The Lewis & Clark journals provide a fascinating snapshot of the U.S. frontier on the cusp of the 19th century, when the explorers were navigating through a roiling melting pot of attitudes, cultures and nationalities. This rapidly changing world is perfectly illustrated in Lewis’s journal entry of November 23, 1803. The Corps of Discovery was still en route from Louisville to St. Louis. Clark was under the weather with stomach problems, and Lewis took a break from navigating the difficult and rapid currents of the Mississippi River to pay a visit to a settlement he called “Cape Jeradeau” (more commonly known today as Cape Girardeau, Missouri).
There Lewis encountered the commandant, a striking figure named Louis Lorimier. Born near Montreal in 1748, Lorimier and his father had established an Indian trading post known as “Laramie’s Station” on a branch of the Great Miami River in Ohio. Lorimier was loyal to the British during the Revolution, and even led raiding parties of Indians into Kentucky. Awkwardly, William Clark’s brother George Rogers Clark had burned Laramie’s Station to the ground in 1782, ruining his business and destroying $20,000 worth of goods.
So it was perhaps just as well that Lewis went alone to visit Louis Lorimier. A few years after George Rogers Clark burned him out, Lorimier had moved to Spanish Louisiana in the 1780′s and obtained a large land grant from the Spanish to establish a settlement for Indians, partly as a defensive buffer against possible American invasion. Lorimier’s district was huge, extending, in Lewis’s words, ” the distance of sixty miles W. from the river as far as the river St. Francis.” Under the Spanish crown, Lorimier was authorized to administer land grants, hold court, take the census, and maintain the militia for Cape Girardeau. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, in spite of being no great friend to the United States, Lorimier continued in much the same role and served as U.S. Indian agent.
Having entirely recovered his losses from the George Rogers Clark incident, Lorimier was now “a man of very considerable property.” Lewis witnessed this firsthand in a wild scene that was going on just as he arrived. He found Commandant Lorimier in the middle of a horse race, in which the prizes were the horses themselves. Lorimier lost four horses valued at $200 but “seemed to bear his loss with much cheerfulness.” But not everyone followed his example.
The Comdt. was busied for some time in settling the disputes which had arrisen in consequence of odds being given among the by betters; this seane reminded me very much of their small raises in Kentucky among the uncivilized backwoodsmen, nor did the subsequent disorder which took place in consequence of the descision of the judges of the rase at all lessen the resembleance; one fellow contrary to the descision of the judges swore he had won & was carrying off not only his own horse but that also of his competitor; but the other being the stoutest of the two dismounted him and took both horses in turn; it is not extrawdinary that these people should be disorderly they are almost entirely emegrant from the fronteers of Kentuckey & Tennessee, and are the most dessolute and abandoned even among these people; they are men of desperate fortunes, but little to loose either character or property—
Once all disputes were settled, Lewis was able to present his credentials and found himself warmly received by Lorimier. He describe the commandant in vivid terms:
he is a man about 5 F 8 I high, dark skin hair and [e]yes; he is remarkable for having once had a remarkable suit of hair; he was very cheerfull & I took occasion to mention this to him he informed me that it was on[c]e so long that it touched the grond when he stood errect—nor was it much less remarkable for it’s thickness; this I could readily believe from it’s present appearance, he is about 60 years of age, and yet scarcely a grey hair in his head; which reaches now when cewed (the manner in which he dresses it) nearly as low as his knees, and it is proportionally thick; he appears yet quite active— this uncommon cue falls dow his back to which it is kept close by means of a leather gerdle confined around his waist—
Like many Canadian traders, Lorimier had taken metis wife, a French-Shawnee woman named Charlotte Bougainville. Lewis was invited home to meet Charlotte and the rest of Lorimier’s family. He found them to be remarkably “decent,” using the adjective three times in the course of one journal entry. “She is a very desent woman and if we may judge from her present appearance has been very handsome when young,” Lewis wrote of Lorimier’s wife. “She dresses after the Shawnee manner with a stroud leggings and mockinsons, differing however from them in her linin which seemed to be drawn beneath her girdle of her stroud, as also a short Jacket with long sleeves over her linin with long sleeves more in the stile of the French Canadian women.”
Lorimier and his wife had seven children. His eldest daughter caught Lewis’s eye: “The daughter is remarkably handsome & dresses in a plain yet fashionable stile or such as is now Common in the Atlantic States among the respectable people of the middle class. she is an agreeable affible girl, & much the most descent looking feemale I hae seen since I left the settlement in Kentuckey a little below Louisville.”
Invited to stay for supper, Lewis wrote with approval, “The lady of the family presided, and with much circumspection performed the honours of the table: supper being over which was really a comfortable and desent onen I bid the family an afectionate adieu.” It may have been the last decent meal the Captain would have for a while, at least until he reached St. Louis.
In 1806, Lorimier laid out the lots and streets for Cape Girardeau along the wide, flat riverfront. In 1808, the settlement was incorporated as the town of Cape Girardeau. Louis Lorimier, the Father of Cape Girardeau, died in 1812 and is buried in Lorimier Cemetery, on land that he donated to the community he founded. His wife preceded him in death in 1808 and is buried by his side.