Wine-bottle shard provides long-sought proof of old French site

December 03, 2001

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Finally. The site of a well-documented but long-lost 18th century French frontier village has been found in a former city neighborhood of Peoria, Ill.

University of Illinois archaeologists working with the Illinois Department of Transportation in a state-funded project to relocate State Highway 29, while protecting potential historic sites, have turned up a fragment of a wine bottle that was made in France around the time of the American Revolution. Nearby, they found darker soil indicating the wall trench outlines of a traditional French cabin. The discoveries, made on Nov. 8 about a mile north of Interstate 74, and on high ground about 300 meters from the river, not only pinpoint the lost French site, but settle many old debates.

"Historians have been arguing since the mid-1800s where this village was located, and archaeologists have been actively searching for this site since the late 1960s," said Thomas Emerson, an archaeologist and director of the UI's ITARP, the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, which examines future roadway construction sites for possible historical importance.

"We all knew from the documents that the French were in this area in the late 1700s, but the big question was: Would there be anything left?" said John A. Walthall, the chief archaeologist for IDOT, noting that "a great deal of digging takes place in the making of a city."

"This is a major discovery," Emerson said "and an example of the productive 40-year relationship of the UI and IDOT in protecting Illinois' past." The highway is being relocated for the expansion of a steel mill. As neighborhood residents relocate, their lots are being examined.

Historical documents suggest that the property belonged to Louis Chatellereau, a French farmer and fur trader. The "Old Village of Peoria" in the "Illinois Country" had a small and sporadic population between the mid-1760s and 1800, said Robert Mazrim, an ITARP historical archaeologist who, with colleague David Nolan, found the new evidence; they began working on the site this summer. The heart of the French colony in Illinois was centered around modern-day Kaskaskia Island and Cahokia, Mazrim said. "Peoria was a sleepier locale, populated primarily by Indians until the 1770s."

Chatellereau probably lived in a large house nearer the river. The inhabitants of the cabin may have been his field hands. Their 13-by-20-foot cabin was made of cedar logs set vertically in trenches, then plastered with clay. It had two rooms and perhaps a porch or gallery on the west side.

A hand-forged nail and small bits of animal bone also were found. That very few artifacts were discovered wasn't too surprising, Walthall said, since the inhabitants probably had few possessions.

Previous attempts to find 17th and 18th century sites in and around Peoria have failed for several reasons, Mazrim said: "lack of access to properties, misinterpretations of the archival record, methodology in digging and misleading expectations. Few investigators have had the opportunity to open large areas like we did," he said, noting that they were doubly lucky. "This was our first look."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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