Searching for Pig's Eye's Saloon: Fact and Fiction
Searching for Pig's Eye's Saloon
It’s two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and I’m in downtown St. Paul searching for a saloon. With the infusion of many new restaurants in recent years it’s not hard to find a place to whet your whistle but the historic establishment I’m looking for no longer exists. It was shuttered nearly 175 years ago by its debt-laden owner who was later publicly ridiculed following an unconventional land dispute ruling and eventually left town spewing curses on the city that once bore his name.
The saloon was owned by the infamous Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant and was located on the river near the foot of today’s Robert Street Bridge. I’m standing at that site but find it impossible to imagine what the area looked like when Parrant hung out his shingle to sell whiskey to soldiers from nearby Fort Snelling, Native Americans and early settlers. What was once the rolling native landscape of a prairie river is now all concrete and pavement. Fronting the river are Lambert’s Landing, the Sam Morgan Trail and Shepard Road, and rising above are the arches of the Robert Street Bridge and the city’s skyscrapers.
This is actually the second location where Parrant practiced his illicit trade. The first was a few miles upstream near the confluence of a creek that flowed from Fountain Cave, a 1,000-foot-long sandstone cavern where he stored liquor. He established a sizeable business there but borrowed heavily to do it. By 1840 he had sunk deeply into debt and was forced to relinquish the claim on his land to a debtor. After relocating to present day downtown St. Paul, a small village soon formed around his tavern and the river men who brought him whiskey and other supplies began calling the settlement Pig’s Eye Landing.
Parrant was of mixed French Canadian origin, his father being French and Huron and his mother French and Ojibwe. He spent much of his life running boats for the fur trade on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. In 1832, at age 60, he traveled to the Minnesota Territory seeking an easier, more profitable lifestyle. He squatted on land around Fort Snelling and started bootlegging but was soon booted off the federal land by Indian agent Major Lawrence Taliaferro. In his journal, Taliaferro described Parrant as a “coarse, ill-looking, low-browed fellow, with only one eye.” The other eye was “blind, marble-hued, crooked, with a sinister white ring glaring around the pupil, giving a kind of piggish expression to his sodden low features.” Furthermore, he said his English was dreadful, his behavior “intemperate and licentious.”
For three years Parrant, who imbibed heavily of his own product and was prone to fits of rage, stood behind his bar and jawed with the miscreants who came there to drink, smoke and gamble. The saloon became a rough and rowdy watering hole that attracted vagabonds, and their raucous activity frequently spilled into the streets, drawing the ire of the upstanding citizens of the village. Once again feeling the pressure to relocate, Parrant drifted a few miles downstream and made claim to a tiny tract near what is now Pig’s Eye Lake. That claim, however, led to one of the most colorful land dispute resolutions in the territory’s history.
It wasn’t long before his neighbor Michel LeClaire showed up and accused Parrant of infringing on his land boundary. They bickered, exchanged heated words and parted ways. The disagreement escalated and the two men took their case before the Justice of the Peace at Grey Cloud. After hearing their testimony, Justice Joseph R. Brown determined that neither had legal rights to the land because it had not been staked in the presence of witnesses. He closed the proceedings by telling the feuding neighbors that the first to plant stakes on the property would be the rightful owner, and the race was on.
It must have been quite a sight to see the two men sprint out the door, rays of hope sparkling in their eyes, or in Parrant’s case his one eye. Legend has it that they raced by foot through the forest, bogs and sloughs that covered the eight miles between Grey Cloud and the land they hoped to rightfully claim. At age 67, Parrant was unable to compete with the younger LeClaire and he watched his neighbor slowly disappear from sight. By the time Parrant arrived at his home LeClaire had driven in stakes and was standing smugly with his witnesses, likely laughing at the panting old man.
Word of the event spread to the village and people began to poke fun at him. Fed up with the abuse from his mockers and being displaced for a fourth time, Parrant spurned the community and decided to make his way back to his native Sault Ste Marie, Mich. He left town slinging a string of expletives that would make even a drunken sailor blush.
Although Parrant’s tavern no longer exists, the site still attracts those living on the fringe. As I leaned against the metal railing overlooking Lambert’s Landing I looked down and saw three disheveled men huddled below, sharing conversation over a smoke. And on the whisper of the cool November breeze I heard Old Pig’s Eye laugh.
A Race for Home
Justice of the Peace Joseph R. Brown looked sternly at the two neighbors standing before him, both red-faced and winded from the heated testimony they had just given to being rightful owner of a tiny tract of land of insignificant value.
“I’ve heard enough of your foul-mouthed bickering,” he said, rubbing his chin and searching his mind for an equitable resolution. Pierre Parrant, an aged tavern owner of questionable repute, glared out of his only serviceable eye at Michel LeClaire, who sneered back at him, his eyes drawn to Parrant’s sinister-looking, marble-hued blind eye. LeClaire knew that Brown was aware of Parrant’s reputation as a squatter and bootlegger, and he was confident that the Justice would rule in his favor.
“The way I see it,” said Brown, a faint smile cornering his lips, “neither of you has a valid claim because the property was not staked in the presence of witnesses.” Both men gazed at him, dumbfounded. “The first one to do so can claim it as his own.”
They continued to stare.
“You’re dismissed!” he shouted.
Parrant looked at LeClaire, spun around and ran for the door but his neighbor was right beside him and they nudged shoulders as they wiggled to get outside and begin their 8-mile race to the property.
At age 67, Parrant was by far the older of the two but he was confident in his ability to travel through the sloughs and along the forested river bank because he had spent most of his life in similar environs during his work in the fur trade.
“Good luck,” said LeClaire, knowing that the old man posed no challenge. He walked briskly and then started to jog.
Parrant cursed him and began to run, too, but it wasn’t long before his intemperate lifestyle hampered him. Sharp pains stabbed his side and sweat flowed like a fountain from his brow and trickled into his eye. Through blurred vision he watched LeClair slowly pull away, and soon he was out of sight.
Parrant felt nauseous so he stopped running and dropped to his knees, gasping for air. His mouth began watering profusely, and then his stomached knotted, convulsed and spewed its content. He cursed again, wiped his mouth and stood up.
The sun cast a soft dappled light through the trees as Parrant limped along the trail. He became dour as he thought about his recent years in the Minnesota Territory – how he was displaced from his first home on the Fort Snelling military reservation, a home he had no right building; how he was forced to sell his first tavern because of mounting debt and, after relocating a few miles downstream, was forced to abandon his second tavern due to pressure from those living nearby.
If it weren’t for me, that village wouldn’t exist, he groused to himself when thinking of the pious people who settled around his tavern and helped form a community that was first referred to by Parrant’s nickname – Pig’s Eye – but later renamed after a saint. Saint Paul. Humpf.
A young Indian suddenly appeared from the woods, a bow slung over one shoulder, a large turkey draped over the other. His eyes brightened when he saw Parrant and he thrust his arm high in the air to greet him, his bronze skin sparkling in the sun. Standing before him, his eyes narrowed and he made a drinking motion with his hand, silently inquiring if Parrant had any whiskey to spare.
“No,” said Parrant, shaking his head. “No spirit water.”
“No?” said the Indian, uttering one of the few English words he knew.
“No,” replied Parrant sharply.
The Indian shrugged, adjusted the turkey on his shoulder, and quickly disappeared into the woods.
Parrant continued on, walking slowly, his mind pondering his next move. He thought of his birthplace in faraway Michigan and wondered if he had any relatives remaining there. It had been a lifetime since he’d last been there but now he longed to return to the land of the great inland seas.
Maybe it’s time to make my way back to Sault Ste. Marie…. Yes, I think that’s what I’ll do.
Evening was falling and a reddish glow illuminated the landscape when Parrant arrived at what he thought of as his property. As he approached it he could see the shadow of four dark posts marking the boundary of what was once his land. LeClair, who had been peering out his cabin’s window watching for him, walked out to meet him and gloat. Two men who lived nearby followed right behind, and Parrant could see them snickering. A smug expression covered LeClair’s face.
Parrant hobbled up, scowled at them through the slit of his eye and his face reddened as anger bubbled from within. Finally, he unleashed a string of profanity, cursing them, cursing the village and cursing the entire Minnesota Territory. He spat on the ground, turned around and walked to his cabin to pack his meager belongings. His neighbors looked at each other and then howled with laughter.
Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant
Sketch courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society