By Diane Euston
Although I focus on local history, it’s important to remember that most of the people from the past that I write about were born and raised outside of the area.
The first to take a gamble on the edge of the frontier in the fall of 1821 were two young French-speaking Catholics raised on the other side of the state.
Widely accepted as the father and mother of Kansas City, Francois Chouteau (1797-1838) and Berenice Menard Chouteau (1801-1888), set up a trading post and continued both of their families’ legacies. After the death of her husband in 1838, Berenice literally watched as Kansas City was founded and grew from nothing to a city of over 125,000 people by her death.
The Chouteau family is linked to the two largest cities in Missouri. Francois Chouteau was the son of Jean Pierre Chouteau (1758-1849) and was born in St. Louis. His uncle, Auguste, had co-founded St. Louis 33 years before his birth. This family built an empire through their relationship with Native American tribes.
In 1819, two powerful families were connected beyond the fur trade when Francois married 18-year-old Therese Berenice Menard, the daughter of Pierre Menard, a French-Canadian former fur trapper who settled across the river from Ste. Genevieve, Mo. in Kaskaskia, Ill.
Berenice’s life began in Kaskaskia, and much of who she became is directly connected to her father, Pierre Menard.
The Importance of Early Kaskaskia
The history of Kaskaskia where Pierre Menard raised his family is a fascinating one. The town was founded by Jesuit missionaries in 1703 and was situated in present-day southwestern Illinois on the area’s first superhighway, the Mississippi River. As the town grew to include many French Canadians, Native Americans were also present and living in the town.
The main source of income for the community was fur trading and farming. The name Kaskaskia was given to the town after the Native American tribe who had come with the Jesuit missionaries. Many of the French-Canadian fur traders living in Kaskaskia were married to women of the Kaskaskia tribe.
In addition to Native Americans and the French, the town also included a population of enslaved Africans. These slaves became a large portion of the population. In fact, in 1725, 24 percent of those living in current-day Illinois were Black; thus, it can be presumed most, if not all, were enslaved.
The town was incorporated by the French in 1725, and it became one of the most important in the middle Mississippi region with a population of approximately 7,000 people.
The British Province of Quebec used Kaskaskia as an administrative center, and during the American Revolution, the town was taken by the Virginia militia. Under control then by America, the town became part of the Northwest Territory in 1787.
By this time, the chaos of much of the back-and-forth of the frontier disputes had driven a lot of prominent families west across the Mississippi River to the town of Ste. Genevieve, established in 1735. Ste. Genevieve was the first organized European settlement west of the Mississippi River in current-day Missouri.
Pierre Menard was born in south of Montreal in 1766, the third born of 10 children. He had a limited education. At the age of 15, he left home and moved to Vincennes, Ind. to try his hand in fur trading. There, he dealt predominantly with Native American tribes and became familiar with their traits and languages. He ended up in Illinois country by the age of 16.
Around 1790 at the age of 24, Pierre relocated to Kaskaskia, Ill. and opened a store to supply the fur trade. Within short order, he was shipping merchandise west to trade with Native American tribes. The pelts collected by the tribes were then sold south to New Orleans and up north. Two of his brothers, Hippolyte and Francois, joined him in Kaskaskia.
In June 1792, Pierre married Marie Therese Godin in the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception in Kaskaskia. They welcomed six children, four of whom survived into adulthood: Odile (b. 1793), Pierre, Jr. (b. 1797), Berenice (b. 1801) and Alzire (b.1802).
Unfortunately, his first wife passed away in 1804 and details of her life are limited. Two years later, Pierre married Angelique Saucier, a 23-year-old woman from a prominent St. Louis family. She stepped in and raised his young children while adding to the Menard legacy. She and Pierre welcomed eight children, five of which survived to adulthood.
The marriage to Angelique linked the Chouteau and Menard families in more ways than one; Angelique’s older sister, Brigitte was married to Pierre Chouteau. Their oldest son was none other than the “father of Kansas City,” Francois. In 1819, Francois would marry Pierre Menard’s daughter, Berenice.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition certainly opened up opportunities for new business ventures with Native American tribes in Upper Missouri, and entrepreneurs such as Pierre Menard were keen to explore what trading partnerships could be gained. In 1809, the St. Louis Fur Company was established with Manuel Lisa, Pierre Chouteau and Pierre Menard as partners.
In September 1809, Pierre Menard left his family and Kaskaskia behind as he traveled up the Missouri River with 10 boats loaded with merchandise. He didn’t love the isolation and desperately missed his family. Even though this would be his last long-distance trip away for business, his connection to the area would last for decades.
One of the difficulties for a frontier town of French-speaking settlers was the transition into the American government. While other settlers found this to be difficult, Pierre Menard thrived; he was more successful than the majority of Frenchmen because he was able to adapt during the transition into an American controlled area.
Due to the fact that he was so well-respected and considered one of the most successful men in the region, Pierre was appointed by Gov. William Henry Harrison to various political positions and led the governing body of the territory from 1812 to 1818. Surprisingly, Pierre wasn’t even a United States citizen during a bulk of this time. He had signed an oath of allegiance to Spain in 1794 in order to transact business!
In 1816, he finally signed the papers to become a United States citizen. Two years later, Illinois was set to be entered into the Union as the 21st state, and there was no question that the citizens in the area wanted to see Pierre Menard hold a prominent position. It was suggested he would make an excellent first lieutenant governor, but there was a pretty big problem.
The new Illinois constitution required that the lieutenant governor be a United States citizen for at least 30 years, and Pierre had only two years under his belt. They wanted him in the position so badly that they waived the statute so he could serve- a position he held until 1822. He didn’t have to go too far for his political position, because Kaskaskia was named the capital of Illinois Territory from 1809 to 1819 when it was moved to Vandalia so it could be more centrally located.
Most people don’t realize that slavery didn’t end in Illinois when it was admitted as a state. The government, which included slaveowners such as Pierre Menard, was creative in how it crafted laws to allow for slavery on some level to continue.
One law stated that any enslaved African would remain in servitude indefinitely unless freed by their master. Children born to slaves after 1818 were to remain in servitude until the age of 30 for males and 21 for females. The Black Codes allowed for people such as Pierre Menard to keep slaves in “indentured servitude” for one to 99 years.
So, even though slave trade had been made illegal after 1818, Pierre Menard and other slaveowners were able to keep their slaves. In 1820, he had 13 slaaves, and due to the law pertaining to children born to slaves after 1818, his chattel grew to 22 enslaved people in 1830.
Slavery was not completely outlawed in Illinois until 1848.
A House of Prominence
Just across the Kaskaskia River opposite the town, Pierre Menard built a stately home for his large family – a home which still stands today. It was originally thought that his home was built between 1799 and 1803, but new research suggests a later construction date, likely around 1815.
The house is French Creole in architecture and includes an impressive wraparound porch, or “la galerie” which functioned as a place to sleep, eat and conduct business. The foundation was raised and the house was built on a terrace below an abandoned French-era fort known as Fort Kaskaskia.
The house became known as “the Mount Vernon of Illinois” due to its impressive size and construction. Built of hand-hewn timbers with wooden pegs, the home is entered after climbing a staircase. The first floor included an open entry hall with a parlor on one side and the master bedroom on the other. Four smaller bedrooms, a servant’s quarters along with a large dining room occupied the first floor. The kitchen was attached by a small stone walkway outdoors.
The second floor contained additional bedrooms, and the basement, built into the hillside, was used to store goods for his business.
Interestingly, an 1820 lawsuit indicates that William Gilliss, one of the 14 original founders of Kansas City who was employed by Pierre Menard in the 1820s as a trader in southwest Missouri, may have done work on Pierre Menard’s home that still stands. William Gilliss arrived around 1816 in Kaskaskia with his older brother, John. Both were skilled carpenters and the lawsuit indicates both men were working “at Col. Menard’s.”
Pierre’s daughter, Berenice may have grown up with her family near town, but she learned various skills that would come in handy in the wilderness that would become Kansas City. Historian Dorothy Brandt Marra wrote, “[Berenice] had mastered the techniques of food management, probably learned to operate small boats on the Kaskaskia River that ran in front of her father’s house, and was skilled at riding the horses from her father’s stable.”
The Menard home had vegetable gardens, orchards, vineyards, grain fields and multiple outbuildings. It was a safe and very comfortable home for the era.
Native American Trade
Pierre Menard’s relationship with Native American tribes landed him a position as Indian subagent from 1813 to 1833. Around 1820, Pierre paired up with well-known Ste. Genevieve merchant, Jean-Baptise Valle (1760-1849) to start Menard and Valle, a commercial empire supplying goods for Indian traders. The business operated a store in both Kaskaskia and Ste. Genevieve, and Pierre Menard operated a ferry across the river.
Remarkably, Valle’s home, built in 1787, still stands in Ste. Genevieve and is open for tours.
This business they ran could be seen as a bit of a conflict of interest, because as an Indian subagent, Pierre could supply Native Americans with goods from his store and then be reimbursed by the federal government as outlined in their treaties related to removal.
Tribes, including the Peoria, Piankashaw, Delaware and the Shawnee, were relocated to the Ozarks starting in the early 1820s. Historian Lynn Morrow wrote, “The Ozarks became the staging area where Indians settled and lived before the Kansas reservations became [their] home. . . Indian migrations into the Ozarks introduced the most profitable trade of the time. Indians, as wards of the federal government, received cash annuities which they spent for trade goods provided by a few white traders.”
William Gilliss was employed by Pierre Menard from about 1820 until the tribes were removed to current-day Wyandotte County, Ks. in 1830-1831 as one of these traders on the White River, and to no surprise, his supplies were purchased from Menard and Valle.
It doesn’t need to be stated that Indian removal is a stain on our history, but men such as Pierre Menard did aid tribes past what was required of them. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency stated, “His dealings with displaced Native Americans showed rare generosity and compassion, making him respected and loved by many Indian tribes.”
For example, in 1824, Cherokee Indian chief Takatoka stopped at Pierre’s home on his way to negotiate a treaty with President Monroe when the chief died inside his home. Pierre offered to step in and go in the chief’s place. It was said that he passionately represented the concerns of the tribe.
When Pierre’s daughter, Berenice moved with her husband, Francois Chouteau to the site of future Kansas City in 1822, his business interests expanded. Due to his relationships with tribal leaders who slowly relocated to Kansas, his merchandise was certainly part of the trades being conducted.
Pierre Menard passed away in 1844 at the age of 77.
A statue of Pierre Menard standing over a Native American was the first memorial ever installed on the Illinois Statehouse grounds in 1888. Due to his connections to slavery and that he “tried to keep slavery legal in Illinois,” the statue was removed in September 2020.
Preserving and Honoring History
Just a week ago, I eagerly traveled across the Mississippi River with my mother to conduct research for my graduate class. On my shortlist was visiting the Pierre Menard home, maintained by the state’s preservation division. The website indicated that it was closed “due to staffing shortages,” but the grounds were open.
It’s probably no surprise that I wanted to see in-person the home with over 200 years of history- history directly linked to Kansas City. I wanted to see where Berenice Chouteau lived- the house where she would have traveled down the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to visit. The website included a video showcasing the well-maintained grounds and property.
This is not what I drove up to.
The house is in dire disrepair. The roof has holes in it, and the gutters are falling off in places. The once-pristine white paint is peeling away; boards supporting the wraparound porch are loose. The ceiling is covered in thousands of wasp nests.
Nothing quite gets under my skin like the disregard of historic preservation. This decay didn’t happen overnight; this is years of neglect. This home feels as if it’s a shell of its former glory – another bruise on our history that must be rectified.
I was told by a local historian that the lack of a caretaker of the grounds, Covid and delays in a contract to repair the roof put fuel on the fire; however, I was assured that the repairs would be underway soon.
This home is a relic of our history. It’s connected more than just to the history of Illinois. It’s the staging ground to Kansas City’s history. It is interlinked and interwoven into the pages of history that we wince at but are important to our story.
Hopefully when the Pierre Menard home is back open to visitors, I can walk inside and finish what I started- I can walk through the threshold and honor Kansas City’s founders. They slept inside its walls.
Perhaps Illinois should consider taking that statue of Pierre Menard out of storage in Springfield and place it in front of his home.
Perhaps we should all demand it.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com
2 thoughts on “From Kaskaskia to Kansas City: Pierre Menard’s legacy”
Not seeing where this slaver was anyone to admire. Good riddance.
I’m from Chester, Il. Sadly to say Pierre Menard’s home is crumbling as I read this article. I’ve been to that home many, many times and loved it each time. I wish there were some way to save it.
#Pierre Menard#Kaskaskia Island Illinois.