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New research suggests French explorer La Salle's Ft. Crevecoeur's true locale was in Beardstown

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Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway
A reconstruction of La Salle's Ft. Crevecoeur at Ft. Crevecoeur Park in Creve Coeur, Ill. based upon its original design and dimensions.

Conventional wisdom tells us the traditional location of the French Fort Crevecoeur was somewhere in the Peoria area.

Where exactly that is has long been disputed, but it's generally believed the fort lay somewhere along the eastern bank of the Illinois River.

There's even a Tazewell County village and a park named after the 1680 fort which is said to be the first public building constructed by Europeans within the state of Illinois.

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Public domain
A 19th century engraving depicting René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.

But a researcher's new look at the letters of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle suggests the fort lends credence to a theory that LaSalle actually built his fort much further down the river.

The definition of the length of a French league may determine where on the map you place La Salle's Lake Pimiteoui ("Fat Lake"), and by association, the famous Ft. Crevecoeur built alongside it.

Though split into two words in modern parlance, the French spelled it "Crevecoeur" (pronounced krev-CUR). It roughly translates to "heartbreak" in French.

Retired biology teacher Richard Gross has studied La Salle's travels for decades. He was one of the participants in the 1970s re-enactment of La Salle's 1681-82 expedition from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico.

While none of La Salle's personal records on the expedition survive, his letters back to Paris do. But Gross claims most accounts of the expedition are based not on these documents, but rather erroneous accounts created by Father Louis Hennepin plagiarized from sales documents based upon the letters.

"He took much liberty in his account, and he changed things. He embellished things. He added things to make himself look much more important," said Gross. "One of the things that he did was when he got to the Illinois River, he made an embellishment that made it appear as though Peoria Lake was LaSalle's Lake Pimiteoui."

According to Gross, later accounts by historians like Jared Sparks and Francis Parkman based their work off Hennepin's version, rather than La Salle's original letters.

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Illinois Historical Society / History of the Illinois River Valley
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Public domain
An artist's impression of Fort Crevecoeur from the 1932 book "History of the Illinois River Valley" by John Lee Conger.

Rich Gross became acquainted with Marty Fischer, who has long maintained a belief that Fort Crevecoeur was actually located near Beardstown. Gross believed Fischer's theory could have some merit, and began to work with him.

"There is no account that says that where Fort Crevecoeur is, but there are maps that identify Lake Pimiteoui and show Fort Crevecoeur at the southeast corner of Lake Pimiteoui," he said. "So now armed with that knowledge, once you identify Lake Pimiteoui, you can start looking for Fort Crevecoeur."

Gross and Fischer obtained English translations of La Salle's original letters through the Detroit Public Library. Combing through La Salle's letters, Gross considered his "league" to be around three miles, the distance he said was considered a standard league in New France in the era.

"When he says it's 15 leagues from the portage to the Des Plaines River, or to the Illinois River, you look at that and you compare the distance 46 miles to 15 leagues and you go, 'That sounds an awful lot like three miles per League, doesn't it?'" he said. "You do that five or six times and you get a real good sense for what La Salle's distance estimates were."

Gross matched La Salle's estimates of distance up against the first federal survey of the state of Illinois conducted in the 1830s, before the rivers were significantly altered by human activity.

"So we set out to support Marty's conclusion that Crevecoeur was at this place, with the idea that Crevecoeur should have been at Creve Coeur, Illinois, and my thought was okay, prove it. I couldn't," he said. "All I could prove was Beardstown, Beardstown, Beardstown."

Beardstown is more than 75 miles to the southwest of Creve Coeur. But Gross said it begins to make sense when comparing La Salle's account to those of later French explorers like Henri de Tonti, who in 1691 founded Fort St. Louis de Pimiteoui.

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Claude Bernou
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Public domain
Fort de Crevecoeur (circled in red) on Abbott Claude Bernou's 1681 map of New France.

To further complicate matters, the French may actually have referred to two separate lakes as Pimiteoui at different times. Gross said the Peoria Lakes picked up the appellation in the early 18th century, when the French encountered American Indians at their summer villages near present-day Peoria.

Gross said Beardstown fits better with La Salle's description of a Lake Pimiteoui. He mentions three distinct pools, not the two which make up the Peoria Lakes. He said La Salle also described his lake as a wintering ground for American Indians, south of the area where the river freezes over in the colder months. Gross said that description fits for the Illinois River at Beardstown, but not Peoria.

Gross said La Salle's Fort Crevecoeur was likely constructed on a bay in a swampy area south of Beardstown, as a temporary fortification meant to protect a shipbuilding yard.

"It was the first European structure built in Illinois, but it was never meant to be a permanent settlement," he said.

Gross recently published his research in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. He admits he's taken some flack from people who accuse him of revisionist history. But he maintains all he's doing is checking the work of previous history buffs - and finding the research based off Hennepin's version lacking.

"I'm telling the story closer to the truth than anybody has before. And the thing that I have is, I know the documents, and I can support every statement I make with historical documents, with historical facts," he said.

Gross said the area he believes Fort Crevecoeur was constructed is cut off from the river by a levee today. That's increased the water levels significantly from La Salle's day. Gross said he now wants to pump enough water out of the area to get some sensors down to look for archaeological evidence to support his theory.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.