Near the end of His Promise True is a nod to something any person who’s spent much time in Arkansas will find familiar. The old keelboat fiddler, Stewpot, tells an “Indian story” about a girl who dressed as a boy and followed her lover to the New World, only to die and be buried on a mountain top in what became Arkansas Territory. Arkansans will recognize this story as the legend of Petit Jean, associated with Petit Jean State Park on top of Petit Jean Mountain near Morrilton.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t sure it was a good decision to put the story in the book. I wanted my book to be as historically accurate as possible, and the Petit Jean legend is, most probably, not historically accurate . In fact, trying to find out exactly where the story came from proved to be plenty elusive.
Petit Jean Mountain is one of three rather isolated mountains positioned near the Arkansas River and between the Ozark Mountains to the north and the Ouachita Mountains to the south. Even the origin of the mountain’s name seems to be lost in the past; according to the blog “Arkansas Road Stories,” it was originally called “Impassable Mountain” because the mountain, which edges the Arkansas River’s west bank at one point, blocked travel overland when the water level was low. However, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas cites three sources–explorer Thomas Nuttall, government surveyor Henry Downs, and the early Arkansas Gazette–as referring to the mountain as “Petit John Mountain,” a transliteration of the French term “Petit Jean.”
Where the “Petit Jean” in the name comes from is also a matter of some dispute. One common explanation is that “Petit Jean” was a person (“Little John”), although there are several candidates to be that person. Some believe the mountain is named for John Walker, a half-French man who settled on the mountain in the 1840’s. One source (Woodward) claims it was Petit Jean de Marne, a young French nobleman who came to the New World with the explorer Robert de La Salle. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas article says tradition holds that Petit Jean was the young son of the first European settler in the area, Jean La Caze, who settled on the mountain to escape the revolution in France. To add to the confusion, the Encyclopedia of Arkansas also suggests the name may be a mispronunciation by the English-speaking settlers of the area of “Petit Jaune” (“Little Yellow”), which is the name Colonel Rene Paul recorded for the small river that runs along the base of the mountain and empties into the Arkansas River. Paul’s name for the river is part of the map drawn to accompany the 1818 treaty with the Quapaw Indians. Although I have no proof, my guess is that the final explanation, based on the geographic feature, is most likely to be the real origin of the name.
Regardless of how the mountain came to be known as Petit Jean, the idea that “Petit Jean” was a person took hold. In most versions of the legend, Petit Jean is a young woman, although Woodward claims to have found records of “eyewitness French friends” of the young nobleman Petit Jean de Marne who “recorded the true story”; in Woodward’s version, Petit Jean was fleeing with La Salle’s expedition down the Arkansas River to escape “bloody brawls” and drowned. He was “lovingly prepared for burial by Native Americans,” and his funeral was conducted by two Catholic priests. Woodward also asserts “a lover stayed nearby while others fled to France.” I have trouble accepting this story, mainly because the timeline doesn’t work out. According to Woodward’s website, Petit Jean came to the New World with La Salle in 1685; however, the 1685 expedition never made it to Arkansas. La Salle was in Arkansas a few years earlier, in 1682, when he held a ceremony formalizing the friendship between the native Quapaw and the French.
The version of the story most people know is that of the young French girl who disguised herself as a cabin boy under the name of “Jean” so she could accompany her fiance’ to the New World. It’s a totally romantic story–the crew (and Jean’s lover) were unaware “Petit Jean” was actually a girl until she fell ill while the expedition was exploring the area around the Arkansas River. While caring for her, the Native Americans discovered her true sex, and on her deathbed, Petit Jean requested that her fiance’ bury her on the beautiful mountain. Visitors to Petit Jean State Park today can look at the fenced gravesite said to be Petit Jean’s on the bluffs at Stout’s Point overlooking the Arkansas River.
Unfortunately for the romantics among us, this story is as unlikely to be true as I believe Woodward’s story of the young nobleman to be. As Rachel Silva from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program said, “The legend of Petit Jean is likely a tall tale created by some of the park’s early promoters to explain the origin of the mountain’s name and draw visitors to the area.” In looking at the history of the mountain, I think it’s likely the “tall tale” preceded the founding of the state park in 1923.
According to Silva, a “mansion” was built on the east end of the mountain in 1891 by a man named Dan Nelson. Sometime in the late 1890’s, Nelson sold the mansion to William Stout, who converted the large house into a hotel. In the early 20th century, the Stout family advertised the hotel as a honeymoon destination. Although no one can say for sure, it’s likely the legend of Petit Jean was dreamed up as a marketing ploy, to lend an extra air of romance to the physical beauty of the mountain. The “Arkansas Road Stories” blog says the Stouts hired three men to make a fake cairn, which was then “discovered” and linked to the “legend.” That cairn is contained within the fenced gravesite today.
Marketing ploy or not, the “legend” might have died out had it not been for the efforts of Marguerite Turner. Shelle Stormoe says Turner received a grant from an Arkansas arts organization, and in 1955, Turner published a thin (56 pages) volume, called Petit Jean: A Girl, A Mountain, A Community, that elaborated on the bones of the legend. As Stormoe said, “Almost everything we understand about that myth comes from her [Turner’s] imagination.”
Since the story itself has a history linked so closely with selling a manufactured image, I guess I’ll let myself off the “historical accuracy” hook on this one. Who knows? Perhaps the Stout family got the idea for their tall tale from an old, nearly-blind keelboat fiddler…..
Higgins, D. (2011, April 1). Petit Jean Mountain. Encyclopedia of Arkansas [online]. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=6317
The many legends of Petit Jean. (1997, May 8). Arkansas Road Stories. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://arkansasroadstories.com/pjean.html
Silva, R. (2011, July 16). Walks through history: Petit Jean State Park CCC Structures. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/pdf/tour_scripts/petit_jean_ccc_structures_tour_script_2011.pdf
Stormoe, S. (2013, Jan. 17). The real legend of Petit Jean. Arkansas Mirepoix [blog]. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://arkansasmirepoix.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/the-real-legend-of-petit-jean/
Woodward, L. (n.d.) The awesome true story of the real Petit Jean. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from http://www.petit-jean.org/