Bureau County Genealogical Society hosts program that examines both sides of history
PRINCETON – Illinois is celebrating its bicentennial, but there were those who were deeply influential in the time before statehood whose conflicts and contributions aren’t widely known outside of historians.
The Bureau County Genealogical Society’s recent program, “Exploring the Two Faces of Illinois’ History,” provided those in attendance with a chance to not only learn about this important time in the creation of the state of Illinois, but to also hear the voices of the opposing sides: territorial Gov. Ninian Edwards and Potawatomi Chief Gomo.
The featured speaker was professional storyteller Brian “Fox” Ellis, who performed as both figures. Ellis has been honing his craft for 38 years and is also an author, historian, actor and naturalist.
His appearance was funded through the Illinois Road Scholars Speakers Bureau and the Illinois Humanities Council. This program marked the 20th time Ellis has performed this year as Edwards and Chief Gomo.
“Much of what you’re going to hear tonight has been taken directly from the speeches these two men delivered to each other,” Ellis said at the start of the program.
“They both gave the truth as they knew it, and I want you to compare and contrast what they say to come up with your own opinions and discussions,” he said.
Edwards (1775-1833) served as the only governor of the Illinois Territory from 1809 to 1818, as one of the first United States senators from Illinois from 1818 to 1824, and as the new state’s third governor from 1826 to 1830.
Ellis, as Edwards, shared his background in Kentucky, how he came to be influential enough to become the territorial governor, his role in the War of 1812, and of his place in the forced removal of natives from the area.
“He helped set the national policy for the forced removal of the tribes and also advocated that Illinois be a slave state,” Ellis said of Edwards during the question-and-answer portion of the program.
Edwards is also the inspiration for the naming of Edwards County, Edwardsville, the Edwards River and the Edwards Trace.
Edwards said repeatedly that he was in search of peace when he spoke to a gathering of 34 tribal leaders as territorial governor, but nonetheless threatened them with war and their complete devastation in regards to the murder of settlers by unknown natives, as well as about their potential support of the British.
After attacks on forts in other areas, Edwards considered the actions of one tribe as the actions of all tribes and ordered the brutal attack on the village of Black Partridge situated north of Peoria and along the river, killing many and destroying their crops, just as he threatened he would.
After Black Partridge’s village was destroyed, Gomo found the survivors and led them to safety and provided them with food and shelter. Chief Gomo’s village, also along the river north of Peoria, was one of many that were destroyed during the War of 1812 by an Illinois militia under the orders of Edwards.
Chief Gomo denied involvement with the settler’s murders and also questioned Edwards about his threats of war and the hypocrisy of saying he was desiring peace and friendship. He pointed out that while Edwards was currently saying they weren’t seeking more land, that when land had been previously sought and the natives promised they’d be fairly reimbursed with provisions, the settlers had lied and cheated them.
Gomo also reminded Edwards of when early settlers were in desperate need and how his people had provided them with help to survive the winter. He then said his people were now starving because they hadn’t received the provisions due to them in exchange for their land.
He additionally spoke of how the area’s game animals had become depleted because of how the settlers hunted. Edwards’ response was dismissive, and he thought Gomo and his people were only in search of alcohol.
“If this is how you treat a friend, I am wary when you call me friend,” Gomo repeatedly told Edwards as he described the multiple instances of betrayal at the hands of the settlers.
According to Ellis, the native people of Illinois and the surrounding lands were forcibly moved to Kansas in 1838 along what’s become known as the Potawatomi Death Trail. The trail began in Indiana and stretched across the south central part of Illinois from Danville to Quincy before continuing through Missouri and into Kansas.
During this bicentennial year, Edwards’ contributions to the creation of this state are valuable and should not be overlooked, but neither should the words and destiny of Chief Gomo, who was also one of this land’s important and influential early leaders.