THE MANY LEGENDS OF PETIT JEAN

This grave on this picturesque, rocky promontory holds the remains of Petit Jean ("Little John" in French). I don't have any official figures to back this up, and I don't know how one would test this notion; but I claim that the grave of Petit Jean is the single most photographed man-made object in Arkansas.

In the early days of the French revolution, Jean Chavet, a young nobleman, fled France to the New World. He promised his lover, a commoner named Adrienne Dumont, that he would send for her as soon as he found a place to settle. She pleaded to be taken along, but he would not agree. The dangers were too great.

Adrienne followed Jean to the docks, where she noticed that the cabin boy was just about her size. She purchased his identity on the spot, dressed in his clothes and took his place as cabin boy on the ship. She also took his name--Petit Jean.

Long story short. She fooled everybody, her lover included, for THREE DAMN YEARS, while they crossed the Atlantic and then sailed up the Mississippi, the Arkansas, and then the Petit Jean rivers. Then she became sick and was given over to one of the local tribes for treatment. It was the Indians who discovered she was a woman. What must they have thought about the Europeans?

So she died, was buried here, and now the place is named after her and on still, calm nights people can see two lights, the souls of the two lovers, floating along the ridge, blah-blah-blah yadda-yadda-yadda. People will believe any preposterous story so long as the characters are young, in love, and/or French.

The above legend of Petit Jean is the most popular, and the one I've heard since I can remember. Turns out, though that there are NINE legends of Petit Jean. I'm not going to go into all of them here, but if you want to look them up, there's a research paper by Linda E. Clark of Russellville that I assume is on file somewhere at Arkansas Tech. I got a copy from Doug Carter (the subject of the research paper) of the Department of Parks and Tourism. Carter and Clark are the source material for this article.

According to Carter, the abovetold story was invented in the early years of this century by the Stout family, who owned a hotel on the mountaintop. They advertised their establishment as a perfect place for newlyweds and honeymooners and made up this big fat fib as a sales tool. In order to lend verisimilitude to the story the Stouts, in 1912 or 1913, paid three men, one of them the father of Red Simmons, to go to the mountaintop, break up some rocks, and pile them into a cairn to create a "grave."

There are variations on the story. Sometimes the lovers live happily ever after, sometimes Chavet flees France not because he is a nobleman, but because he has killed a nobleman. In one version, Chavet has abandoned Adrienne in France and she follows him to America to exact revenge.

There are other stories involving privateers, ghosts, Indian princesses, lovelorn suicides and all the familiar elements of romantic stories. And there are a couple of credible stories about the origin of the name "Petit Jean." One involves a group of French traders moving up and down river, trading with the Indians. As they went, they named landmarks and one little guy named Petit Jean after himself. Or maybe he wasn't so little. Maybe he was like one of those giant bikers who is called "Tiny" by his friends.

We really can confirm very little concerning Petit Jean. We know that well into the early 1800's, this place was known as Impassable Mountain because it blocked passage along the west bank of the river during periods of low water. There was a half-French frontiersman named John Walker who was a veteran of the war of 1812 and who, as a veteran of that war, was entitled to a grant of some acreage in the newly-acquired Louisiana territory.

When he filed his petition to acquire the land on this mountain top, he identified himself as John Walker of Petit Jean Mountain. He was granted the land, and in 1844, when the maps were redrawn, Impassable Mountain is no longer there. Petit Jean Mountain is in its place, thanks possibly to John "Little John" Walker. How about that! The stroke of a pen removed an impassable mountain.

But you Romantics need not despair, for true love is not dead. Even though the official Pettit Jean legend is a crock, there is a modern romance which far outstrips the most effusive Victorian flight of fancy. See here that love is real! Some ardorous bucolic Visigoth dangled from the edge of a cliff with a rope in one hand and a can of red spray paint in the other to scribe a cupid-pierced heart and in six-foot letters, the three little words that mean so much: "Beebo loves Terrie." Attagirl, Terrie. Cherish your Beebo.

RTJ 5/8/97

Sources:

Clarke, Linda E. The Legends of Petit Jean Mountain; monograph for folklore class at Arkansas Tech in Russellville, May 1996.

Carter, Douglas; Petit Jean State Park Interpreter; interviewed 4/97.

Arkansas State Parks publications, Petit Jean -- Arkansas' Legendary First State Park; The Legend of Petit Jean; and Petit Jean State Park, 1997.



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