Monday, November 15, 2010

Pierre Parrant

Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant is recognized as being the first person of European descent to live within the borders of what would eventually become the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota. His exploits would eventually propel him to local fame and infamy in addition to seeing his name briefly adorn the village that would one day become Minnesota’s capital city.

There are conflicting sources as to Pierre Parrant’s exact history before settling in the Minnesota Territory. However, most sources indicate that he was of French Canadian origin and born near Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, in or around 1777. For most of his adult life Parrant made his living as a fur trapper while working for a company called McKenzie and Chouteau. During his days as a fur trapper “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, so called because he was blind in one eye, would start to gain a somewhat dubious reputation with law enforcement. This is most likely due to his dabbling as a part-time bootlegger.

With the onset of age and the decline in the fur trade, Parrant began seeking new endeavors to earn a living. His search for new opportunities would bring him to a fledgling new settlement near a military outpost called Fort Snelling in the Minnesota Territory.

Arriving at Mendota in 1832, Parrant would begin to carve out a new life for himself while residing in a squatter’s colony near Fort Snelling. His new career found him distilling his own liquor which he then sold to other squatters, the indigenous people of the area, and even to the soldiers of the fort.

This new business served “Pig’s Eye” (French: L'Oeil du Cochon) well until 1838 when the squatters were forced off the land surrounding the fort due to their strain on surrounding resources. It was at this time that the sixty-plus year old Parrant made a claim on a tract of land at the entrance of what was known as Fountain Cave. This cave was situated on the North bank of the Mississippi River just south of what is now Downtown St. Paul.

Then, on or around June 1, 1838 Parrant completed building a small shack that, according to a historical publication by Albert A. Jones, dated 1892, became “the first habitation, and the first business house of St. Paul.” Thus Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant became the first inhabitant of the future city of St. Paul.

Fountain Cave was an excellent location for Pierre Parrant to select for his claim as the spring inside the cave provided a steady water supply for his still. Parrant’s bar, known as “Pig’s Eye” or “Pig’s Eye Pandemonium” was easily accessible to local residents, riverboat crews working on the river, and to the soldiers from nearby Fort Snelling as well. Parrant had become so popular, in fact, that when a nearby resident named Joseph R. Brown sent a letter to a friend in 1839 he listed the return address simply as “Pig’s Eye.” Not long after, Brown actually received correspondence back at the address he had listed.

Consequently, the growing community around Pierre’s bar became known as “Pig’s Eye.” The city’s name might have remained Pig’s Eye had it not been for the arrival of a Catholic priest named Lucien Galtier. So aghast was Galtier that the village on the river derived its name from a man of such ill-repute that, when he built his small chapel in the area in 1841, he reportedly stated, “Pig’s Eye, converted thou shalt be, like Saul; Arise, and be, henceforth, Saint Paul!" It is somewhat disputed whether or not Father Galtier actually said those words. However, whether he did or not, the story complements the deeds of Parrant, and contributes to the folklore of the city.

In 1844, Pierre Parrant lost his claim at Fountain Cave and was forced to vacate the land where he had become so successful. However, it is not clear exactly why he was forced to give up his claim at Fountain Cave. Some sources indicate that he was involved in a border dispute with a neighbor; while other sources say he was forced to sell his claim because of mounting debts. In either case it is clear that Pierre Parrant’s golden age had come and gone.

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