor.

World War II:

  • Caterpillar produced tanks, airplane parts and engines for the military while other factories switched to defense production.
  • Citizens conserved and collected scrap metal and rubber. Victory gardens and rationing were implemented.
  • The War Department chose Peoria as a ‘vital inland port’ for military cargo shipping.
  • At least 300 Peoria residents died in World War II action.

While Peoria factories powered the war mobilization, citizens at home also sacrificed greatly, demonstrating unity and resilience.

Post-War Development

Following World War II, Peoria shared in the prosperity of postwar America. However, suburbanization, industrial shifts and new highways led to some declines in the central city.

  • Caterpillar and Keystone remained pillars of the economy, though manufacturing began moving to suburban industrial parks.
  • In the 1950s-60s, Interstates 74 and 474 were constructed, shifting focus away from the riverfront.
  • Retail and residents moved from downtown to new suburban malls like Sheridan Village and Northwoods Mall.
  • Urban renewal efforts aimed to revive downtown Peoria but ended up demolishing historic buildings and displacing residents.
  • Civic Center Plaza was built downtown as a convention center and entertainment complex during the 1960s and 70s.

While facing some challenges, Peoria also made strides:

  • Bradley University and major hospitals expanded significantly. Medical sector growth buffered Peoria from manufacturing declines.
  • The Peoria Civic Center arena opened in 1982 as home to the minor league Peoria Rivermen hockey team.
  • The RiverFront Museum and Gateway Building brought new vision to the downtown riverfront in the 2000s.
  • Peoria’s performing arts scene grew with expanded theater, music and arts organizations.

Through postwar swings, Peoria held onto its innovative, Midwestern spirit while evolving for the modern age.

Peoria Today

Today, Peoria remains one of the largest cities in Illinois with over 110,000 residents. It has emerged from the 20th century as a smaller but stronger community with a diversified economy.

Some prominent features of modern Peoria include:

  • Caterpillar, UnityPoint Health, Komatsu and Bradley University are among the major employers. Healthcare, education, finance and tech jobs have joined manufacturing.
  • The Peoria RiverFront serves as a gathering spot for community festivals and events with museums, bars, ballparks and recreation trails.
  • The city has a vibrant arts community with multiple live performance venues, museums, festivals, galleries, and public art.
  • Peoria’s Midwest roots remain strong with family farms, state fairs, steamboat history and Abraham Lincoln ties still shaping identity.
  • Peoria supports a growing innovation economy with tech startups, business incubators, and medical research.
  • Revitalization campaigns aim to boost downtown vitality with new hotels, restaurants, lofts and amenities while respecting heritage.

While challenges like poverty and crime persist, Peoria enters its fourth century focused on balanced, sustainable growth and unity among all residents. The city’s eventful history has shaped a resilient, innovative spirit that will carry Peoria forward.


In just over 300 years, Peoria has transformed from a remote French fur trading post to a regional economic and cultural hub. Generations of diverse, hardworking residents have overcome war, disasters, depressions and periods of decline to make Peoria their home.

Key themes stand out in Peoria’s history – transportation, industry, innovation, community, entertainment and resilience. The city has been a microcosm of Midwestern progress. Peoria’s location, can-do spirit and diversity have allowed it to prosper through changing times.

As we look back across three centuries, Peoria has an eventful story to tell. And this story continues as Peoria steps into the future while honoring its unique heritage. With this strong foundation, the heart of Illinois is sure to keep making history.

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