Turning 200: Cape Girardeau County celebrates its founding

Friday, October 26, 2012
A large crowd was gathered on the grounds of the Cape Girardeau County Courthouse in Jackson in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Jackson Heritage Association)

Joseph McFerron, the first court clerk of the Cape Girardeau District, and later Cape Girardeau County, was possibly left-handed. He didn't use punctuation and had a habit of not picking up his pen between words as he recorded minutes into the books kept for quarter sessions, as county commission-type meetings were called in 1813.

Still, his handwriting presented a beautiful appearance, said staff members of Cape Girardeau County's archive center Thursday. The archive center workers dressed in period garb as they, along with officeholders and residents, celebrated the 200th anniversary of the county's founding.

The original minutes McFerron recorded, along with early photos of the county's third courthouse on the Jackson square, were on display during a presentation given by center director Steve Pledger, assistant director Drew Blattner and archival tech Jessica Dickey.

Blattner, dressed as Benjamin Howard, the Louisiana Territory governor who announced the formation of Cape Girardeau County in 1812, read a proclamation that divided the state horizontally into five counties from the Mississippi River to near the present Missouri-Kansas line. Cape Girardeau County's original boundaries included a swath of the state straight west and held all or parts of counties from Bollinger to Newton and Barton counties in Southwest Missouri. People who lived as far away as Springfield would have at one time had to travel hundreds of miles east to Jackson to attend court or settle land disputes, according to Pledger.

The location of the county seat, which is Jackson, is only so because a land dispute prevented building a courthouse on a desired plot in Cape Girardeau long ago. For several years county officials have discussed the need to consolidate county services into a central location and the possibility of no longer using one of its two courthouses, the Common Pleas courthouse in Cape Girardeau and the courthouse in Jackson.

First Jackson Homecomers celebration in 1908. (Courtesy of Jackson Heritage Association)

Blattner on Thursday read an early history of the county, covering important dates for the region that led to the county's founding from 1682 to 1833. In 1833, an estimated 750 residents petitioned the court to move the county seat from Jackson to Cape Girardeau. Archive center employees found the signatures several years ago. County records indicated the petition signatures were valid and the request was granted, but the subject was then apparently dropped.

County officeholders jokingly questioned Thursday whether the signatures were still valid.

No mention of a change of location for the county seat was seen after September 1833.

"It seems more like it was just that the next term of court came along and it was held here," Pledger said. "Nobody knows what happened."

Another mystery surrounds record keeping in the county from the Civil War era.

"There is also no mention of the Civil War," Pledger said. "I always thought that was kind of strange."

Other historical documents not recorded by county officials show troops camped on the Jackson courthouse lawn around the time of the Battle of Cape Girardeau in April 1863. Confederates retreated to the city before heading back into Arkansas. Much earlier documents, Revolutionary War pension applications, were found in the county's archives by staff in 2003.

Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy said Thursday's presentation was a fitting acknowledgment of the county's history.

Archives staffers also explained a brief history of the county's courthouses. The current courthouse was built in 1908 and was preceded by a courthouse just to its south that was built in 1870. It was razed after the current courthouse was completed. Its predecessor, a smaller brick building with a cupola, was built in 1839 to replace what is believed to be the county's original Jackson courthouse, described in historical documents written by Louis Houck in 1888, as a "barnlike" structure built in 1818.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

1 Barton Square, Jackson, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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