Old Man River

The Mississippi River in North American History

Paul Schneider

Henry Holt and Co.

Prologue

The American Watershed

It doesn’t matter from what perspective you look at the river in the middle of the continent—geologically, ecologically, prehistorically, ethnographically, economically, industrially, socially, musically, literarily, culturally, or over the gunnels of your canoe midstream. It’s impossible to imagine America without the Mississippi. The river’s history is our history.

Similarly, just as a tree without branches and roots is merely lumber, it is pointless to separate the Mississippi from its tributaries. The upper Mississippi River, as the river above St. Louis is known, rises near the Canadian border at Lake Itasca in Minnesota. That stream has pride of name, of course, but the Missouri, which begins some nine thousand feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and joins the upper Mississippi at St. Louis, is a far longer river. The Arkansas River, which rises near Leadville, Colorado, and joins the Lower Mississippi halfway between Memphis and Vicksburg, is also longer than the Upper Mississippi. So is the Red River of the South, which rises in the Texas Panhandle. The relatively short Ohio, meanwhile, which rises in western Pennsylvania and Virginia and joins the Upper Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, to form the Lower Mississippi, brings more water to the party than any two other tributaries combined. The truth is that any moving water south of the Great Lakes and between the Appalachians and the Rockies—with the exception of a few relative trickles—is going to Louisiana. The Mississippi, the Mississippi watershed, the Mississippi basin, the Mississippi catchment—41 percent of the continental United States—it’s all one river.

Parts of the river are older than the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of it were created yesterday. The Mississippi and its tributaries were the routes by which the first humans explored North America, and the earliest evidence (for the time being) of human habitation of the continent is in a rock shelter overlooking a small tributary of the Ohio in Pennsylvania. Agriculture developed independently in the Mississippi River basin, and with it, surplus food for artists, warmongers, shamans, and potentates. For millennia, cultures rose and fell in the watershed, often leaving behind elaborate earthworks and exquisite artifacts but just as often disappearing without leaving much behind. Eventually the greatest pre-Columbian city in North America was built beside the Mississippi River at Cahokia, in Illinois.

The corpse of the first European known to have explored the interior of North America—Hernando de Soto—was sunk in the Mississippi River nearly five hundred years ago. Two hundred years later George Washington got his first taste of battle during an engagement in the watershed over whether Britain or France would control the river. That skirmish started the Seven Years’ War, the first global war, which Americans know as the French and Indian War.

In many ways, the story of the Mississippi basin since the end of the French and Indian War is also the story of the federal government of the United States. The taxes that American tea-partiers revolted against were levied to pay for Britain’s wars in the watershed. King George’s attempts to control the pace of settlement across the Alleghenies was one of the intolerable acts of 1774 later cited in the Declaration of Independence.

After the American Revolution, the one tangible asset the national government owned was the land west of the Appalachians. The first war fought by the newly independent United States was therefore to convince the resident Indians of that new political and military reality. The first road financed by the federal government of the United States was built to get to the watershed; the first civil works built by the Army Corps of Engineers was to improve navigation in the watershed; the first scientific publication by the Smithsonian Institution was a study of the archaeology of the watershed; the first request for federal disaster relief came from Missouri, after the New Madrid earthquakes on the Mississippi River in 1811; the first efforts by the national government to impose safety regulations on a private industry were the steamboat acts of 1838 and 1852.

The Civil War was largely about who would control the lands west of the river: slave owners or Free-Soilers. John Brown lost one son in “Bloody Kansas” before losing another at Harpers Ferry, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin—the book by “the little woman who started this big war”—is about a slave sold “down the river” from Kentucky. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman both came to President Lincoln’s attention after their successes on the Mississippi River, and the siege of Vicksburg was a major turning point of the war, splitting the Slave States and giving undisputed control of the river to the North. After the Civil War the struggle for the watershed continued in an endless series of small and ugly campaigns against various Native American resisters. The last pitched battle fought between Native Americans and the United States Army was near the top of the river at Leech Lake, Minnesota, two years before the twentieth century.

Jazz was born in New Orleans, and zydeco in the bayou. The blues originated in the delta, while rock and roll poured out of Memphis and bluegrass and country music trickled down the Tennessee and the Cumberland Rivers. Cowboy tunes floated off the plains via the Red River, the Platte, and the Arkansas. The river had one Mark Twain, though it’s worth remembering that Melville also wrote a novel about the Mississippi. Riverboats and pirates, gamblers and slaves, hustlers and landscape painters, loggers and catfishers, tourists and missionaries: it is a river of stories and a river of myth. It’s Paul Robeson sitting on a cotton bale, Daniel Boone floating on a flatboat, and Paul Bunyan cutting trees in the neighborhood of Little House in the Big Woods.

The oil industry was hatched in the headwaters of the Ohio, and the steel industry at Pittsburgh. The Rust Belt, in many ways, is synonymous with the Ohio and upper Mississippi Rivers in part because the first heavy industry was building steamboats. Lead and zinc in world-leading quantities came out of Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas. The river is still today the busiest waterway on the planet, with more than half a billion metric tons of grain, coal, petroleum, sand, salt, chemicals, and other products moving up and down the world’s largest plumbing project, into which, for better or worse, the river has been transformed by the Congress of the United States.

It is tempting to think of the river as a caged animal, locked behind several centuries’ worth of public works. My guess is that the Mississippi itself doesn’t really care about such things any more than it cared about the Pleistocene’s mile-high walls of ice, which first sent its northern sources southward. Or the rising of the Rocky Mountains half a billion years ago, hemming it in on the west. Or the volcanoes and asteroids that rained ash and dust into its waters. This is not at all to say that there are not real and serious consequences to our compulsive tinkering with the Mississippi. Nor is it to turn a blind eye to the noxious soup of fertilizer and pesticides that our addiction to cheap food and ethanol has made of the lower river. It is only to say that long after we the people reap what our congresses have sown, for good or ill, the Mississippi River will be there.

Is there. Make the effort to get your feet muddy and you’ll find that the Mississippi is a very real river of water that will bring you joy and adventure if you step away from your vehicle and experience it wherever you find it. It is a magnificent creature of unsurpassed beauty, and it’s sliding past Natchez and St. Louis as you read these words in the dark or in daylight. It’s at Davenport and Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Little Rock. It’s trickling off of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico heading for Texas, and past the Seneca Indian Casino in western New York State. It’s sitting as snow up in Jackson Hole, boiling up in great swirls around Tower Rock, Illinois, and licking at the levees by the aquarium in New Orleans. The river is always a willing traveling companion.

Go down to the water, whether it be the main stream at Venice, Louisiana, or the creek outside Brown’s Cave in southern Missouri, or even the dry bed of the Cimarron up near Clovis, New Mexico. The longer you spend on the river, the more likely it is that the stream will draw out of you what needs to be drawn out. Not to replace it with something else; unlike lakes, rivers are never about accumulation. The flow itself is the thing that will catch your conscience like a fallen leaf.

Near the end of the process of writing this book I met a woman in Jeanerette, Louisiana, who thought she knew me, though she did not. It was an early Sunday morning in June, and I was canoeing down the Bayou Teche with a good friend from high school, Loren Demerath. Three thousand years ago the Bayou Teche was the main route of the Mississippi River, and history suggests that in some distant future it will surely regain that distinction. Today, however, Bayou Teche is a small distributary stream carrying a tiny share of the Mississippi basin’s waters from Port Barre, Louisiana, through the heart of the Cajun country roughly 125 miles to the Gulf of Mexico below Morgan City. I wanted to explore it for those reasons, of course, but also for the zydeco nights in small towns along the way, gorging on jambalaya and crawfish.

It was the prospect of finding a legendary local bakery that brought Loren and me to shore in Jeanerette that morning. Le Jeune’s Hot French Bread was closed, however, and we were walking empty-handed back down the empty Main Street when a lone woman yelled from across street, “Hey I know you! I know you!”

“I know you. You’re from around here. Have you seen my friend?” she asked when she caught up with us. We apologized. She seemed a bit out of sorts, as if perhaps she was struggling with her sense of reality. But she was friendly, and gregarious, and said several times, “I know I’ve seen you two around here. You must know my friend Tim. Have you seen my old friend Tim Landry?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t know anyone here,” Loren explained. “We’re just paddling down the bayou in a canoe and stopped here in town for breakfast.”

“What?” she hollered, and instantly began to sing at the top of her lungs:

“Goodbye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh . . .”

The woman was dancing in the street in the morning sunshine, plumb crazy with her own brand of river madness. We couldn’t help but laugh and sing along, however, trying our best to keep up with the old Hank Williams lyrics she obviously knew by heart.

Son of a gun, we’re going to have some fun on the bayou.

Jambalaya, a-crawfish pie and-a file gumbo

Son of a gun, gonna have some fun on the bayou.

We walked away down Main Street toward our canoe and her voice faded off in the distance as she went looking in the opposite direction for Tim Landry. We heard her again, however, an hour later as we paddled through the warming hours of midmorning. She was up on the bank somewhere in the shade where we couldn’t see her, but there is no doubt it was she. All of a sudden her voice rang out like a bayou siren: “Son of a gun, gonna have some fun. . . .” She was accompanied this time by a happy-sounding man, and they both serenaded us from the canopy of trees until we were around the corner and out of sight.

Only later still, when Loren and I were laughing and retelling each other the day’s wacky turn did I realize with a start that Tim Landry was the name of my very first friend in life, a fun-loving water rat of a kid whom I haven’t seen or thought of in forty years or more. By the time I remembered old Timmy and his leaky little rowboat, however, it was much too late to turn around and paddle back up the once and future Mississippi.


Copyright © 2013 by Paul Schneider