Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois: Pierre Menard

The Pierre Menard Home itself

The house that Pierre Menard built in Randolph County merits a high place on any list of historic homes in the United States. This sturdy old frame house of French colonial design is attractive to look at; its lens and proportions are pleasing. Moreover, it has remained basically unaltered through the years since it was completed in 1802.

It then stood on the east bank of the Kaskaskia River, looking across the stream toward the ancient town of that name. The Mississippi was seven miles away. Today the house, though it stands unmoved at its original location, faces directly upon the Mississippi, continuing to look toward the spot where the town of Kaskaskia once stood, but its view is now obscured by a high levee. This paradox clears when it becomes known that many years ago the Mississippi, while in flood stage, cut a new channel across a narrow strip of land that separated it from the Kaskaskia a few miles above the town and shifted its current to the latter stream. In making this shift the town of Kaskaskia, once the metropolsi of the Mississippi Valley, was washed away. 

Among the houses that were part of the Kaskaskia scene, only the home that Menard built against the foot of the Garrison Hill bluff remains. It has seen much history and as the years have passed, it has become more and more an object of interest. The house considered alone has its appeal just as does the man who built it. Each alike adds to the legend of the other. Perhaps it would not be improper to say that Pierre Menard and the Menard home occupy a position for Illinois much like that of Washington and Mount Vernon for the nation.

Pierre Menard was born at St. Antoine, near Montreal, Canada, in 1766. He left Canada and went to Vincennes in 1787. This was during the period when many of the French settlers of Indiana and Illinois were moving into Spanish territory west of the Mississippi. At Vincennes young Pierre entered the employ of Col. Francois Vigo, an Indian trader with whom he made at least one trip to Philadelphia to confer with President Washington concerning the defense of the western country. In 1791 Menard came to Kaskaskia and entered a business partnership with Toussaint DuBois. He soon became a prosperous merchant, fur buyer, and Indian trader. Here he twice married into prominent and influential French families.

Soon after coming to Illinois, Menard began to attract favorable attention. He was appointed to command the militia. He was name a judge of the Court of Common Pleas and served ten years in that capacity. He also was appointed to other offices, serving some time as judge in a special orphan’s court. His name frequently appears as “next of friend” for someone who otherwise could not gain access to the courts.

Menard served as a memeber of the territorial legislature of Indiana from 1801 until 1809. In the spring of 1810 he was with Andrew Henry at Three Forks on the Missouri, where they established the first organized trapping venture in that region. He was elected to the first Illinois territorial legislature and became president in 1812. Though he had come to Illinois as a youth and had been active in civic and political affairs for about thirty years, it was not until 1816 that he was formally naturalized as a citizen of the United States.

When men were selected to frame a constitution for the new state of Illinois, Menard was one of those chosen for the task. The proposed constitution required that the lieutenant governor be a native-born United States citizen, but since Menard seemed to be the best candidate, the constitution was promptly revised to permit anyone two years a citizen of the country to serve in that office. Menard accordingly was chosen as the first lieutenant governor of the state. After completing his term in that office, he retired to his home beside the Kaskaskia to live a quiet life, to entertain his many visitors, and to attend to wide business interests. 

At different times, he was called upon to help in dealing with the Indians, whom it is said he “instinctively” understood. The Indians respected and trusted him. There is no indication that Menard ever used deceit in negotiating with them. Neither did they betray him. The same apparently was true in his relations with the whites.

Today a county and a town in Illnois are named for him. A bronze statue, the gift from a son of one of his business partners, stands on the capitol grounds at Springfield with the simple inscription “MENARD,” carved on the granite base. His name occurs frequently in the territorial records of both Indiana and Illinois and upon the early state records of the latter.

As has already been said, the home he built on the banks of the Kaskaskia still stands. Visitors may wander through the rooms of the old house, go to the kitchen with its shaped-stone sink, built-in oven, and fireplace with crane and pendant, where the meals were prepared to be carried to the dining room across an open porch.

Visitors also go through the sone-brick building designated as the “Slave House” where domestic servants evidently were quartered. Some years ago, very old people told of the ruins of a row of log cabins that once stood against the foot of the cliff south of the present house. Tradition indicated that these vanished cabins were the quarters where Menard’s field slaves lived. Provision has been made recently for needed repairs to guarantee the preservation of the building. Such belongings of Menard’s as are available are being brought back to the home. Other articles needed to furnish it will be supplied by authentic pieces of that period. Thousands of visitors now come to see the home each year. With proper restoration it could become an even greater mecca for those interested in the early history of the state and for those who wish to learn more about the culture of that period.

“Legends & Lore of Southern Illinois” – John W. Allen

Pierre Menard Home Website:
https://www2.illinois.gov/dnrhistoric/Experience/Sites/Southwest/Pages/Pierre-Menard.aspx

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