Forgotten Peorians

Bob Hoffer, Local History Enthusiast

Click on the arrow below to listen to the remarks. Audio courtesy of WCBU-FM 89.9. A transcript is below the photo. All photos courtesy of the City of Peoria.

Thank you, Chuck, and all of the preceding speakers. I want to make one thing real clear. And that is that accomplishments like this are not done by one. These kinds of things are made to happen by many. And the team that we had was outstanding. The participation that we’ve had from all the sponsors and supporters has been just amazing. It would not have happened without them. And today, we we officially name Freedom and Remembrance Memorial Park, and we thereby highlight the memorial of that name to commemorate so many Peorians, some who were forgotten some over 170 years.

The actual cemetery borders both Adams Street and Griswold, and it did not include this corner. Who were these 2,725 individuals, and as was said, more than 2,600 are still there yet today? In a few moments, Carl Adams will share with you about Nance Legins-Costley. And Joe Hutchinson will then tell us more about the 52 veterans. As was said before, one of them was at Juneteenth, and his gravesite on an actual, old 1874 plat map is determinable, and that came from the Illinois Roll of Honor of the veterans when they did a survey in 1956, I think it was. And they documented the location of burials, and those locations of a few of the veterans here at Moffatt we’re known. His is just off of Adams Street on that lot down there that used for storing phone poles. At one time, there was an old Mr. Quick restaurant there in the 1950s. And I’m not going to ask anybody here to remember that.

So, there are many there, too, that were linked in one way or another to our actual revolution, the Revolutionary War. But I want to first talk about, in general about those that are there. Most of them were born in the United States. But nearly 400 were immigrants from a dozen Northern European nations. Most came from Germany, the British Isles and Sweden. One such immigrant was my wife Ev’s great-grandfather, Mons Nelson. He immigrated directly to Peoria from Sweden, and he worked in the rail yards down near where the current Cedar Street Bridge lands on this side of the river. And he was able to soon pay for his family to join him in America.

Sadly, just when he was in his 40s, he died suddenly, while he was driving his farm wagon, taking the family to church at the Swedish Lutheran church on Christmas morning, 1885. It was a sad day, a sad Christmas for that family. Most of that family is buried at Fond du Lac Cemetery in East Peoria. Ev asked me where in the world is my great grandfather buried. Family lore says it’s Peoria, but nobody knows. And that is what brought us all here today.

Well, I used to say that I’m more lucky at this than I am good. But I have found out that it’s not luck. It’s divine providence that leads you from one thing to another. And if it’s the Lord’s will, that something’s going to be known, it will be known. And if you’re going to be fortunate enough to be the agent of doing that, that’s fine, do it and get on with it.

So there was one discovery after another. As was mentioned, there were coroner records. There were the old records at the health department that hadn’t been looked at in a century. We found them in the basement of the courthouse. One thing after another. A lot of the US-born people that are buried there were from Illinois, but over 300 were from 25 other states. Ohio, New York, Indiana, Missouri, and Pennsylvania were the most common. More than 50 were African Americans. So these demographics say much about Peoria’s attraction, and its growth in the 19th century. Sadly, about six out of every 10 buried there were under the age of seven at the time they died. Child mortality in the 19th century was terrific. Most of them, these causes were stillbirths, premature births, tuberculosis, cholera, and pneumonia.

And as was mentioned, in 1905, the city health director and the city council ordered the cemetery closed, and you’ve heard that story. It was said that the records of the cemetery association were lost and that everyone that had been buried there had been moved. I have been able to document about 100 removals out of all 2,725. The old Health Department records reports that were found and transcribed by Peoria County Genealogical Society, they are now in bound volumes at the Peoria Public Library, and there’s also a set of them at the Pekin Library, and others are also acquiring them, and all of the records from those old health department books are now transcribed and available. Also online for members of the society, and you can get access to them.

Because of the national significance of the links to Abraham Lincoln, the end of slavery, and now the links to Juneteenth – you can see the Juneteenth flag over there – it is proudly flying between the marker for the veterans and Nancy’s marker, connecting the two at this point in history.

So Freedom and Remembrance Memorial is in a growing number now of state and national databases, along with GPS coordinates, so it’s going to be easier for people, visitors to find this memorial. The project team, as I mentioned, this is their effort as a whole. And we are hopeful that this memorial will be sufficiently recognized and cause a continuing commemoration of our long-forgotten family and community members that are buried near here, such that they are forgotten no more.

Thank you very much. And I now introduce to you, Joe Hutchinson, who will speak about the veterans.