The name of New Madrid is but one indication that the Spanish once controlled the Mississippi River as far north as its confluence with the Ohio. A plaque erected by the Missouri Marquette Tercentenary Commission at Trail of Tears State Park on the river between Ste. Genevieve and Cape Girardeau reminds us of why Marquette and Joliet turned around near that point on the river.
In 1672, Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette were commissioned by King Louis XIV to discover the course of the Mississippi River. On June 17, 1673, the expedition entered the Mississippi via the Wisconsin river and began their descent by canoe.
On July 4, 1673, the seven-man expedition passed the mouth of the turbulent and later observed the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi. On reaching an Arkansas Indian village near present Helena, July 17, they were certain that the Mississippi flowed into the Gulf of Mexico. Fearful of the Spanish if they continued southward, at this point Father Marquette and Joliet turned back.
A dedicated and gentle priest, Father Marquette first brought the Word of God into the Mississippi Valley, gave the world an account of its lands and, with Joliet, laid the basis for France’s claims to the area.
Born in Laon, France, June 1, 1637, Father Marquette died April 18, 1675, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan from the hardships of his missionary life.
The Spanish were still influential at the time of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition in 1804–1806, as a State Historical Society of Missouri signboard at the Trail of Tears State Park notes.
Writing in 1803, Nicholas de Finiel, a French military engineer, described the Shawnee villages along Apple Creek that Lewis mentioned: “These villages were more systematically and solidly constructed than the usual Indian villages. Around their villages the Indians soon cleared the land, which was securely fenced around in the American style in order to protect the harvest from animals. The first of these villages is located five or six leagues from Cape Girardeau, along the road to Ste. Genevieve…”
Shawnee presence in the area was a matter of international politics. Shawnee and Delaware Indians from Ohio were invited to Cape Girardeau in the 1780s by Spain’s district commandant, Louis Lorimier, who had traded with those tribes in Ohio. Spain, which governed the Louisiana territory then, welcomed the “Absentee Shawnee” with ulterior motives. It believed they would be a buffer against the Osage and against American ambitions to expand their borders. Coincidentally, Gen. George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s older brother, had burned Lorimier’s Ohio post because Lorimier sided with the British during the American Revolution.
An historical marker on the levee at New Madrid calls it “The first American town in Missouri”:
Founded in 1789 by George Morgan, Princeton graduate and Indian trader, on the site of Francois and Joseph Le Sieur’s trading settlement, L’Anse a la Graise (Fr. Cove of Fat). Flood and caving banks have destroyed the first town site.
Named for Madrid, Spain, the town was to be an American colony. Morgan was promised 15 million acres by the Spanish ambassador, eager to check U.S. expansion with large land grants. Spain did not confirm his grant but gave land to colonists. Morgan left but he had started American immigration to Missouri.
French and American settlers contributed to town growth. Here were founded a Catholic church, 1789; a Methodist church, 1810; and here was the southern [northern?] extent of El Camino Real or King’s Highway, 1789. There are over 160 Indian mounds in the county, two near town.
“Boot Heel” counties, including a strip of New Madrid, are said to be part of Missouri through efforts of J. H. Walker (1794-1860), planter at Little Prairie (Caruthersville), Pemiscot Co. In nearby Mississippi Co. is Big Oak Tree State Park, a notable hardwood forest.