Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

François Ménard, a Colonial Arkansas Marchand and Habitant

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

François Ménard, a Colonial Arkansas Marchand and Habitant

Article excerpt

Anglo-American visitors to Arkansas Post in the early nineteenth century were unstinting in their condescension when evaluating the old-time French inhabitants whom they encountered there, and those evaluations closely echoed the ones that other sojourners from the East were voicing elsewhere in the Mississippi Valley at about the same time. Among these travelers there was virtually unanimous agreement on the nature and character of the colonial holdovers they observed: The French were an amiable but essentially indolent lot, not much given to enterprise, and overly fond of idle pursuits like drinking, dancing, gambling, playing billiards, and racing their horses. In 1819, for instance, Thomas Nuttall, the Harvard botanist-and an Englishman at that-hammered the Post with a fearsome invective, indicting all and sundry: "The love of amusements, here," he said, "as in most of the French colonies, is carried to extravagance, particularly gambling, and dancing parties or balls. But the sum of general industry is, as yet, totally insufficient for the support of any thing like a town. . . . [Tjhese Canadian descendants, so long nurtured amidst savages, have become strangers to civilized comforts and regular industry. They must, however, in time give way to the introduction of more enterprising inhabitants."1

Examples of this kind of take on the Arkansas French could easily be multiplied, but Washington Irving's musings can perhaps serve as a proxy for all the remarkably uniform descriptions of them that found their way into print during the early national period. In his story "The Creole Village," which is about his visit to Arkansas Post in the 1830s, Irving caricatured both the French, whom he portrayed as somnolent, carefree fiddle-players, and the newly arrived Anglo-Americans, whom he limned as aggressive, hard-driving republican entrepreneurs. Irving filled his Arkansas Post, depicted as a sleepy, ruinous souvenir of a lost empire, with passive, enervated creoles. He outfitted Little Rock, the new territorial capital up the Arkansas River, with rival newspapers, a courthouse, and two banks, "all built of pine boards, on the model of Grecian temples," along with "lawyers by the score." By the end of his story, Irving had not merely warmed to the contrast he was drawing, he was positively on fire with it. Here he is upon leaving the Post: "As we swept away from the shore, I cast a wistful eye upon the moss-grown roofs and ancient elms of the village, and prayed that the inhabitants might long retain their happy ignorance, their absence of all enterprise and improvement, their respect for the fiddle, and their contempt for the almighty dollar." He could not resist ending the narrative with a rhetorical coup de grâce. "Alas!" he cried, "what is to become of our poor little creole village!"2

The figures that these effusions draw are deliberate literary caricatures to be sure, but they closely resemble the necessarily less overblown descriptions of the Arkansas French that other visitors left behind. In any case, the truth is that, pace Washington Irving and other detractors and romanticizers of colonial Arkansas, the Post had a number of enterprising merchants and habitants (farmers) in the eighteenth century who, though their obscured lives are usually beyond recovery, were in fact busily engaged in pursuing Irving's almighty dollar.3 The principal exception to their virtual anonymity is a man named Jean François Ménard.4

Jean François Ménard-he would soon lose the Jean-was born in 1745 or 1746 in central France in the tiny farming village of Sagonne (present-day population about two hundred) in what was then the province of Bourbonnais. François's birthplace lay within what his first will called "the jurisdiction of Moulin," meaning the diocese the see of which was Moulins, a city about thirty-five miles southeast of Sagonne. His par- ents, Antoine Ménard and Jeanne Ferand, were also natives of Sagonne, and there is no telling how many generations of his family had hailed from the town, which was already ancient when François was bom. …

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