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Research sheds new light
on Pierre Menard    
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[AUG. 26, 2004]  ELLIS GROVE -- He was Illinois' first lieutenant governor -- and that's probably the least interesting thing about him.

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 his life."

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.

Native Americans

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.

Founding families

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 Kansas City.

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 easily won.


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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.

Lewis and Clark

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 Ambrose.

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 construction date.

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 "before 1820."

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 distinctive.

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."

The 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.

[Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
news release]

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