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Petit Jean [Legend]

The Legend of Petit Jean is a romantic Arkansas tale that purports to explain the origin of the name of Petit Jean Mountain. Although there are other explanations that are both more logical and more mundane, when someone refers to “The Legend of Petit Jean,” the person is most likely alluding to the romantic one.

According to the story, in the 1700s, a young French girl named Adrienne (or, more specifically, Adrienne Dumont) disguised herself as a cabin boy named Jean in order to follow her beloved to the New World. Because of her small size, the other sailors nicknamed her “Petit Jean,” French for “Little John.” At some point after arriving in Arkansas, Petit Jean became ill, although the exact nature of her illness remains unclear. One source implies that she contracted swamp fever while nursing her lover back to health from that disease; another lists symptoms—“fever, convulsions, delirium, and finally coma”—but only says that her malady was “strange to Chavet and his sailors.” Whatever her illness might have been, her identity was revealed. Unfortunately, she succumbed to the illness, died, and was subsequently buried atop the mountain now called Petit Jean.

Beyond these basics, details vary. Her fiancé or sweetheart is referred to variously as Cheves, Chavet, or Jean-Jacques Chavez. His departure for the New World is generally attributed to his being part of an exploratory expedition. One source, however, states that his departure was precipitated after he was forced to kill in self-defense another admirer of Adrienne’s, Albert “Bertie” Marshand, a favorite nephew of King Louis XVI. While in most versions, the reason Petit Jean follows her lover 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 to her lover just before her death; a second source says that her identity was discovered due to her illness, at which time she begged her beloved’s forgiveness before she died. A third source deviates from this significantly. In this source, it is her lover who became ill with swamp fever. As he leaned on Petit Jean for support, he recognized her distinctive green eyes. She and some friendly natives nursed him back to health. Unfortunately, she then fell ill and remained so for several months, nursed by the natives while her fiancé traveled to an unnamed French settlement to build their home. Although one version of the story gives the two lovers a happy ending, in most other cases she eventually died and was buried on top of the mountain she had grown to love. A mound of earth discovered many years after the fact is touted as being the grave of Petit Jean by the state park of the same name.

For additional information:
Arnold, Morris S. Colonial Arkansas, 1686–1804: A Social and Cultural History. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.

Deane, Ernie. Arkansas Place Names. Branson, MO: The Ozarks Mountaineer, 1988.

“History of Petit Jean Mountain.” Petit Jean State Park. http://www.petitjeanstatepark.com/history/ (accessed June 15, 2006).

“The Many Legends of Petit Jean.” The Arkansas Roadside Travelogue. http://users.aristotle.net/~russjohn/pjean.html (accessed September 4, 2006).

Sutherlin, Dianne. The Arkansas Handbook. Little Rock: Fly-By-Night Press, 1996.

Turner, Marguerite. Petit Jean: A Girl, A Mountain, A Community. Morrilton, AR: Hurley, 1955.

Courtney Moore Clements
Black River Technical College

Last Updated 5/19/2010

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