Jonathan Tharp may have been Pekin’s first pioneer settler, but this area was occupied long before him by Native Americans.
“It’s part of our history,” said Christal Dagit, president of the Tazewell County Museum, which houses artifacts from local Native American history among its collection. “The Native Americans lived and breathed and were here for thousands of years before the pioneers came in.”
“People need to understand how the Native Americans lived,” Dagit added. “They had structured societies, (a form of) government and they were interconnected. They had a wonderful trading route.”
A city proclamation names November as National American Indian Heritage Month and urges citizens to observe the month “with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities.” The Pekin Public Library plans to put up a display of Native American books and materials during the month.
A national observation of Native American Awareness Week began in 1976 and was expanded to National American Heritage Month under former President George H.W. Bush in 1990.
“I think it is important that all Americans recognize and appreciate the many contributions the first inhabitants of our country have made to our very diverse culture,” Mayor John McCabe said. “We need to be more aware of the significance of all the different ethnic groups that make up our culture, both nationally and locally. There is a lot that can be learned from those who have different backgrounds than our own.”
In choosing Native American artifacts to include in the Tazewell County Museum’s small collection, Dagit chose items that mostly show the agricultural side of their culture.
“We don’t have a very large collection, but what we have is important to our area,” she said. “Because here in Pekin, there was a more agricultural community of Native Americans, and the artifacts show the agricultural and farming side of things rather than the war.”
Included in the collection are a stone hoe, knife blades, arrow points, a grinding stone and a copy of a treaty. When the museum moved in 2015 to its current location in the Arcade Building at 15 S. Capitol St., Dagit said members of the Seven Circles Heritage Center in Edwards came to bless the Native American relics.
“The history of Native Americans in this area goes back thousands of years,” Dagit said. “In more modern history, which would be the 1800s, we had an extensive Native American population here and all up and down the Illinois River Valley.
“In Pekin, there were two Indian villages. Chief Shabbona, whose picture is in our city history, had his village site between McLean Street and Broadway Road down where the old Franklin School is. The village of Chief Lebourse Sulky was established around where the Pekin Boat Club is now, going north along the river.”
A Kickapoo tribe also had a village site at the north end of Pekin Lake and other Native American villages could be found around East Peoria and near the McClugage Bridge area, Dagit added.
Most of chiefs in the Illinois Valley area fought in the war of 1812 with Shawnee war chief Tecumseh. Shabbona was with Tecumseh when the warrior fell at the Battle of Tippecanoe, which led Shabbona to make peace with the U.S. government and protect white settlers in the Pekin area during the Black Hawk War, according to Charles C. Chapman’s “History of Tazewell County.”
Dagit said she does sometimes field questions from the community about local Native American history, and she’s available to give talks on the subject to local groups. She has researched and written a compendium on Shabbona’s life.
For more information or to arrange for Dagit to give a talk, call her at (309) 840-0177 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The museum website address is www.tazewellcountymuseum.com.