Historical Marker Dedication
October 24. 1954
Using for his topic, "New Madrid, Mother of Southeast Missouri," Floyd C. Shoemaker of Columbia, secretary of the Missouri Historical Society gave the principal address at the dedication of a historical marker just south of New Madrid Sunday afternoon, with more than three hundred interested persons present.
The formal dedication, sponsored, by the Lucy Jefferson Lewis Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, with the cooperation of other New Madrid organizations, was held in the open at the site of the marker, a mile south of Scott Street on Highway 61.
Complete Text of Mr. Shoemaker's Address
The highway historical marker at New Madrid mentions a few of the highlights of the history of the first American settlement in Missouri. To give even a partially complete account of the one hundred and seventy-five years which make up the history of New Madrid is not only beyond the limitation of the space of such a marker but also beyond the limitation of a brief outline such as I am about to present. For New Madrid has lived a long and eventful life, one full of interest for the historians of our great West and of significance for the present citizens of the city. Let us glance briefly, then, at the growth of New Madrid the district, which at one time included the district of Cape Girardeau and of the present state of Arkansas, entitling it at least in some degree to the sobriquet of "Mother of Southeast Missouri."
We can trace the history of New Madrid back to 1780, when Francois and Joseph Le Sieur established headquarters for hunters and fur traders at a spot called "L'Anse a la Graise" or "cove of fat," indicting its use by French and Spanish navigators as a storage place for bear meat. Actual settlement was begun by the brothers in 1786, and three years later the small French trading post was chosen by Colonel George Morgan as the city of his dreams. This former Revolutionary War officer of Welsh descent, also known as a land speculator, scientific farmer, and Indian agent in the Illinois country, was the real pioneer of American settlement in southeastern Missouri. His trip to New Madrid was ten years before the time Daniel Boone went from Kentucky to Missouri.
The grant of fifteen million acres that he was promised by the Spanish minister, Don Diego de Gardoqui, later served as the basis for the Spanish District of New Madrid, the southern most of the five Spanish districts comprising Upper Louisiana. The grant covered the area from Cape Cinque Hommes on the north, including what later became the District of Cape Girardeau to the mouth of the St. Francis River on the south, later part of the Arkansas Territory. The New Madrid grant extended as far west as the White River from this, strategic area, stretching north and south of the mouth of the Ohio River. Morgan hoped to control the commerce of the whole American West east of the Mississippi River, taking advantage of the location in Spanish territory to gain the right to use the port of New Orleans.
Colonel Morgan, one of the most colorful men active in expanding America's frontier beyond the Mississippi has been neglected by historians. He gave New Madrid the most extensive favorable publicity the area received before the century. He issued circulars throughout New England and as far west as the Old Northwest Territory, giving glowing accounts of the potential kingdom and its advantages. The requirements were few: to receive a grant of 320 acres, one had only to build a house and settle the land before May 1790, take an oath of allegiance to the King of Spain, and pay Morgan forty-eight Mexican dollars. He would then have the privilege of residing in an ideally platted city.
The city was to cover an area two miles wide and four miles long, dissected by streets as wide as 120 feet bordered on by fifteen-foot sidewalks. Lots were to be provided for market places, schools and churches and a twelve-acres lake, a tree lined parkway and public river landings were other attractions. Nor were the attractions limited to material advantages. Freedom of religion and local self-government were to be a basis of Morgan's utopia. To this end, lots were to be provided for Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, German Lutheran, and German Calvinist churches and schools.
It is little wonder that Morgan was enthusiastic about the prospects for the success of his venture. When his plans were laid, the Articles of Confederation had failed, and many people were discouraged about the success of the new constitution. Spanish control of New Orleans, and thus of the Mississippi, had created so much dissatisfaction and actual hardship that conspiracies were under way to form a new nation of western states, with Kentucky in particular threatening to break away and join Spain. Morgan could promise the privileges of freedom of worship and self-government not customary in Spanish territory plus the additional advantages of free navigation and freedom to own slaves. The last inducement was particularly appealing, because the Ordinance of 1787 had prohibition slavery in the Northwest Territory.
The beauty of the site itself must have done much to further Morgan's expectations. New Madrid was located on an unusually fertile ridge extending from the foot of the Scott County hills southward to the St. Francis River. The ridge touched the Mississippi River at New Madrid, forming high banks. The open prairie with its scattered trees gave a park-like appearance to the landscape, and a large lake of clear and limpid water was bordered with a white, sandy beach. Fruitful soil, luxuriant grass, abundance of game and fowl, and the delights of a varied climate combined to make what Morgan considered an ideal location.
After deciding upon the location at New Madrid and leaving the seventy men he had led from Fort Pitt to begin a settlement, Morgan went to New Orleans in May 1789, to receive confirmation of Gardoqui's promises from Estevan Miro, Governor of Louisiana. In the meantime, General James Wilkinson, who wanted to make Kentucky the center of an independent confederation, which would either negotiate with Spain for free navigation of the Mississippi or any itself with England to defeat Spain, realized that Kentucky would have no reason to separate from the United States if Morgan relieved the pressure by making New Madrid an outlet for United States goods. Therefore, Wilkinson convinced Miro that Spain's interest would be sacrificed under Morgan's plan, because the American settlers would remain American in their outlook and would merely cause trouble in Spain's well-disciplined empire. Wilkinson stressed the advantage of colonization of Spanish territory by Spanish agents under Spanish supervision and of fortifications to uphold authority.
Under Wilkinson's influence, Miro reduced Morgan's grants. He decided to fortify the settlement and made Morgan second in command to the military officer to be appointed. Spanish officers were to administer Spanish laws after all. No public worship was to be allowed except that of the Catholic Church, although Protestants would not be molested. Miro required the settlers to take an oath of allegiance to defend Spanish territory if necessary. He authorized Morgan to bring in Americans and stipulated that land grants would be free. New settlers should enjoy the same privileges as the old inhabitants.
Morgan's enthusiasm vanished when he discovered that he would be second in command and that his own personal land grant was cut to 1,000 acres. Furthermore, he was convinced that American settlers would not approve of Miro's requirements. Morgan never returned to New Madrid, but after being assured that grants he had made to men who had already begun the settlement would be upheld he went instead to Philadelphia. Many of the men who had left Fort Pitt with Morgan returned home with their leader. Settlers were further discouraged by a flood in the summer of 1789, when the fort had to be moved to higher ground. All but fourteen of the settlers had left by November.
The settlement at New Madrid had existed without a commandant, either civil or military, throughout the 1780's, creating a situation, which virtually amounted to anarchy. To correct this lawlessness, Miro sent Henry Peyroux and six soldiers to New Madrid to preserve order after Morgan's departure. Peyroux opened several roads and made land grants but was soon replaced by Pierre Foucher who was ordered to New Madrid in July 1789, to build a fort and take civil and military command. Foucher built Fort Celeste (named after Miro's wife) and laid out the town, but prosperity was elusive in spite of the commandant's efforts. During the following administration of Thomas Portell, from 1791 to 1796, the situation became worse instead of better. Nor was there any great improvement during the administration of Colonel Charles De Lassus from 1796 to 1799, but new settlers continued to come to keep the town alive.
Although there was not much farming before 1796, 174 lots had been granted by then, while only seventeen were abandoned. By May 1799, oaths had been given to 601 new settlers at New Madrid, but the first statistical census that year showed the population to be only 282 persons. The population of the whole district of New Madrid was 831. By 1799, the Indians had gone farther inland, cutting off trade and making it necessary for a few resident hunters to provision the village. The situation was so critical that rationing was used in the 1790's, with coupons being issued for such items as bread, tobacco, sugar, and rum.
In spite of all this hardship, definite progress was made. As early as 1789, a road had been marked out following the old Indian trail from New Madrid to St. Louis. El Camino Real, or King's Highway, as it was called, passed through Big Prairie, through Rich Woods to Scott County, and on through Cape Girardeau and Ste. Genevieve, stimulating settlement all along the way. Furthermore, a private school was opened in 1793, and in the same year Father Pierre Gibault, "Patriot Priest of the West," was named priest for New Madrid. Father Gibault had been the only official of the Catholic Church in the region north of the Ohio River for many years. In 1799, he erected New Madrid's first church, St. Isadore, and served the community until his death three years later.
The period after the turn of the century was also a critical one for New Madrid. After Father Gibault's death in 1802, there was no resident priest, and the settlers were served by the priest at Ste. Genevieve. It was not until 1810 that the New Madrid circuit of the Methodist Church was created, making this church organization the second oldest in New Madrid. The river was continually encroaching on the settlement, fever claimed some victims, Indians terrorized the town, and river bandits under the leadership of Samuel Mason had to be driven out. Before the time of the earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, the settlement had almost expired and had been revived several times, but it had made steady, if slow, progress.
If this superficial picture were the whole story of the struggling village, New Madrid would not be so significant today. However, New Madrid's significance far outweighed the mere census figures, and the settlement is important for its unique position in the Spanish regime. Until late in 1799 New Madrid was completely independent from the rest of Upper Louisiana. The commander at New Madrid exercised the powers of sub-delegate to the governor at New Orleans and administered the district independently of the lieutenant governor at St. Louis. This gave the commandant at New Madrid a position of superiority over those at Ste. Genevieve, Cape Girardeau, and St. Charles, as all post commanders in Upper Louisiana were under the control of the lieutenant governor at St. Louis. Until 1799, the only two "patented officers" were at St. Louis and at New Madrid. These officers could make land grants, which formed the basis for legal claims and were recognized by the governor at New Orleans, subject to the approval of the royal Intendants. Commandants at St. Charles, Ste. Genevieve, and Cape Girardeau were "particular" officers and had no such sub-delegate powers.
This privileged position ended when New Madrid became part of Upper Louisiana in 1799. Furthermore, New Madrid had an independent court system. In the Spanish system, cases were tried by the Commandant with appeal possible to the lieutenant governor and from him to the governor general. Because of its distance from St. Louis, however, New Madrid obtained the right to have "an trials for felony held and adjudged without appeal." This liberality of Spanish officials toward New Madrid extended to the granting of land. New Madrid also violated the traditional Spanish pattern in that no common field was fenced in and divided among the settlers during the Spanish occupation. The question of using a common field was discussed before the commandant, but the Americans objected to the plan and displayed a spirit of independent and self-reliance in enclosing separate fields in spite of the labor, trouble, and expense.
Much of the settlement's importance lay in its strategic location as a river port. According to Louis Houck, New Madrid was commercially the most important station on the upper Mississippi in 1799. It was the port of entry for all vessels going up or down the river, to and from New Orleans, and these boats had to land there for inspection. The itinerant Presbyterian Minister, Timothy Flint, said, "You can name no point from the numerous rivers of the Ohio and the Mississippi from which some of the boats have not come. They have come from regions, thousands of miles apart (and)...have floated to a common point of union." Revenue boats were stationed at this custom port, and in the spring as many as one hundred boats were known to land at New Madrid in a single day.
Most important of all is the role played by New Madrid in leading the way for American expansion west of the Mississippi River. The impulse given American immigration by the wide advertisement of Morgan's plans combined with the liberal land policy of the Spanish authorities to stimulate westward movement. So great was American migration that when the territory was ceded to the United States, a majority of the population of Upper Louisiana was already composed of Americans.
This immigration had also been increased by the passage of the Ordinance of 1787, which led slaveholders to believe that Negroes would be freed in the Northwest Territory as soon as a territorial government was established. The influence of New Madrid is even reflected back in this very Northwest Territory from which it took settlers, because the plan of surveying used by Morgan at New Madrid was so far superior to former plans used by Congress that it was adopted by the United States in 1796 in surveying the land north of the Ohio River.
The Spanish period came to an end with the transfer at St. Louis of Upper Louisiana from Spain to France on March 9, 1804, followed by the transfer to the United States on March 10. New Madrid was the only one of the remaining posts and settlements of Upper Louisiana that marked the occasion with a ceremony. There on March 18, Don Juan La Valle surrendered the fort and district under his command to Captain Daniel Bissell, the representative of the United States.
Perhaps New Madrid's greatest contributions as an innovator came in the period before the Louisiana Purchase, but the District of New Madrid had important political significance, which carried over to the American period. Until about 1795, New Madrid included Cape Girardeau and until 1804, it included what was to become Arkansas. William Henry Harrison, Governor of Indiana Territory that included the District of Louisiana, by a proclamation on October 1, 1804, extended the southern boundary of New Madrid to 33 degrees north latitude, and this line was used by Congress the same year as the dividing line between the District of Louisiana and the Territory of Orleans. The old District of New Madrid remained a political division until 1812 when it became a county.
The southern boundary of New Madrid was contracted in 1813 when Arkansas County was established. Clarke, Hempstead, and Pulaski counties were formed from Arkansas County, and all four counties were lost to New Madrid and to Missouri when the Arkansas Territory was created March 2, 1819. New Madrid was further broken down in 1815 when Lawrence County was organized from part of New Madrid west of the St. Francis River and north of Arkansas County. Lawrence County was short-lived, however, for three years later it was combined with part of Cape Girardeau to become Wayne County. New Madrid was then located between Wayne County and the Mississippi River. The original county of New Madrid was reduced in size, but the town retained political importance when the seat of justice was moved from Winchester to New Madrid in 1821.
Today twenty-nine of Missouri's 114 counties are wholly or partly made of territory which was part of the original New Madrid County. These include the counties of Scott, Mississippi, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Dunklin, Stoddard, Butler, Carter, Ripley, Oregon, Howell, Christian, Douglas, Ozark, Taney, Stone, and Barry. It also includes parts of the counties of Bollinger, Wayne, Reynolds, Shannon, Texas, Wright, Webster, Greene, Lawrence, Jasper, Newton, and McDonald.
We see, then, that New Madrid was the political nucleus from which future southeastern Missouri counties were to evolve in spite of the fact that rival settlements soon developed to grow along side the first American city in Missouri. Although New Madrid was not able to furnish many actual settlers to new areas, it did provide leadership by example and gave incentive for the immigration of Americans into Spanish Territory. New Madrid's role in settling the area would no doubt have been considerably stronger if the town itself had not suffered misfortunes, which retarded its growth and prevented prosperity in the early period before Missouri became a state.
The swampiness of the area had been under estimated by the original settlers and was to prove a constant handicap. Also, the Indian trade had declined almost to the point of non-existence, sometimes bringing real hardship to the settlers. By far the most important impediment to its growth, however, was the series of earthquakes, which began December 16, 1811, bringing such terror and destruction in the next year that settlers lacked the confidence necessary to rebuild good homes. When other areas of the future state of Missouri were forging swiftly ahead, New Madrid was fighting for survival and recovery. Public works and several streets were carried away, including Father Gibault's church, house, and gardens. Only two families remained at one time after the crisis, and over one hundred tracts of land were offered for sale for back taxes in April 1817.
Numerous descriptions of the earthquakes have been handed down. Perhaps one of the most vivid was written by Eliza Bryan in 1816: The awful darkness of the atmosphere which, as formerly, was saturated with the sulphurous vapor, and the violence of the tempestuous thundering noise that accompanied it, together with the other phenomena mentioned as attending the former ones, formed a scene, the description of which would require the most sublimely fanciful imagination. At first the Mississippi seemed to receded from its banks, and its water gathered up like a mountain, leaving, for a moment, many boats...on the bare sand, in which time the poor sailors made their escape from them. It then rising fifteen or twenty feet perpendicularly, and expanding, as it were, at the same moment, the bank overflowed with a retrograde current rapid as a torrent. The river, falling immediately as rapidly as it had risen, receded within its banks again with such violence that it took with it hole groves of young cottonwood trees which ledged its borders. The site of this town was evidently settled down as least fifteen feet.
Another description continues: ...the earth was thrown into waves like the waves of the sea; this waving motion was so violet that it was impossible to stand or to walk. The crest of the waves was elevated some three or four feet above the usual level of the earth, forming long lines running from the southwest to northeast, and having depressions between them; some of these waves or swells burst, forming fissures in the earth some three to seven feet in width and extending to an unknown depth. One of the fissures thus formed there spouted great quantities of water, sand, and a kind if charcoal or lignite. In many cases there seems to have been a sort of gas having a sulfurous smell.
Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee was one outcome of this upheaval. These shocks have not been surpassed or equaled for number, continuance of disturbance, area affected, or severity even by the more widely known quakes at Charleston and San Francisco. Only the scarcity of population has kept the New Madrid Earthquake from gaining public attention. Connected with the fame of the earthquakes is the unfortunate scandal of the land frauds resulting from an act of Congress in 1815 for the relief of earthquake victims. The act provided that victims could have an equal amount of land, which was authorized for sale elsewhere in the territory. If the owner had held less than 160 acres, he was, nevertheless, entitled to a minimum of 160 acres by the act, making it possible to trade small town lots for good-sized farms.
The inevitable speculation followed on a grandiose scale, with land sharks buying the damaged holdings for a song. The speculators themselves were sometimes the victims when landowners sold their property several times to different speculators. The recorder at St. Louis issued 516 certificates for new land with the general provision that they could be filed for an equal amount of land in Boon's Lick Country. 149 of these were for more land than was relinquished. Five times as many certificates were filed, as they were heads of families in the New Madrid area, and only twenty bona fide settlers finally claimed land under the act. The whole affair proved to be a field day for lawyers, and litigation was rife, but only in 142 cases was it finally ascertained that holders of the certificates had never held land in the area before the earthquake.
Nor was this great earthquake to be the last disaster to come to the valiant little town, which had struggled for survival from its inception. The encroaching river had forced the town back one-half mile as early as 1808, and by 1855, inhabitants were living on the third site. In 1862, James Morris Morgan, a midshipman in the Confederate navy, was ordered by Commodore George Hollins to go ashore and burn the town established by his great grandfather. Once more New Madrid was rebuilt, and a new church, the Immaculate Conception Church, was dedicated in 1869. This church was nearly destroyed by the severe flood of 1875, and the town has been plagued by floods periodically throughout its history.
Surely it requires tremendous courage and perseverance for a town to survive all that has befallen New Madrid and still thrive to stand with traditional American doggedness. Today New Madrid serves as a center for one of the state's richest agricultural areas, and a never-ending drive for improvement has resulted in a fine new library, schools, churches, Masonic Temple, business houses, and lovely homes that line the streets.
Although the old town site lies unmarked somewhere in Kentucky, and nearly all the old landmarks of the past have been washed away, tradition links the original settlement at New Madrid with twenty-nine counties which are political offspring of New Madrid County and reminds us of the spirit of fearless innovation which marked the mother settlement.
The Weekly Records newspaper, New Madrid, MO, October 29, 1954.