By Diane Euston
In the 1820s, what would be Kansas City was first settled by a group of French Catholics. They came to the area in order to trade with Native American tribes being pushed out west. Fr. Bernard Donnelly (c. 1810-1880), often called Kansas City’s first historian, arrived in 1845 and would say Mass in his little log cabin church.
In his records of death and carefully recorded by the aging priest, a curious entry reads, “On this 17th day of July, A.D., 1871, was interred Jacques [Fournaise] (Old Pino), a native of Montreal, Canada, aged 124 years.”
Old Pino didn’t garner much attention when he settled in Kansas City around 1840, living near his comrade, Maj. Andrew Drips and Drips’ daughter, Catherine. It wasn’t until his death that people asked more questions about his age. His obituary in 1871, written by Robert Van Horn, claimed, “That [Old Pino] lived to be considerably over 100 years old there is little doubt.”
In his memoir, Fr. Donnelly devoted an entire chapter to this character. He wrote, “When I first saw him in 1845 he was said to be 100 years old.”
Even though so much of this mountain man’s life remains a mystery, it is a story worth revisiting. With a fresh look at the primary sources that do exist, I hope to lend a little more light on this character – and his alleged age.
Early Accounts of Old Pino’s Life
In his obituary and in Fr. Donnelly’s memoir written in 1877, Old Pino is identified as being Jacques Fournaise (or Fournais). His obituary mentions, “Nobody knew his exact age, not even himself.”
Multiple sources all claim Old Pino was mending a fence in the woods near Quebec when the Battle of Quebec broke out on Sept. 13, 1759. People openly questioned him on this, because if it were true, he would have been well over 120 years old at his death.
Even with tough questioning, “his recollections of names and incidents was too distinct to leave any doubt, and the same account had been given to others long before we saw him,” the Kansas City Star wrote.
It seems that major historical events followed Old Pino’s trek into the United States. Some later articles claim he was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition which later “made him a valuable man in the Fur Company.” Yet other accounts indicate that in 1812, he went to the Pittsburgh area from his home of Quebec – walking the whole way. Jacques Fournaise then engaged as a flatboat man and floated down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
Both certainly cannot be true, as the dates don’t match up. His name is not mentioned in any of Lewis and Clark’s diaries, accounts or payments.
Fournaise said he arrived in New Orleans when Andrew Jackson occupied it during the War of 1812. Looking upon the incident with humor, Fournaise allegedly tried to enlist but “had been refused enlistment because he was too old.” He then made his way to St. Louis.
Major Andrew Drips and the American Fur Company
What can be deciphered is that the life of Andrew Drips (c. 1789-1860) coincides with primary sources and records of Jacques Fournaise. In order to understand where Fournaise likely was, we have to look at where his dear friend, Maj. Drips was.
Andrew Drips was born in Pennsylvania, served in Ohio during the War of 1812 and began working for the Missouri Fur Company out of St. Louis in 1820. He became a partner in the business and was stationed near Bellevue, Neb. There, he met and married an Otoe woman named Mary in 1822.
By 1830, Drips joined the western department of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. Records previously unlinked to Old Pino’s story document some incredible events which occurred in current-day Idaho.
While a part of the American Fur Company, they met their match when they crossed paths with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company represented by Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick and Milton Sublette. When the Rocky Mountain Fur Company went to their winter camp on Powder River, they found Maj. Drips and his party already there.
The purpose of the rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole was to resupply before the season began, and in July 1832, it was bustling with activity as different companies gathered. The rivalry between the two factions was put on hold when the biggest fight between mountain men and Indians broke out.
This event, occurring on July 17, 1832, caused the fur traders to unite while fighting the Gros Ventres, a tribe mistaken for the violent Blackfoot. At least 26 Native Americans were killed, and around a dozen traders fell.
Both Andrew Drips and Jacques Fournaise were present.
The day after the battle, Drips’ Otoe wife, Mary gave birth to a daughter named Catherine. Fournaise was immediately taken by the baby, and he affectionately called her Ma Petite Catherine (my little Catherine). Fr. Donnelly wrote, “He carried her around the camps; he watched and guarded her in her infant years.”
The relationship he had with that little girl would be the most important of his life.
Old Pino’s Handicap
In 1846, Fr. Donnelly met Jacques Fournaise – known to him only as “Old Pino.”
He wrote, “[Old Pino’s] hair was copious and of a silvery whiteness on his head, eyebrows and throat.” He further described the “old man” as pale with a large jaw and blue eyes whose shoulders stooped forward.
His most memorable feature was how his knees didn’t appear to be straight and he walked with a curious limp. “It would appear as if each wanted to move forward right in the very line the other should go,” Fr. Donnelly recalled.
At first, Fr. Donnelly thought he was born with this handicap, but he learned 25 years after meeting him that there was an accident that led to this limp.
While employed by Drips, Old Pino set some traps at one of the streams in the Black Hills. He noticed a large buffalo grazing on an open prairie, so he crawled, rifle in hand, took aim and fired.
Seemingly unharmed, the buffalo took chase of Old Pino who ran as fast as he could – the large animal quickly gaining on him. Without many options, he quickly reverted to a different strategy hunters utilized. Fr. Donnelly recalled, “This was to throw himself flat on his face in the long grass and play dead.”
The buffalo didn’t fall for the trick, and the animal trampled Old Pino, crushing his weight on top of him. Old Pino’s right leg was broken below the knee in two places. After losing consciousness, the man awoke to spot the buffalo about 15 feet from him. Slowly, he raised his head and realized that the buffalo was dead.
“Our hunter was not aware that he had mortally wounded the creature by the only shot he fired at him,” Fr. Donnelly wrote.
Full of wounds and unable to walk due to his broken leg, Old Pino knew in order to have a chance of survival, he would have to make it to the camp. He took his knife and cut down a sapling to use as a splint on his leg and used his rifle as a crutch.
In that condition, the man “walked or rather crawled the whole distance of 20 miles to his camp, which took him 22 days to accomplish.”
His friends did the best they could to dress the wounds. From that moment-forward, Old Pino walked with an unmistakable limp.
Death Almost Captures Old Pino
Absent from all accounts in Kansas City of Old Pino is a story penned in a diary of a member of the American Fur Company. Warren Ferris (1810-1873) traveled with both Drips and Fournaise from 1830-1835 and wrote about his experiences. It was published in 1940.
It appears the old man didn’t just leave a lasting impression on the men late in his life; he was a central character of this narrative from the 1830s where he explained Fournaise was given his nickname by the Canadians – most trappers, Ferris explained, had nicknames.
Old Pino, William Peterson and one other man rejoined Ferris’ group with an incredible story that unfolded at Henry’s Fork while hunting for beaver. As Peterson was cooking breakfast, he noticed Old Pino was absent. And, more importantly, Pino didn’t take his gun with him. When the men went to look for him, they were surrounded by Native Americans. Luckily, they were able to escape into a grove of pine trees.
Pino had gone out to check his beaver traps early in the morning when he spotted a large group of Native Americans approaching him. He hid in a dense cluster of willows and was able to avoid being captured or killed.
In the cover of night, Old Pino went back to the encampment and found his friends and all their provisions gone. Without much hope, the man headed into the plain, crossed Henry’s Fork and to a small creek to hunt beaver. Within a short amount of time, he was surrounded yet again by Native Americans who chased him.
Old Pino was able to hide in the willows for another night. When he thought they had disappeared, the man crawled out into the night where he wandered to the fork of Snake River. “During the chill frosty nights, having no bedding, [Pino] cut up and covered himself with grass, his only means of shelter,” Ferris recorded in his diary. As the days went by, the men lost the little hope of finding him alive.
His two companions kept searching for the old man, and they found some odd-looking tracks on the forest floor. It occurred to the men that they had to be Old Pino’s footprints, because he walked with a distinct limp.
Two miles later, the men spotted their lost friend in the distance. When Pino met their eyes, he raised his arms in the air and then fainted. The men ran to his rescue and as they lifted him up, he fell into their arms as “tears flowed profusely down his aged cheeks.”
Old Pino had survived after not eating for six days.
The Quiet Life in Chouteau’s Town
In 1834, Pierre Chouteau and a partner purchased the Missouri River interests of the American Fur Company and quickly became the leading fur company. In 1839, Old Pino was listed as an employee for the company. If we go by many estimates of his age, he would have been over 90 at the time.
By 1840, Andrew Drips had settled with the French Catholic families in the West Bottoms – likely with Old Pino in tow. After a flood in 1846, he purchased 40 acres on higher ground and built a log cabin at current-day 13th and Summit.
Old Pino’s pride and joy, Ma Petite Catherine was sent away outside of St. Louis to be educated at Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet Convent. In the Summer of 1846, Fr. Donnelly noticed that Old Pino was all smiles, rushing about the congregation and repeating, “Ma Petite Catherine est revenues! (My little Catherine came back)”
As Fr. Donnelly met the eyes of Old Pino, he pointed down to a “half-breed, rosy cheeked young girl about 13 years of age.”
When Catherine married William Mulkey in 1853, Old Pino was there for his darling girl. In 1857, Mulkey built a large brick home on his father-in-law’s land. Catherine set up a special room for Old Pino to move into, but he refused to occupy it. “He had slept for so many years under the stars or in a hut of his own building that he could not sleep in a room with plastered walls,” Fr. Donnelly wrote. Thus, Old Pino lived in a small log cabin in the Mulkey’s garden.
He was a simple man, tending to his vegetable garden, berry bushes, beautiful flowers and tobacco plants. He always had a tobacco pipe handy along with his rosary. Even in his later years, Old Pino was “very neat in his person, clothes and housekeeping.”
Old Pino Meets His Death
One morning, a messenger informed Fr. Donnelly that the old hunter was sick. When he arrived the Mulkey home, he found Old Pino dangerously ill. He gave him his last rites.
The next day, July 15, 1871, Fr. Donnelly went back to check on his friend, but he was not in bed where he left him. Informed that the old man was in orchards, he headed outside.
Fr. Donnelly’s account of Old Pino’s death is so eloquently written, his words should stand in their entirety:
“Walking into the orchard I witnessed a scene the genuine tenderness and simplicity of which I never beheld before. On the shady side and under the extended branches of a very large apple tree – the limb bent down with overloading fruit – two chairs were placed near the trunk upon which were seated ‘Ma Petite Catherine’ and the dying old hunter. His head placed upon her bosom and her right arm supporting him. With her left she quietly waved a fan. The motionless upturned eyes of the expiring centenarian seemed fixed on the tear bedewed face of his gentile nurse – while his struggling tremulous breathing indicated the immediate approach of the last end of the faithful old hunter Pino. Opening my ritual I recited the prayers for the agonizing, and just as I concluded there was a broken sigh – a pause – a convulsive struggle for breath – he was dead. His spirit was already on its way to the everlasting hunting grounds.”
Old Pino was laid to rest in the old Catholic Cemetery (later removed to Mount St. Mary’s) in the Drips’ plot. The inscription, although eroding today, reads, “J. Pino Fournaise, Died July 15, 1871, Aged 124 years.”
Col. Van Horn received a letter after his death from a man who wanted to know if Old Pino drank, used tobacco and had morals in regard to women.
Van Horn turned the questions over to Old Pino’s doctor who promptly answered. “He smoked and chewed [tobacco] constantly,” Dr. Thorn wrote. “He never missed a chance to take a drink and got drunk as often as he could. He always had a squaw and when he could afford it, had two or three.”
Old Pino, it seems, beat all the odds.
Records of Possible Old Pino
Even today, it’s hard to decipher the exact age of Jacques Fournaise at his death. In the 1850 census, Old Pino claimed he was 60 years old (b. 1790). Ten years later, he’s listed as 74 years old (b. 1786). And by the 1870 census, he’s overwhelmingly aged – he’s 109 years old (b. 1761).
There is only one Quebec baptismal record I could find with this name – and this man was born in 1785. If this is Old Pino, he would have been about 85 years old at his death.
Old Pino’s permanent marker claims he was 124 years old. For generations to come, as long as that sandstone marker remains legible, those visiting St. Mary’s Cemetery will look twice as they catch those words. They will wonder about him. Old Pino’s fascinating life is lacking facts and ironclad dates. The mystery still remains, but perhaps it is just as it should be.
C’est la vie, Old Pino.
Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com.