FICAS WEB ARTICLE
Pimitéoui at Peoria: A Brief Overview of the Place Name
Michael McCafferty and Mark Walcyznski 2022
During the time of the French in Illinois, from the late 1600s through the 1700s, the widening of the Illinois River at present Peoria, Illinois, was known as Pimitéoui. This place name was first recorded by the French during the explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle’s initial trip down the Illinois River in the winter of 1679-80. Pimitéoui then begins to appear on French maps that were based on accounts and cartography made by La Salle’s party. The earliest surviving of these is probably Franquelin’s 1684 map “Carte de la Louisiane ou des voyages du Sr. De La Salle”, taken from information collected between 1680 and 1682 (see above). This map, like those that followed, depicts the expansion of the Illinois River at modern-day Peoria Lake, as well as the site of La Salle’s short-lived Fort de Crevecoeur at the foot of the lake on its east bank.
LOCATION AND SETTING
In his letter describing events of 1679 and 1680, La Salle used the place name Pimitéoui not only in reference to activities at his short-lived Fort de Crevecoeur, but also in relative distances to other well-known locales. Upon leaving the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia (near Starved Rock) on January 1st 1680, he wrote: “We traveled south southwest along this river and arrived on the fifth of January at the place that the Indians call in their language Pimiteoui.” (Margry 1974: 2:37).
The French Priest St. Cosme described his trip down the river from Chicago in the fall of 1698:
“.. we arrived on the 15th of November at the place called the Old Fort. This is a rock on the bank of the river, about a hundred feet high, whereon Monsieur de la Salle had caused a fort to be built [Starved Rock], … We slept a league above it.. There we commenced the navigation [November 16?], that continues to be always good as far as the fort of Permetaoui [La Salle’s 1691 Fort St Louis at Peoria], where the savages now are [the Peoria were at Lake Peoria] and which we reached on the 19th of November” (Kellogg 2001: 350).
By the 1690s (and very likely before) Pimitéoui was an important locale for the Illinois Nation, and particularly the Peoria Tribe, who made the region their home until the mid-1750s. The French built a third fortification there – again called Fort St Louis – on the west bank of the lake in 1691. Jesuit priests followed with a mission church near the fort in 1693.
In early October of 1721, the Jesuit and historian Pierre-François Xavier de Charlevoix and a party of French canoe men arrived at Lake Peoria. Charlevoix described the lake and its environs: “Nothing can be more delightful than its situation; opposite to it is the prospect of a most beautiful forest, which was then adorned with all the variety of colors, and behind it is a plain of an immense extent, skirted with woods. The lake and river swarm with fish, and the banks of both with game.” (Kellogg 1966: II: 205).
A particularly detailed account of the specific geographical setting of Pimitéoui was made by the Jesuit missionary Pierre Potier sixty years after La Salle’s expedition. It notes that, in traveling downstream and passing La prairie du Corbeau (an enduring Illinois place name that survives in English in “Crow Creek Prairie,” across from modern Chillicothe), the next site of significance was Lac de Pimiteoui, or “Lake Pimiteoui”. This entry is immediately followed in the itinerary by the expected hydronym le petit détroit, the French name for the little strait between upper and lower Lake Peoria. These notations are followed in the itinerary by entries downstream for Kickapoo Creek, Mackinac River, Quiver Creek, the Twin Mounds, and various other well-known streams located further south along the Illinois River (Pierre Philippe Potier ms., Archives de la Société de Jésus Canada Français, Montreal, Gazettes, 71).
THE MEANING OF THE WORD
As is common, the meaning of the place name Pimitéoui has been misinterpreted and misrepresented by non-linguists and non-Indigenous speakers of the Illinois-Miami language, and incorrect translations have been handed down through the generations. However, the actual etymology of the word is an interesting one (McCafferty 2009).
Traditionally, the mistranslation of Pimitéoui has read “place of fat” or “place of fat beasts,” and the like. The mistake was made early – Father Hennepin (who accompanied La Salle in Illinois) wrote “The same day we went thro’ a Lake form’d by the River, about seven Leagues long, and one broad. The Savages call that Place Pimiteoui; that is, in their Tongue, A Place where there is abundance of fat Beasts” (Thwaites 1974: 154-55).
This misinterpretation arose because the word in the Illinois-Miami language for “fat” (i.e., the substance) is pimi. Indeed, “fat” is exactly what those non-fluent early French visitors thought they heard when they heard Pimitéoui. They naturally connected the idea of “fat” with animals who provided meat and with the idea of good hunting. Consequently, Pimitéoui was interpreted to mean a place where there was an abundance of animals, where fat could be had. However, if the “fat” explanation for the meaning of this place name were correct, that is if the “Pimi” of Pimitéoui did in fact signify “fat,” the rest of the word would be nonsensical.
A similar mistake in interpreting the etymology of a common English word would be, for example, to take the letters “imp” of “important” to mean a “mischievous child” (or an imp), and then to interpret “important” as meaning “a place where there are lots of mischievous children”.
Pimitéoui, pronounced “pee-mee-tay-wee” in colloquial English phonics, is written phonemically pimiteewi. It is what linguists call an independent inanimate intransitive singular verb. The components of the term are pim– ‘by, past’ –itee ‘by heat’ and –wi, the ending on Illinois-Miami independent II verbs that correspond to English verbs starting with “it”. Thus, “Pimitéoui” actually means “it burns past”, or “it burns by.” The term refers to prairie fires moving across the landscape, and in the case of Lake Peoria, probably observes that the marshy environment was largely immune to prairie fires. The lakes and the surrounding floodplain were being described as special, and less susceptible to fire – Pimitéoui.
PIMITÉOUI BECOMES “PEORIA”
Although Potier’s 1750s description used the place name Pimitéoui, by the mid-18th century the use of this name was fading. The old place name was being replaced by “Peoria” (or sometimes the shorthand “Aux Pes” or “Ope”), which referred to the important and long-standing tribal presence there. By the 1760s, the Peoria Tribe had left the area, and the Potawatomi were moving in from the north. A small French village was established near the site of the old Peoria village during the 1760s. This was relocated slightly downriver during the 1790s, to the modern location of downtown Peoria. That village was largely destroyed by Americans during the War of 1812, and after the war, a new American town began to grow.
Kellogg, Louise Phelps (editor) 1966: Pierre-Francis Xavier de Charlevoix, Journal of a Voyage to North America Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1966).
Kellogg, Louise Phelps (editor)2001: Early Narratives of the Northwest, 1634-1699. Heritage Books (facsimile reprint of 1917 edition).
Margry, Pierre (editor) 1974: Découvertes et établissements des Français dans l’ouest et dans le sud de l’Amérique Septentrionale, 1614-1754, 6 volumes. AMS Press, New York.
McCafferty, Michael, 2009: The Illinois Place Name Pimitéoui. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 102, No. 2, Springfield. Illinois.
Thwaites, Reuben Gold (editor) 1974: Louis Hennepin, A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America. Coles Publishing, Toronto.