History of Cape Girardeau

Cape Girardeau, Missouri, has evolved from a tiny trading post to a community of 39,000 residents. Although part of its namesake cape on the Mississippi River was destroyed in the late 1800s to make way for the railroads, a memorial "Cape Rock" sits atop the bluff of the trading post site. 

In the 1700s an adventuresome French soldier, Jean Girardot, established a trading post in a remote region populated by more than 20 Native American tribes. Girardot chose a promontory rock overlooking the Mississippi River as the site for his trading post. Trappers and river travelers soon discovered this welcome bit of civilization carved out of the vast forest that one day would become Missouri. They called the place "Cape Girardot."

Girardot, a frontiersman and trader at heart, eventually moved on. The man credited with founding Cape Girardeau, French-Canadian Louis Lorimier, came to the area from Ohio in 1793, commissioned by the Spanish Governor General to establish a military post from which to trade and interact with the Native Americans. From his "Red House" on the site of Old St. Vincent's Church, Lorimier also served as the city's first ambassador. He welcomed many settlers and even Lewis and Clark on their way to St. Louis for their journey into the unknown west. Today, the Red House Interpretive Center helps people understand how the Old Cape Girardeau District got started and learn about our founder, Don Louis Lorimier and his family and more. The Red House is owned by the City of Cape Girardeau.

Under Lorimier's intelligent government and continuing promotion, the settlement thrived. Although Lorimier -- or some of his companions -- named the post "Lorimont," the name "Cape Girardot" (later modified back to "Girardeau," the original French spelling) already had gained popular acceptance among the region's small population. Ensign Girardot's trading post had long since disappeared, but the mark he left on the region was indelible.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803, easily the greatest discount sale in history, brought the Missouri region into American possession at the cost of 2 cents per acre. As a result, Louis Lorimier donated four acres for the establishment of a seat of justice. In 1806, the city was platted and in 1808 was incorporated into a town. Lorimier died in 1812 and is buried in historic Old Lorimier Cemetery.

With the arrival of the steamboat in 1835, Cape Girardeau became a river boom town. It was the busiest port between St. Louis and Memphis. Until the Civil War, the Riverfront bustled with activity as a commercial center and as an inviting port of debarkation for steamboat passengers.

During the Civil War, Cape Girardeau was occupied by Union forces who built four forts to protect the city and river. For a brief period in 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant set up headquarters in Cape Girardeau before moving his headquarters to Cairo, Illinois. A minor skirmish was fought just west of town in 1863, but fortunately Cape Girardeau was spared the devastation that claimed other cities.

The post-Civil War years brought continued growth: the establishment of public education in 1867, the introduction of rail service, and advances in agriculture and industry. In 1873, a teaching university was founded in Cape Girardeau that is now Southeast Missouri State University. The university now provides higher education for more than 8,000 students in all disciplines.

Today, Cape Girardeau is a regional hub for education, commerce, and medical care. Although the city's population is around 39,000 people, it is estimated that as many as 90,000 come to Cape Girardeau daily to work, shop, go to school, or visit the many doctors' offices or two hospitals. In addition, the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, which was officially opened in December 2003, carries 26,000 cars in and out of Cape Girardeau every day.

Historic Facts

  • Community founded January 4, 1793, on a Spanish land grant to Louis Lorimier
  • Lewis and Clark stop at Lorimier’s Post & Cape Rock on the Voyage of Discovery, November 23, 1803
  • Town platted 1806 by Bartholomew Cousins, Secretary to Louis Lorimier
  • Town incorporated 1808 (prior to Missouri statehood)
  • Town reincorporated 1843 as a City by special act of the Missouri Legislature
  • City Charter (Constitutional Home Rule) adopted by electorate in November 1981, effective April 12, 1982.
  • Charter amendments adopted by electorate in April 1996
  • Ward representation adopted by electorate in August 1993.