1670s - 1820
The French were most likely the first Europeans to explore southeast Missouri. When the Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette and commercial trader Louis Joliet made their inaugural trip down the Mississippi in 1673, they became the first documented Europeans to set foot in the region. After the British victory in the French and Indian War, France seceded its claim to land west of the Mississippi to Spain, although many Frenchmen and their families chose to cross the Mississippi River to the west side choosing Spain over England as their sovereign, even if it was temporary.
Under the Spanish
Spanish control in what is now southeast Missouri began after the French and Indian War. The Spanish loosely governed its land west of the Mississippi River. Spain chose to divide the area west of the Mississippi into five districts: St. Charles, St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve, Cape Girardeau, and New Madrid. Under Spanish control, French settlers began exploring the area, Francois and Joseph Lesieur are credited with the first settlement in southeast Missouri settling just north of present day New Madrid (the French called the settlement L'Anse a la Graisse, or Greasy Bend) sometime between 1783 and 1796.
The Lesieurs placed their trading post near present day New Madrid in order to capitalize off of the lucrative trade with the local Shawnee and Delaware Indians. Some time around 1794 or 1795, they expanded their business south near present day Caruthersville calling the little settlement, Little Prairie. Later, after the 1811 earthquakes, Lesieur moved the Little Prairie trading post to Point Pleasant east of present day Portageville. George Morgan, Revolutionary veteran turned land speculator, sought permission to create a Spanish colony from the mouth of the Ohio to present day Helena, Arkansas. Initially the Spanish government was interested and encouraged Morgan to survey the proposed land. Morgan chose to plat and map what became known as New Madrid. In the end, Morgan only received permission to colonize those he initially brought into Spanish territory. He was rewarded with his efforts to colonize southeast Missouri with thousands of acres of land the position of assistant commandant of New Madrid. The Spanish governor of Louisiana, Governor Miro, appointed Pierre Foucher as the commandant of New Madrid. He was in charge of selling Spanish lands, administering the oath to Spain, and building a fort at New Madrid with more than two dozen soldiers, called Fort Celeste.
As the dawn of the 19th century approached, most of the settlers in southeast Missouri were French and lived within close proximity of the Mississippi River. Settlers from Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee began migrating slowly into the region as well. The settlers that lived along the river tended to at first mainly focus on trading with the local Native Americans, who by 1800, were already slowly moving west to escape the newly arriving settlers. As the population grew, so too did the need to focus more on farming than on trapping or trading. Beginning in at least 1794, corn became a staple crop in and around New Madrid, this increase in agriculture led to an increase in population. Another factor that led to growth in the region in the late 1700s was the creation of the El Camino, or King's Highway, that stretched from New Madrid to St. Louis.
From Spanish, to French, to American
Spain returned Louisiana to the French in 1800. Needing to fuel his European conquests, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to the U.S. in 1803 for the modest sum of $15 million. The population of southeast Missouri grew substantially from 1800 to 1804, going from a mere handful of inhabitants to 1,350. Of those it was estimated that 2/3 were English born, while 1/3 was French. Those land grants received by the Spanish were honored by the French as long as the owner had followed the many steps it took to successfully receive an original Spanish land grant. As more people moved into the area, more river traffic sought to cash in on the newly settled land. Timber was cut and loaded onto boats, locals continued to trade with what Native Americans remained, and the number of farms grew and expanded from corn to cotton.
During its first decade as US territory, southeast Missouri grew at a slow rate simply because of the vast swampland that inhabited over half of the region. Travel was difficult across the fingerlike maze of small creeks, rivers, and shallow lakes. To make matters worse a series of earthquakes hit the region in 1811 and 1812. The damage was so severe that Congress issued one of its first federal relief packages for a natural disaster, to the citizens in and around New Madrid. After the earthquakes when local fears of another series of earthquakes subsided, more people began to migrate to the region. Enough people had arrived there and elsewhere in the state that President James Madison created Missouri as a territory in 1812. Efforts to gain statehood began as early as 1817, but the southern boundary of the state among other arguments, delayed the vote.
John Hardeman Walker moved to Missouri about 1810 settling near Little Prairie in Pemiscot County. Walker owned a vast cattle plantation throughout swampland that was not originally included as the southern boundary of Missouri (it was originally going to follow the 36 degree 30' north latitude, or the upper boundary of Tennessee). Walker was an influential person, if not the most influential in the entire region, he began to petition Congress and the provisional territory government to include his vast landholding. His urging worked, the territorial legislature asked Congress to include Walker's land by extending the southeast boundary south to 36 degrees north latitude. It also requested more land to the west and north of the territorial boundary (some of which it acquired). The Missouri Enabling Act was signed into law in 1820, which included the newly added "bootheel" of Missouri.