“Stephen French and Family” by Mrs. J.E. Merritt, 1906, is a historical account of the French family’s early pioneering days in Prince’s Grove, Illinois. The story chronicles the challenges faced by Stephen and Anna French as they settled in the area and the hardships they endured, including sickness, wolves, and encounters with wild Indians. The French family’s legacy is also highlighted, with emphasis on their hospitable and kind-hearted nature towards all, as well as their tragic losses, including the death of Captain John French during the Civil War. The article provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the early settlers of Prince’s Grove.
By Mrs. J. E. Merritt, 1906
The first man to move his family to Prince’s Grove was Stephen French, who came here from Fort Clark in 1828 and settled on the land known as the Onias Bliss farm, now owned by Emanuel Keller, He built a cabin near where the Onias Bliss frame house now stands. When Stephen was away the wife Anna and her little ones had for company wild Indians, wild woods, wild wolves and wild cats. The original cabin built by Mr. French stood until recent years and is, I suppose, well remembered by many present.
Mr. French and his wife, like Mr. Prince, loved pioneering, their son Mr. Dimmick French, being the first white child born in Peoria County. They had no pronounced religious views but were hospitable to all denominations alike, They were very kind hearted, Mrs. French doing much in ministering to the sick, and nursing wherever suffering among the early settlers called her. At one time there was much sickness in their neighborhood. Often when the day’s work was (lone, she and Stephen would take their two little ones and go to the sick neighbor’s where she would spend the night in caring for the sick one, her husband in looking after the children. Mrs. French has often told me stories of their early days here, At one time she invited the Indian women in the Grove to take supper with her. She set her table as if for white guests. When the Indian women were seated they looked in astonishment at the knives and forks and then at each other. Then they picked them up and minutely examined the strange instruments. Laying them again carefully in their places, the women fell to eating with their hands.
Many nights when Mr. French was away on business she would look out and see the yellow glaring eyes of the wolves prowling around the cabin, And they were not prairie coyotes either, but tremendous black and gray wolves. You may be certain that Mistress Anna did not let the children out of doors on these occasions, She had no strong clapboard doors fastened with chain and padlock, as Mr. Cutter has, but depended for safety in barricading the door of her cabin where ordinarily only a quilt hung, with whatever available means she had, and in keeping a bright fire constantly roaring in the huge fire-place.
In this little cabin several of the French children were born, Mirandus, born March 9, 1832, being the first white child native at Prince’s Grove, There were eleven children in all, but in 1848 some serious disease developed among them and in a few weeks five promising children were laid to rest, some of them being already grown, The family have proven very short lived as a rule, Several of them died in their twenty-eighth year.
Captain John French was the youngest boy of the family. He enlisted in the early days of the Civil War, and was in Sherman’s famous March from Atlanta to the Sea. He fought in the very last struggles on Cape Fear River, where in March, 1865, a cruel bullet ended his young and promising life. This seems especially sad as this battle in which he lost his life was fought after the surrender of Lee and after the war was virtually ended, He died not knowing that the cause for which he gave his life was already successful, that liberty, union and peace were triumphant. To remember Captain French is to remember one of Princeville ‘s most promising and energetic young men.
In the year 1857 Mr. French bought a home in the Village of Princeville and they moved from the little cabin where they had experienced so many sorrows and joys, to the new home where he and his wife spent the remainder of their days.
None of the original members of the family are now living, the name having become extinct, Of the grandchildren six are living, There are sixteen great-grandchildren and two great great-grandchildren. Mr. French was one of the first magistrates elected in this place, and filled offices of trust many times, and we feel that both Stephen and Anna French filled their places in life well and honorably.
(Mr. J. Z. Slane says that John French was killed before Lee’s surrender. He was mortally wounded on March 16, 1865, and died early next morning. Lee surrendered April 9, 1865.)