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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a one‑story rectangular wooden house, about 20 m long and 10 m deep, with a 35° pitched roof, three dormer windows and a chimney. It sits on somewhat sloping ground, and the front of the house — with its porch supported by wooden posts running the length of it and around most of the right side (the only side visible in this photo) — is therefore atop a sort of half-story basement. The front door is reached by an elegant double staircase. It is the Pierre Ménard House in Kaskaskia, Illinois.]

Pierre Ménard House, Kaskaskia, Built 1802.

 p7  Territorial Landmark

What might be considered the Mount Vernon of Illinois," is the fine old French colonial residence in Fort Kaskaskia State Park now widely known as the Ménard house. It occupies a commanding site on a grassy bluff above the Mississippi River, some fifty miles south of East St. Louis. Surviving from early territorial days, this residence is one of the most famous in Illinois and is visited by several thousand sight-seers each year.

As with Washington's home on the Potomac, the Ménard house is now a historical museum. It is furnished with fine brown mahogany and walnut tables, chairs, chests, and other household articles which belonged to the man who made it famous.

A bronze marker and an American flag identify the house as a state-owned historic shrine. The marker explains, in part, that the house occupies a portion of Fort Kaskaskia State Park, a fifty‑seven-acre tract embracing what was once Fort Kaskaskia.

This fort, which stood on a bluff above the house, was built by the French when they controlled the Mississippi Valley in the eighteenth century. The settlement of Kaskaskia was afterward to become the first capital of the state of Illinois.

In 1791, when Illinois was part of the Northwest Territory established by the newly formed American republic, there came to Kaskaskia a young Quebec-born fur trader named Pierre Ménard. He opened a store in the village, prospered, and the next year married Thérèse Godin.

Soon afterward he was appointed a major, then a lieutenant colonel of militia. When this region became part of Indiana Territory, Governor William Henry Harrison appointed Ménard a judge of the County Court at Kaskaskia. He held this position for ten years, or until Illinois became a separate territory.

After this, Ménard served as presiding officer of the Illinois territorial legislature. When the territory was admitted to statehood in 1818, with the capital established Kaskaskia, he was elected the state's first lieutenant governor under Governor Shadrach Bond, another Kaskaskian.

In 1818 when Pierre Ménard was the general choice for the state's first lieutenant governor it was learned that he had never been formally naturalized. So the constitutional convention, in order to permit his election, altered the requisite period of citizen­ship, which it had placed at thirty years, making eligible for office a citizen who had resided in the state two years preceding the election.​a

 p8  At the end of his term as lieutenant governor, Ménard returned to his home at Kaskaskia, intending to spend the rest of his days in retirement with his family. But in 1828 he was again called to public duty, this time by President John Quincy Adams, who appointed him to an Indian commission headed by Lewis Cass. He was reappointed to this commission by President Andrew Jackson. These were Ménard's last public services. He died in his Kaskaskia home on June 13, 1844.

It was in 1802, just after the Illinois country became part of Indiana Territory and when Ménard was one of the best-known and most respected citizens of Kaskaskia, that he erected the house which stands today on the bluff above the Mississippi.

It was to become, according to one authoritative volume, "a place famous throughout the West for its hospitality." Several years after it was built, his wife, who had borne him four children, died. He later married Angélique Saucier, sister-in‑law of Jean Pierre Chouteau, famous fur trader and Indian agent of the American Bottom.

In the years following, six more children were added to the Ménard household. But the house on the Mississippi, although broad and low in appearance, was roomy enough for them all. These children grew to maturity and lived in the house after their father's death, but one by one they moved to other parts of the country.

Meanwhile, the old French settlement of Kaskaskia below the Ménard house fell into decay as East St. Louis grew, its houses crumbled into ruin, and finally most of what was left of the original settlement was swallowed by the Mississippi River when it formed a new channel following the flood of 1881.

After the last of the Ménard descendants left the house, it was owned and occupied for some twenty-five years by Louis Younger and his family. In 1927 the state acquired the house and the land around it. The Ménard abode was converted into a museum and gradually some of its original pieces of furniture were located and restored to it. Today, it stands as one of the oldest and most noteworthy landmarks of the American Bottom.

Pointing out that "building types brought up from New Orleans" are found in the early French settlements along the Mississippi, the WPA guidebook, Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide, says:​b "Typical of these is the Pierre Ménard house near Kaskaskia. It is low and broad, of one story with the attic lighted by dormers and the roof sweeping out over a columned porch the entire length of the house." The book adds that "the design of the house recalls the minor plantation houses of Louisiana."​c

 p9  After leaving the walnut-trimmed reception hall, where numerous belongings of Ménard's, including his compass, Bible, spectacles, watch, flute, and flageolet are on display, the visitor is shown the drawing room, with its imported French mantel, where General Lafayette was entertained when he visited Kaskaskia in 1825. Over the mantel hangs an oil portrait of Ménard. Here, too, are Ménard's cowhide trunk and his mahogany chest, walnut bed, and numerous other personal belongings.

Similar pieces of furniture and heirlooms, including Ménard's barber chair, books (some in French), embroidered velvet vest, two‑hundred-year‑old clock, wardrobe, swivel-chair, cherry-wood desk, bear trap, soup ladle, and sausage grinder, are displayed in the parlor, dining room, and bedrooms. At the rear of the dwelling is the stone kitchen, with its Dutch oven, huge fireplace, and enormous water basin carved out of solid stone. Beyond the kitchen stands the stone-built slave house.

Most of the windows in the Ménard dwelling still hold their original hand-pressed panes, imported from France. On the outside of one of these panes is an inscription, done with a diamond and presumably by one of the Ménard children, which contains two names, "L. C. Menard" and "Augustin Louis Cyprian," as well as the place-name "Ste. Genevieve, Mo.," and the date "August 24, 1842."

Thayer's Notes:

a See the account of the convention in S. J. Buck, Illinois in 1818, Ch. 10, p286. Ménard's political career is discussed in some detail in chapters 7 and 11 of the same book.

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b p99.

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xc p496 f.

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Page updated: 2 Feb 18