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Another Forgotten Mystery of Peoria History

Charles Owen may have been the first African American settler in what we know today as Peoria and perhaps also the oldest person to have died here. Peoria had about four buildings when he arrived here in 1822, just three years after the first European American settlers. His coming was under interesting circumstances, almost as interesting as the personal history he brought along. The sketch below depicts 1831 and laying out the Town was four years away as French land title disputes delayed any significant development until 1833. Nevertheless, work was certainly available; he must have found shelter and sustenance, and participated in the life of what became Peoria.

1831 Sketch of Peoria from the East by J.M. Roberts. Source: Peoria Historical Society.

Charles said he was from Richmond, Virginia and was probably born into slavery about 1735. His story and routes here, with one very historical exception, are as yet unknown. He was already about 87 years old upon arrival when accompanying a whiskey peddler with a load of product in a pirogue. Where that trip originated and how Charles found his way to that affiliation are also is a mystery. The spirits entrepreneur, a Mr. Harris, left Charles here after selling his boatload of “fire water” to the Indians at the Senachewine village near the current city of Chillicothe.

In 1844, Simeon DeWitt Drown, Town Surveyor (and also a printer, engraver, and mapmaker) compiled and published the first Peoria Directory by which he inquired of all who resided here. This volume is, in itself, a treasure trove of information about our area and its history. Drown’s directory mentions the census of 1,619 persons including an entry for “Owen Charles, (colored man, aged about 110, a pauper,*)” Charles was listed as living on Washington between Main and Fulton, in other words, right in the ‘middle of everything’ going on in Peoria. By then he had been here 22 years and must have known many and been known by more.

Almost nothing is known about Charles’ life and work in Peoria but we do have information about his death. This article appeared in ‘modern times’ in a local newspaper column ‘Peoriana’ which featured historical events around town.

Source: Peoria Public Library

A transcription of early Peoria burials compiled by Drown was found at the Peoria Public Library. It shows Charles Owen (last entry) as having died on December 18, 1844, at the age of 110.

Source: Peoria Public Library

 

(Compilers Note: This list of Peoria deaths for 1844 also includes some already by then well-known early Peoria names: Durst, Wren, Curtenius and, notably, that of Moses Pettengill, local abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor, whose child had died at age six.)

Efforts to find where Charles was buried have so far yielded no results. While at that time the “Old French Cemetery” in Block 35 of the Town (bounded by Adams, Harrison, Washington, and Bridge) was just three blocks away from where he is said to have lived, it was already being disrespectfully built over commercially as Peoria rapidly expanded. Since Charles was a “pauper” he more probably was buried at civic expense in The Public Graveyard established by the growing Town of Peoria in 1839 which later became known as “Old City Cemetery” on Lincoln Avenue.

Other information in this 1844 Peoria Directory entry makes Charles’ story even more interesting than his arrival and is directly connected to events that shaped our Nation. Again, from Drown’s Directory the asterisk on Charles’ entry on page 90 leads one to the footnote which includes the statement, “He says he was about 19 years old at Braddock’s defeat, July 9, 1755, and that he remembers it well.”

Braddock’s Defeat is recounted in many sources as the Battle of the Monongahela where French and American Indian forces from Fort Duquesne ambushed and soundly defeated General Edward Braddock’s Red Coats and Colonial forces. Upon Braddock’s death during the retreat from battle, his young Aide-de-Camp, Virginia Colonel George Washington, who though not officially in the chain of command, took charge then deftly and bravely led the British and allied forces away from total annihilation. I find it particularly interesting that at the time of his death Charles lived on a street named Washington, his then temporary commanding officer.

We can only wonder how Charles Owen may have come to be at that historic event; perhaps as a servant or slave, or even possibly in a combat role, if not initially, perhaps as the defeat and retreat unfolded. In any event, he may have played some significant role at the time and most certainly was very close to America’s Founding Father two decades before the official start of the American Revolution. It was these connections which led me, as a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, to search for his possible participation in subsequent events of the Revolution itself. While nothing on that has been found to date, even so, his is still a very interesting African American and ‘Peoria Story.’

Charles Owen – Very Early African American Peoria Settler “Forgotten No More.”

Bob Hoffer is a local history enthusiast and Bradley grad now over 20 years retired from nearly 40-years in management at Cat.