Bearing a blind and deformed left eye that gave him his nickname, Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant left his native French Canada in the early 1800s for the United States where he spent his early adult life as a Western trapper. When the fur trade dwindled, Parrant looked for other ways to make money. His search brought him to an area along the Mississippi River in the Minnesota Territory where he established the first residence and first business in what became the city of St. Paul. Parrant’s business was distilling and selling whiskey.
Although sources differ on Parrant’s early history, he appears to have been born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, about 1777. Of his early life and education virtually nothing is known. He crossed the border to the United States, initially working for as a trapper for the fur company of Chouteau & McKenzie. My surmise is that Parrant first learned about making whiskey from Kenneth Mckenzie, born in Scotland, who had come to America via Canada as a teenager.
While attempting to dominate the trade in beaver pelts and buffalo hides, McKenzie, shown here, also was involved in distilling. In the early 1830s, in order to avoid government inspection of liquor shipments by water, he had the parts for a still shipped to him at one of the firm’s trading posts. Although it was illegal under Federal law to sell whiskey to Indians, McKenzie knew that the native Americans would always trade for it. One author has termed his whiskey as “watered-down…doctored with tobacco, pepper, molasses, and anything else that would give it a kick.”
Parrant likely learned about making whiskey from McKenzie and may even have had a hand in the fur merchant’s distilling. As Parrant’s profits from beaver trapping dwindled, however, he began to look for new ways to make a living. That brought him to the banks of the Mississippi and a makeshift settlement adjacent to Fort Snelling in the Minnesota Territory, below. There he began to make whiskey, selling it to his fellow squatters, local Indians, and soldiers from the fort.
This activity put Parrant up against the commander at Fort Snelling, Major Lawrence Taliaferro, someone Parrant also may have encountered in Missouri. Shown here, Taliaferro, who considered himself a protector of Native Americans against alcohol, had shut down McKenzie’s still and now ordered Parrant out of the immediate vicinity of Fort Snelling. Enjoying a thriving business in the liquor trade, Parrant did not go far.
Moving just north of Taliaferro’s jurisdiction, Parrant made a claim on a tract of land at the entrance of what was known as “Fountain Cave.” Shown above, this cavern, from which a steady flow of spring water flowed, stood on the east bank of the Mississippi, just upstream from what today is downtown St. Paul. There in early June 1838, Parrant built a shack, the first habitation in the future capital of Minnesota, and started the first business, a ramshackle saloon where he both made and sold whiskey. Shown below is an artist’s conception of the site.
With fresh spring water for his whiskey, Parrant’s liquor and saloon became popular, known to the locals as “Pig’s Eye” and “Pig’s Eye Pandemonium.” He did a brisk business. Newcomers were pouring into the territory, including crews of riverboats plying the Mississippi in ever increasing numbers. Moreover, outside Major Taliaferro’s reach, his soldiers frequently made their way to Fountain Cave. Parrant became such a well-known figure that the entire area became known as “Pig’s Eye.”
Not everyone was thrilled by this unusual pioneer and entrepreneur. One observer has described Parrant as “a coarse, ill-looking fellow, with only one serviceable eye. The other was blind, sinister-looking, marble hued-hued, crooked, with a white ring glaring around the pupil.” Parrant spoke English poorly and his habits were described as “intemperate and licentious.” To have such an individual considered the founder of St. Paul has been a hard swallow for some Minnesotans.
For example, Historian Fletcher Williams has groaned: “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.”
The settlement that Parrant had founded was called “Pig’s Eye,” a name increasingly recognized by the U.S. Post Office. That changed when a Catholic priest named Lucien Galtier was assigned to the area. Father Galtier, shown here, built a log church and dedicated it to St. Paul. It is reported, likely apocryphally, that the cleric said: "Pig's Eye, converted thou shalt be, like Saul; Arise, and be, henceforth, Saint Paul!"
Meanwhile, Parrant had mortgaged his land. Burdened by debts and unable to redeem the mortgage, he lost his claim and was forced to vacate the Fountain Cave area. He tried to establish himself at several other nearby locations but to no avail. Reputedly angry at his treatment in St. Paul, Parrant left Minnesota about 1844. There stories differ. One version has him setting out for Lake Superior with the aim of returning to Sault Ste. Marie but dying on the way. Another account has him landing near Winnipeg, Canada, where he married, had three children, and then decamped to North Dakota where he married a Native American woman, dying there. His place of burial is unknown.
Although Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant is gone from St. Paul, he is still remembered. A large monument marks the spot of the now long gone Fountain Cave, placed there by the City of St. Paul. Every school child learning the history of the city has heard of its founder. The Pig's Eye Brewing Company, established in 2002 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, makes a "Pig's Eye" brand of beer. The company was established when the former Minnesota Brewing Company, which had introduced the brand in 1992, folded because of financial troubles. As shown below, labels for the brew have romanticized the image of Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant.