Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant was the first person of European descent to live within the borders of what would eventually become the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota.:134 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.:64 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 Pierre 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.
Pierre Parrant in Minnesota
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.:64 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)) 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 east bank of the Mississippi River just upstream from what is now Downtown Saint 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 Saint Paul." :134 Thus Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant became the first inhabitant of the future city of Saint Paul. Such an honor being given to a man with Parrant's reputation raised the ire of some historians such as J. Fletcher Williams who lamented:
Such was the man on whom Fortune, with that blind fatuity that seems to characterize the jade, thrust the honor of being the founder of our good city! Our pride almost revolts at the chronicling of such a humiliation, and leads us to wish that it were on one worthier and nobler that such a distinction had fallen. But history is inexorable, and we must record facts as they are.:65
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. It was there, at Fountain Cave, that Saint Paul's first entrepreneur opened up a tavern that would become wildly popular with the surrounding community. 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.:147 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. As a result of this, 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!":147 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.
Life after Saint Paul
There is still further mystery about what happened to Parrant after leaving Saint Paul. Some sources state that he became so upset about losing his claim that he decided to leave the Minnesota area and return to Sault Ste. Marie, only to die along the way in 1844. Whereas, there are other sources that state he eventually settled near Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, where he died between 1872 and 1886. The latter of these two theories is unlikely since he would have been around the age of 100 when he died, which was extremely rare for someone living at that time.
- Breining, Greg (2006). Minnesota. New York: Fodor's.
- Lareau, Paul. "Pig's Eye Notepad". Archived from the original on 2008-03-29. Retrieved 2006-03-26.
- Williams, J. Fletcher (1876). A history of the city of Saint Paul, and the county of Ramsey, Minnesota. Saint Paul: The Society.
- "Pierre Parrant (Pig's Eye) (1801-?)". National Park Service. Archived from the original on 2006-05-03. Retrieved 2011-01-30.
- Brainard Kunz, Virginia (1991). McClure, Jane, ed. Saint Paul, The First 150 Years. The Saint Paul Foundation, Inc. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-9630690-0-9.
- Whiting Young, Biloine (2004). River Of Conflict, River Of Dreams: Three Hundred Years On The Upper Mississippi. Canada: Pogo Press. p. 124. ISBN 978-1-880654-30-9.