The History of Peoria
Following early settlements by Native Americans, including the Peoria tribe, the French were the first Europeans to settle Peoria in 1691 by building Fort St. Louis II. During the French & Indian War, however, the territory was lost to the British who rebuilt it and named it Fort Clark. The area would remain Fort Clark until 1825 when it was officially renamed Peoria by a group of permanent American settlers, including Josiah Fulton and Abner Eads. In 1835 the small settlement had grown enough to have Peoria incorporated as a town and to begin construction on a courthouse and jail. In 1854 Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas debated the issue of slavery on the steps of the Peoria courthouse. Lincoln’s speech is considered a landmark as it outlined the principles of self-government and liberty that would carry him to the White House just six years later.
Due to its central location and proximity to the Illinois River, Peoria developed into a hub of both water and rail transportation, eventually becoming the 4th largest train depot in the United States. Around this same time, Peoria became the home of Kingman Plow Co., Acme Harvester Co., Selby, Starr & Co, and Keystone Manufacturing Co. Peoria was also a worldwide hub of bicycle making and had nearly 22 breweries. In 1925 the Benjamin Holt Company and C.L. Best Tractor Company combined to form Caterpillar Tractor Company. Peoria’s riverfront, early industry takeoff, and central Illinois location made it perfect to transform from a small military fort into a thriving city.
Today, manufacturing is still a major industry, with more than 200 firms making almost 1,000 different products, including major companies like Caterpillar Company, Keystone Steel & Wire and Komatsu America Corporation. These three companies alone employ over 20,000 people from Peoria and surrounding communities. Nationally, companies in Peoria produce 14 percent of the internal-combustion engines and 8 percent of all construction machinery. In addition to a robust manufacturing sector, the National Center for Agriculture Research is located in Peoria and specializes in soil testing and chemical development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Many major universities call Peoria home, including Bradley University, University of Illinois College of Medicine, and Illinois Central College. The combination of the University Of Illinois College Of Medicine, the Bradley University School of Nursing, and the nursing schools at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center and Methodist Medical Center has made Peoria a hub for continuing education for health care professionals throughout the Midwest.
Peoria is the birthplace of many famous Americans including Richard Pryor, Betty Friedan, General John Shalikashvili, Susan G. Komen and her sister Nancy Brinker, and General Wayne A. Downing.
Peoria is home to many unique and exciting attractions. A convenient walk from many Peoria hotels, the area along the Illinois River is the easiest way to access shopping, dining, and nightlife. Popular riverfront activities include the Sprint of Peoria steamboat cruise, Rhythm Kitchen Music Café, and the summertime Riverfront Market. Just a few blocks from the Riverfront is O’Brien Field, the home of the Peoria Chiefs. The Chiefs are a Class A minor league team affiliated with the Chicago Cubs that have called Peoria home since 1983.
Just a short drive from the Riverfront are more great Peoria Attractions. With over 100 species of animals and a brand new Africa Exhibit, the Peoria Park District Zoo is always a popular destination. The Zoo also offers a variety of special events from Breakfast with Giraffes to Howl-Zoo-Ween festivities. Another great Peoria resource is the Lakeview Museum. With permanent art and natural science exhibits, Lakeview also attracts unique traveling exhibits and has an impressive planetarium. Stop by for a planetarium show, ranging from a family show narrated by Sesame Street characters to a laser light show set to a soundtrack of classic rock. The Lakeview family will be moving to a brand new facility, the Peoria Riverfront Museum, within the year. With more space for exhibits and a new, state-of- the-art planetarium, the Riverfront Museum will be a great addition to the Peoria riverfront.
Peoria Historical Society