Given St. Paul’s colorful past, it shouldn’t be surprising that the city’s first resident of European descent was a bar owner with legal troubles, and the first building was his eponymous bar.
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Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant’s early years are shrouded in mystery. Here are things the historical records seem to agree on:
- He was born in the late 1700s to early 1800s, and was a native of the Sault Ste. Marie area.
- He was involved in the area’s fur trade.
- He was a crook, although this is couched in terms like “dubious reputation.”
- He had an eye patch.
- He got the nickname because he was blind in the patched eye.
Now, bear with me, but this last one doesn’t make a goddamn bit of sense. Pigs have two functional eyes. I know they didn’t have bar trivia or Alexa back then, but they had farms, for chrissakes. Do some fact-checking, frontier historians.
The definitely-a-real-website Minnesota Fun Facts claims that Parrant was so named because of “a sinister white ring around the pupil” of his bum eye; however, the Oxford English Dictionary says that the figure of speech “in a pig’s eye,” an expression of complete and utter disbelief, became popular in North America around this time. Doesn’t this seem like an equally plausible explanation for how someone with a checkered past in a profession given to BS-ing and storytelling might have gotten that name?
What I’m saying is that he should have been called “Ol’ One Eye” or “Patchy.” But anyway.
The poorly-nicknamed Parrant settled in the Fort Snelling area in the 1830s. He got a 180-year head start on the MSP craft spirits boom by selling homebrewed hooch to fellow squatters, Native Americans, and the fort’s soldiers.
This did not sit well with the powers-that-be, including one Lawrence Taliaferro, Fort Snelling’s Indian agent at the time. (Indian agents were the U.S. government’s ambassadors to the Native Americans of the area. Taliaferro was considered one of the good ones by the local tribes. He also owned the slave that married Dred Scott, and “gave” her to Scott’s master. Being one of the good ones was a very low bar to clear, in other words.)
Anyway, Taliaferro evicted the hooch-vending Parrant from the vicinity of Fort Snelling. This did not deter Parrant, who simply moseyed up what is now Shepard Road to a location just outside of Fort Snelling’s boundaries. This place, Fountain Cave, was exactly what it said it was: a cave with its own stream. In 1838, Parrant set up his still, took advantage of the water supply, and resumed selling his wares to a thirsty public. The cabin/saloon he built at the cave’s entrance was the first building site in what would become St. Paul. (There’s even a marker, not far from The Growler’s offices, denoting the spot of Parrant’s infamous tavern).
Only it wasn’t St. Paul yet. Locals instead used the nickname of the notorious small businessman who was currently selling cave whiskey as the area’s handle. One story has it that a bar patron sent a letter from the tavern and used “Pig’s Eye” as the return address, giving the area its initial name.
The name would’ve stuck, too, if it weren’t for those meddling priests. A nearby diocese sent Father Lucien Galtier to the newly-settled area to minister to the local Catholic population. He built a church (a log building, not the current Cathedral), dedicated it to St. Paul, and when it came time to establish an actual city, St. Paul won out over Pig’s Eye. (Pig’s Eye’s consolation prizes were a landfill name, my college roommate’s preferred beer brand, and the best alternate-universe state capital name in the history of the United States.)
Parrant himself would get evicted from Fountain Cave, so he kept going up the road and set up a new tavern in what is now Lowertown. (The guy was really ahead of the curve, trend-wise.)
How Parrant spent the rest of his days isn’t entirely clear. As someone with listed birth years of both 1777 and 1801, that stands to reason. The National Park Service says he got evicted from a few other places and moved to Winnipeg, where he got married and had kids, only to move to North Dakota, re-marry, and die sometime during Reconstruction. Another history agrees that he got the boot from multiple St. Paul locations (including the site of the aforementioned landfill), decided to move back to Sault Ste. Marie, but died on his way there.
As for his legacy, there is still a string of bars and restaurants from West 7th to Mears Park that stand on the same path Parrant once trod, and some of St. Paul’s diviest dives still have Pig’s Eye Beer signs hanging, featuring the grizzled likeness of Ol’ One Eye himself. It’s a fitting tribute.