Historians at the Illinois Historic
Preservation Agency have been researching the life of Pierre Menard
in order to update the interpretation of his rural Randolph County
home, which the agency operates as a historic tourist attraction.
"What we found is that Pierre Menard was one of the most fascinating
characters in early Illinois history whose life was intertwined with
virtually all significant trends and events in the central
Mississippi River valley," said Erin Bishop, historian with the
Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
Menard was a prolific businessman who
aided westward exploration and expansion. His dealings with
displaced Native Americans showed rare generosity and compassion,
making him respected and loved by many Indian tribes. Menard's close
relatives married into some of the most influential early 1800s
families and founded two major U.S. cities. He served in numerous
government posts with local, state and federal governments. And
Menard participated in a second, less successful expedition
involving renowned explorers Lewis and Clark.
Pierre Menard is memorialized in a
statue on the grounds of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
A county in central Illinois is named for him, a penitentiary in
southern Illinois bears his name, and his early 1800s home draws
thousands of people each year.
But why don't more people know about
this French Canadian who left such a lasting impression on Illinois?
"We hope our new research and our new
interpretive approach at the home give people a better understanding
and appreciation of what Pierre Menard accomplished during his long,
productive life," said Bishop.
Menard and his business partner, Jean-Baptiste
Vallé, operated businesses based in what is now Kaskaskia and in
Ste. Genevieve, Mo., from the 1790s through the 1830s. The two men
ran a commercial empire that supplied many of the fur traders and
explorers going west of the Mississippi River, who sold their furs
and Indian goods to Menard and Vallé upon returning. The men kept
accurate records of their transactions, providing a detailed picture
of commercial activity during a key period of western exploration.
"Due to their location and regional
reputation, Menard and Vallé almost certainly supplied the Lewis and
Clark Expedition during their brief stay at Kaskaskia," said Bishop.
"Unfortunately, Menard's records from that time period are strangely
missing, probably the result of unscrupulous treasure-hunters
seeking to cash in on the expedition's fame. Nevertheless, Menard
would cross paths with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark throughout
Those Lewis and Clark connections
continued when Menard later worked for Clark as an Indian subagent,
received a military commission as a colonel from Lewis and
participated with both men in an ill-fated business venture -- but
more on that later.
Menard was perfectly positioned to
oversee the influx of Native Americans who were being forced to
leave their ancestral lands in the eastern United States and move to
new, government-supplied lands west of the Mississippi River. As the
operator of the ferry crossing at Kaskaskia and as one of the
largest merchants selling provisions to those traveling west, Menard
stood to make a bundle from the misery of the Indians. The fact that
he was the U.S. government's appointed Indian subagent from
1813-1833 meant that Menard could control what supplies the Indians
received, and then he could seek reimbursement for those provisions
from the federal government. It had all the makings of a sweetheart
deal for Menard.
Pierre Menard became a lifelong friend
to the Cherokee, Delaware, Shawnee, Wea, Peoria, Piankashaw and
several other Indian tribes. Traders he provisioned were welcomed by
the tribes that knew him. Still, Menard was a shrewd businessman and
managed to make a profit while helping his Indian friends.
The 60-year-old Cherokee war chief
Takatoka, or "beloved man," was leading a delegation of Cherokee and
Shawnee chiefs to visit U.S. President James Monroe in 1824 when the
group stopped at Menard's home near Kaskaskia. Takatoka died at the
home, leaving the delegation without a leader. Menard offered to
take the chief's place, so with the blessing of Superintendent of
Indian Affairs William Clark, Menard traveled with the Indians to
Washington to meet President Monroe. By all accounts, Menard
passionately presented the Indians' concerns about forced relocation
and other matters.
On several occasions Menard gave
provisions to Indian groups at his own expense, although he did
apply for reimbursement from the federal government. Tenskwatawa,
the "Shawnee Prophet," who had fought at the War of 1812 Battle of
Tippecanoe alongside his brother, Tecumseh, was part of a Shawnee
group that experienced great difficulty due to the weather in
December 1826. Menard gave the group provisions, much of it as his
own expense. Delaware Chief William Anderson, a close friend, also
received Menard's assistance when his group ran into problems in
Missouri. In addition, as Indian subagent, Menard fought to protect
the displaced Indians from predatory white settlers, going to court
on at least one occasion to enforce that protection.
The cities of Kansas City, Mo., and
Galveston, Texas, were established by Pierre Menard's family.
Thérèse-Bérénice, a daughter of Menard, married François Chouteau,
son of a founding St. Louis family, in 1819. The newlyweds
established a trading post at the junction of the Kansas and
Missouri Rivers and are recognized as the founders of present-day
Michel B. Menard, Pierre's nephew,
worked for his uncle in the Indian trade before branching out on his
own. He moved south and founded Galveston, Texas, where his home
still stands and is open for public tours.
Pierre Jr. followed in his father's
footsteps and became an Indian subagent in Peoria; his home still
stands in Tremont. Edmond Menard emulated his father's penchant for
public service, holding a seat in the Illinois legislature. And
daughter Alzire kept the family's Lewis and Clark connections alive,
marrying George Hancock Kennerly, William Clark's brother-in-law.
The Menard women played a vital role in
the family's economic and social success. Although little is known
of Pierre Menard's first wife, Thérèse Godin, who died in 1804, his
second wife, Angélique Saucier, brought important society
connections to the family. Angélique was born in a vertical log
French home that later became Cahokia Courthouse. Her grandfather
was the engineer for nearby Fort de Chartres in Prairie du Rocher;
and the Saucier name was well-respected in St. Louis society.
Angélique's connections meant that her children could meet the
"right" people, marry well, and form familial and economic alliances
between the Menards and the new in-laws. Many of Pierre Menard's 14
children had many children of their own during a time when offspring
were considered an economic advantage to a successful businessman
and essential to a family's survival.
Pierre Menard held numerous political
offices under four government regimes, all of which covered
territory in what is now the state of Illinois. He was a militia
captain and a common pleas judge in the Northwest Territory. When
Congress divided the Northwest Territory in 1800 and what is now
Illinois became part of the Indiana Territory, Gov. William Henry
Harrison appointed Menard to a series of powerful judicial
positions. Menard was appointed president of the Illinois Territory
Legislative Council and led this pre-statehood governing body from
1812 to 1818.
Then came Illinois statehood in 1818.
Pierre Menard was widely supported as a candidate for lieutenant
governor -- the state's first -- to serve alongside Gov. Shadrach
Bond. But in the grand tradition of Illinois politics, an exception
had to be made so Menard could run for the office. The state's
constitution required the lieutenant governor to be a U.S. citizen
for at least 30 years prior to his election. But the Canadian-born
Menard, who had sworn an oath of allegiance to Spain in 1794 in
order to do business in Spanish-held territory and who had just
become a U.S. citizen in 1816, was so well-liked that delegates at
the state's 1818 constitutional convention waived the law they had
just created and allowed Menard to run for the office, which he
[to top of second column in
Menard was also active in U.S.
presidential politics. He ran as an elector for John Quincy Adams
during the 1824 election, a disputed contest in which Adams was
declared the victor over Andrew Jackson. The anti-Adams Kaskaskia
Republican tried to paint Menard and Adams as aristocrats: "Col.
Menard is a benevolent man, and it is wondrous kind in him thus to
relieve the people in these hard times, from the burden of
thinking." Menard chaired a meeting in support of William Henry
Harrison's 1836 presidential campaign, criticizing opponent Martin
Van Buren's anti-internal-improvement positions. The slave-holding
Menard also found fault with Van Buren's support for giving blacks
the right to vote.
Menard is probably less well-known for
an 1809 business venture along the same Missouri River route taken
by Lewis and Clark just a few years before. Menard and fellow
merchants formed the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company aimed at
extending trade to the west, and soon made plans for a new
expedition up the Missouri River. The journey began in June 1809,
with Menard and original Lewis and Clark Expedition members John
Colter and George Drouillard among the participants.
The purpose of the trip was twofold.
First, they were to escort Mandan Indian Chief Shehaka, known to the
American government as "Big White," from Washington to his village
in present-day North Dakota. Big White had been invited to the
nation's capital by Lewis and Clark, who were both explorers and
diplomats during their 1804-1806 journey. Now Big White was ready to
return home. Menard's merchant party was commissioned as a body of
the Territorial Militia and publicly financed by the American
government to return Big White to his home. Once the expedition
returned Big White to the Mandan villages, they were free to
continue to the mouth of the Yellowstone River to trap. There they
would enjoy a monopoly on the fur trade, a monopoly granted by the
new governor of Louisiana and an investor in the enterprise,
Meriwether Lewis. "The scheme smacked of nepotism and reeked of
conflict of interest," wrote Lewis and Clark biographer Stephen
The journey ran into serious problems.
Upon reaching the Mandan villages, the partners could not pay some
of the participants the guns, traps and other items they had
promised. Disgusted, journey participant Thomas James wrote, "We
found ourselves taken in, cheated, chizzled, gulfed and swindled."
Still, James described Menard as "an honorable, high-minded
gentleman" who "enjoyed our esteem in a higher degree than any other
at the company."
Misfortune befell the expedition. A
trading post they had set up along the route burned, taking a large
volume of furs with it. The men were forced to eat some of their
horses and dogs when heavy snows trapped them. Indians killed one
entire trapping party, and Drouillard was beheaded and dismembered
in another battle. Meanwhile, back at home, Menard's infant son
Henri died, devastating his wife.
The company's venture realized a profit
only from the return of Shahaka to his village, but the price they
charged the government for this service was deemed too high. The
reputation of the venture was so badly tarnished that William Clark
had to travel to Washington to explain the costs of returning the
Mandan chief and to improve the image of the company in the eyes of
the government. The company was reorganized but then disbanded when
the War of 1812 began.
The first introduction of enslaved
African-Americans into what is now the state of Illinois took place
when Philip Francis Renault left France in 1719, purchased 500
slaves in San Domingo and settled near Fort de Chartres, close to
Prairie du Rocher. Virtually any French resident of any means in the
area from the 1700s through early 1800s owned slaves. Pierre Menard
was no exception.
Menard owned as many as 18 slaves at
one time while living in present-day Randolph County. He was active
in political activities that were designed to keep slavery legal in
the Northwest Territory and later the young state of Illinois. The
efforts of Menard and men like him allowed some form of slavery or
indentured servitude to exist in Illinois until the adoption of the
1848 Illinois Constitution.
Menard is reported to have treated his
slaves well and seemed concerned about their well-being. Still, his
attitude toward them was paternalistic and tinged with racism. He
was an unabashed supporter of the institution of slavery his entire
life, and there is little question that Menard succeeded
commercially due in large part to the use of slaves.
A new vintage and style of home
The traditional interpretation of the
Pierre Menard Home in Ellis Grove has been that it was constructed
between 1799 and 1803. New research, however, points to a later
Menard was in serious financial trouble
in 1800, forcing him to sell of large parcels of land to pay his
debts and making him unlikely to think of building a new home. An
1803 survey calls the Menard homestead "Menard's Cabin," a
description that would not be used to define the Pierre Menard Home
we know today. Census records show large increases in Menard's
household between 1810 and 1820, and the 1820 tax rolls have
Menard's house valued at $3,000 -- a very high figure for the time.
Experts felt they had the home's construction narrowed down to
An anthropologist analyzed several
nails from the Menard Home's roof and concluded these "side-pinched
cut nails, machine headed, and with a burr on the same side of the
face" could have been made no earlier than 1807. Another researcher
took a core sample from several of the Menard Home's massive wall
timbers and concluded they came from white oak trees that were
felled in 1815. But the most compelling piece of evidence came from
an 1818 bill, written in French, to Pierre Menard from carpenter
François Champagne for $700 for "all the work done at the recently
built house." Historians have therefore concluded that the Pierre
Menard Home was built between 1818 and 1820.
Historians have also reclassified the
Menard Home's architectural style. For decades the home has been
billed as the "finest example of French Colonial architecture" in
the central Mississippi River valley. New research, however,
indicates the home should be properly classified as French Creole,
with its own distinctive style within the French Colonial pattern,
originally emanating from the lower Mississippi River valley. Early
French Creole homes combine elements from house types in France with
elements from houses built in the French and Spanish colonies of
South America and the Caribbean.
The French Creole-style home features a
large, wraparound porch called "la galerie," which served as an
outdoor living, eating, sleeping and work space. The home's
foundation was raised, sometimes as much as a full story above
ground level, to protect the main living areas from water, since
most of these homes were located near rivers or marshes. The Menard
Home prominently features these design elements but adds touches of
Canadian, Norman and Anglo-American design to make it quite
This French Creole dwelling also
features a detached kitchen, indicating the homeowner's status, as
this arrangement was a luxury that allowed food to be cooked for
large gatherings. The large vegetable gardens and orchards around
the Menard Home provided peas, onions, cabbage, potatoes, apples,
pecans and watermelons, which Dumont de Montigny described as "a
sponge soaked in Alicante wine dissolving in your mouth." Meat came
from domesticated cattle, pigs and fowl as well as fish and wild
bison, deer, squirrel, bear, ducks and geese. Local specialties
served often in the Menard Home included smoked hams, soup, stews,
fricassees, gumbos and apple tarts.
"Regardless of the architectural style,
Pierre Menard's Home was, and still is, one of the most impressive
dwellings along the Mississippi River," said Bishop. "Luckily,
people can visit this home that has been fully restored and
furnished as it was when Menard's family lived there."
Pierre Menard Home
State Historic Site, administered by the Illinois Historic
Preservation Agency, is located six miles north of Chester, off
state Route 3. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4
p.m. for free public tours.
Historic Preservation Agency