The Birth of a City

Cape Girardeau, Missouri

The Mississippi River has always been the foundation for Cape Girardeau.  Long before Europeans settled there, the river basin was home to many tribes of native Americans, including the Ozark Bluff Dwellers and the Mississippian tribes.  The lush grasses, mild-to-moderate climate, and river accessibility offered a perfect place to live.

In the 1730's, a Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Girardot, for whom the city is named, set up a temporary trading post at a rock promontory jutting from the west bank of the River.  This site became known as Cape Rock.  However, Girardot was a trader, not a settler, so by the middle 1700's Girardot had moved on.

In 1793, the Spanish Government gave Frenchman Louis Lorimier a land grant.  Lorimier used the grant to establish another trading post near the River, south of the site previously established by Girardot.  Even though Lorimier is considered the "Father of Cape Girardeau", he was not afforded the honor of being its namesake.  He did try by naming the trading post "Lorimont", but the name "Girardot" was already being used and the public had become accustomed to the name.  Lorimier erected the first house known as "The Red House".  It was located on the site now occupied by Old St. Vincent's Catholic Church.  It remained until 1850 when it was destroyed by a tornado.

The settlement of Cape Girardeau at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1803 boasted 1,111 people only eight years after Lorimier arrived.  Shawnee and Delaware tribes traded with Lorimier at Cape Girardeau and in Ohio prior to his relocation west of the Mississippi.  Ironically, Lorimier's trading post in Ohio was burned in 1781 by the troops of George Rogers Clark, the brother of voyager William Clark.

Early in 1806 the town of Cape Girardeau was laid out in lots that were sold for $100 each.  A petition for incorporation was presented in 1808.  Growth at first was slow and settlement of the city did not come easy.  Moving manufactured goods on the River made growth easier.  Shops were opened, hotels went up along the river and Cape Girardeau become a true city.  When the railroads were completed, it is said that the city's population doubled in just a few months.

Ironically, the River that had brought settlers to the area also caused the total destruction of the new city.  Every few years the Mississippi River would ravage the downtown area, wiping out businesses and bankrupting the proprietors.  In order for the city to survive, something had to be done to tame the River.  In 1956 work began on a flood wall that would protect the town.  It was completed in 1964 at a cost of $4 million and has saved the historic area downtown many times, particularly during the "Flood of 1993", when the river crested at 48.49 feet, nearly 17 feet above flood stage.

Cape Girardeau Visitor's Guide. 21 Jul 2004 .

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