"Legends die hard. They survive as truth rarely does."
Over the weekend Handy Hubby decided he would whisk me away to somewhere I had never been. Well, I have still never been there because when we got to where we were going, the place was gated, locked up, and closed! Some people had parked along the roadside and climbed the gate and were enjoying a nice cold dip in the lake, picnicking, and hiking. We did not.
Since that trip was a bust and we were not far away from a state park, we went there instead. I have so many fond memories of visiting this park and it is my favorite in our whole state. I think it is because of the legend that is attached to it that endears it to me so. I grew up with my grandmother telling me the story. She actually recited it just as she had learned it in her history book in school. To me it was always a swashbuckling tale filled with danger, intrigue, romance, and adventure with a tragic ending.
This story of adventure began in the 1700's with a young French nobleman named Chavet, also refered to as Cheves or Jean-jacques Chavez, who lived in the period of French exploration of the New World, and who was said to be a kinsman of the King of France. He asked the King for permission to explore a part of the Louisiana Territory, and for a grant to whatever part of it he might find to his liking. The King agreed to his request.
Chavet was engaged to be married to a young girl, Adrienne Dumont, in Paris who, when told of this plan, asked that they be married before he left France so that she might accompany him. Thinking of the hardship and danger that would probably be encountered, Chavet refused the girls request and told her that on his return, if he found the good country, they would be married and go to the New World and spend their lives. The girl, however, refused to accept his denial. She cut off her hair and disguised herself as a boy and applied to the captain of Chavet's ship when it was being outfitted for the trip for a place as a cabin boy, calling herself Jean. The girl must have been incredibly clever in disguise, for it is said that not even Chavet recognized her or suspected that she was not a boy. The sailors called her Petit Jean, French for Little John.
The ocean was crossed in early spring, the vessel ascended the Mississippi, and then the Arkansas River to the foot of a mountain, which must have looked to the voyagers, as they approached it, like the prow of a great ship. The Indians who lived on the mountain, seeing a ship for the first time, came down to the river and gave Chavet and his sailors a friendly and hospitable greeting. They invited the sailors to the top of the mountain. The invitation was accepted and Chavet and his men, including the cabin boy, found life with the Indians so pleasant that the entire summer was spent there.
Petit Jean fished the streams and hunted the forests of the region with Chavet, the sailors, and the Indians until fall approached, when Chavet began the preparations for the voyage back to France. When the ship was ready, supplied with food from the forest and water from the springs of the mountain, and everything needed for the trip, Chavet, his sailors, and Petit Jean went aboard on the evening before the day set for the start down the river. Chavet told the Indians that he would return the next year.
That night, Petit Jean became ill with a malady that was strange to Chavet and his sailors. It was marked with fever, convulsions, delirium, and finally coma. The condition of the patient was so grave at daylight that the departure was postponed. During her delirium and coma, Petit Jean's identity was of course discovered. After two days, during which her strength ebbed fast, there was a lucid interval. The girl confessed her deception to Chavet and begged his forgiveness. She told him that she knew that she could not live to reach France, and asked that she be carried back to the mountaintop to spend her last days.The Indians made a stretcher of deer skins and bore her up the trail near the point of the mountain to their camp on the brow overlooking the mountains and valley to the south. At sundown that day she died and was buried upon the mountain, not under her own name, but under the name she had been known by on the ship Petit Jean. Many years later, a low mound of earth was found in a cove on the East Point of the mountain, with rocks fitted so perfectly that they could not have been there by accident. It was agreed that the grave was very old. This is believed to be the grave of Petit Jean.
(This modern fence was added around the grave several years ago. The fitted rocks that used to be over the head of the grave when I was a girl have since tumbled over. There used to be two massive stones that formed an arch at the head of the grave.)
Now as is true with all legends, there are different interpretations of the tale. One version says that Chavet departure from France was not to explore but because he in self-defense killed another admirer of Adrienne's, Albert "Bertie" Marshand, a favorite nephew of King Louis XVI. In yet another he was a part of the DeSoto Expedition. While in most versions of the legend the reason Petit Jean follows him to America is her devotion, one variant has her following him for revenge after he deserted her.
The discovery of her identity is also a point of contention. One source has her voluntarily revealing her identity before her death; a second source says that it was discovered due to her illness as described above. A third source notes that it is her lover who became ill with swamp fever and as he leaned upon Petit Jean for support , he recognized her distinctive green eyes. She and the Indians nursed him back to health. Unfortunately, she fell ill and remained so for several months, nursed by the natives while her fiance traveled to an unnamed French settlement to build their home. Although one version gives the lovers a happy ending, in most cases she eventually died and was buried on top of the mountain that she grew to love. The mound of earth discovered many years after the fact is touted as being the grave of Petit Jean, after whom the mountain and park are named.
There is a considerably less romantic explanation of how the mountain got its name, a Frenchman nicknamed Little John was killed by the Osage in 1732. He either camped or lived in the vicinity of the mountain. Lastly, another source states that business is at the root of the entire legend. It says the the entire legend was invented by the Stout family in the early twentieth century who owned a hotel located on the mountain. Having advertised the hotel as the ideal place for newlyweds to spend their honeymoon, they devised the whole legend to bolster their claims. Rumor even has it that Stout paid three men to break up rocks and and create the "grave" of Petit Jean.
No matter the roots or the source, whether fact of fiction, the romantic tale of Petit Jean lives on. If you ever get a chance to visit you too will experience the lure of the legend. Legend has it that the spirit of Petit Jean hovers over the mountain in a mist giving it an air of strange enchantment.
I hope you enjoyed the story a small photo tour of Petit Jean.