Local history recognizes Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant, born in Canada (c. 1777), as the first person of European descent to settle in the area that became the city of St. Paul. A former fur trader who turned to selling bootleg whiskey, he came to be recognized as the founder of Minnesota’s capital city.
Parrant came from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and settled by the bank of the Mississippi River near Fort Snelling—but just beyond the fort’s boundaries—in 1832. He soon made whiskey, selling it to his fellow squatters, local Indians, and soldiers from the fort.
The nickname “Pig’s Eye” likely came from Fort Snelling sutler Roswell P. Russell. Parrant was a coarse-looking, foul-mouthed man of little conversation. One of his eyes had a white hue around it, and for whatever reason, Russell thought it looked pig like. Hence the moniker “Pig’s Eye” Parrant.
Business wasn’t booming, but Parrant did well enough to show up on the radar of local Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro and fort commander Major Joseph Plympton. Public drunkenness had become a growing issue at—and around—the fort, and the two men in charge determined the best way to solve the problem was to force out the troublemakers, which included Parrant.
The best way to do that was to redraw the boundary lines for Fort Snelling and force the squatters to move beyond them.
Two treaties opened up land near the fort to non-native settlement, and Plimpton expanded the boundaries of Fort Snelling to include the new area. Taliaferro then banished squatters from land under control of the fort, forcing them to fend for themselves.
In the Spring 1838, Parrant set up shop at Fountain Cave, located immediately beyond the recognized border of Fort Snelling. He built a small structure, which earned the distinction of being the first building in city history. A steady stream of clear water flowing into the Mississippi River below was a key ingredient in supplying the masses with containers of seemingly endless distilled whiskey..
The great location, both near the Mississippi River and beyond the prying eyes of officials from the fort, made Fountain Cave a popular place. People loved the area so much they stayed. Soon, Parrant’s saloon, “Pig’s Eye Pandemonium,” had a growing community of settlers sprouting up around it.
Legend has it that one evening, carpenter Edmund Brissett, after a hard day of work at Fort Snelling in 1839, was at the saloon composing a letter to send to Grey Cloud Island. When it came time to address the envelope, he didn’t know what to write. Seeing Parrant scowling at him from across the saloon, and realizing that people up and down the river knew all about the cantankerous Parrant, he wrote “Pig’s Eye.”
The area soon became known as “Pig’s Eye Landing.”
Parrant was doing significant business, but made little money. In November 1838, he mortgaged his property to Guillaume Beaumette for $90. "Pig's Eye" needed to settle the debt before May 1939 or had to relinquish the property. He failed to pay off the note, so Parrant lost the land.
His second claim was further down the river at the foot of (present day) Robert Street. Parrant picked up right where he left off, building a saloon on a pleasant green slope overlooking the Mississippi River.
Parrant was a great saloon keeper, always willing to pour drinks to patrons on credit, but a poor business owner. By 1840, he was once again pressed for cash. Settler Benjamin Gervais offered him $10 for his claim, and Parrant accepted.
Once again, Parrant worked his way further down the river, staking a third claim near the lake that today bears his name (known locally as Point Le Claire at the time).
A dispute arose between Parrant and Michael Le Claire, who believed he’d claimed the land long before “Pig’s Eye” had arrived. They brought the dispute before Joseph R. Brown, Justice of the Peace, for the area.
Brown heard the arguments of both men, who each honestly believed they were rightful owners of the claim. He could not decide in either of their favor. Instead, using a bit of “old settler” justice, he had both of the men race for it. The first to reach the claim was the rightful owner from then on.
An axe and stake were laid at the claim, and both men were taken twelve miles away. A race for the land ensued and Le Claire beat the older Parrant there. “Pig’s Eye” remained in the area for a couple of weeks, but now nothing more than a penniless moocher with little chance of finding success, he soon left.
On November 1, 1841, while dedicating a log cabin church, Father Lucien Galtier re-named “Pig’s Eye Landing” as “St. Paul’s Landing.” After they established the local post office in 1846, it became St. Paul.
Little is known of Parrant after he left the area. The prevailing belief is the whisky bootlegger, the first person of European descent to settle in Minnesota's future capital city, died in Northern Minnesota while traveling back to Canada.
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