In Old Man River, Paul Schneider tells the story of the river at the center of America’s rich history—the Mississippi. Some fifteen thousand years ago, the majestic river provided Paleolithic humans with the routes by which early man began to explore the continent’s interior. Since then, the river has been the site of historical significance, from the arrival of Spanish and French explorers in the 16th century to the Civil War. George Washington fought his first battle near the river, and Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman both came to President Lincoln’s attention after their spectacular victories on the lower Mississippi.
In the 19th century, home-grown folk heroes such as Daniel Boone and the half-alligator, half-horse, Mike Fink, were creatures of the river. Mark Twain and Herman Melville led their characters down its stream in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Confidence-Man. A conduit of real-life American prowess, the Mississippi is also a river of stories and myth.
Schneider traces the history of the Mississippi from its origins in the deep geologic past to the present. Though the busiest waterway on the planet today, the Mississippi remains a paradox—a devastated product of American ingenuity, and a magnificent natural wonder.
“[A] vivid history.”—The New Yorker “In fabulous yarn-spinning sentences, [Schneider] whirs through the geologic eras in which the river was formed . . . A fabulous romp . . . Schneider is a marvelously personable tour guide . . . Schneider has a real knack for capturing life on the river.”—Barnes and Noble Review "Schneider’s book stands out . . . It’s another reminder of how we took the river’s heritage for granted for far too long, and why it’s worth scrambling today to reclaim and maintain as much of it as we can."—Minneapolis Star Tribune "Paul Schneider recounts history as a novelist might. Once you start one of his books, you find yourself unable to put it down. As I read his story of the Mississippi, I feel like I am revisiting early America on board a raft with Huck and Tom and runaway Jim. I think Mark Twain would be one of the first to congratulate Mr. Schneider on his splendid new book."—James Lee Burke "I have heard and sung the painful ballad ‘Old Man River,’ since my childhood in the 40’s, but it was only when I read Paul Schneider’s Old Man River, I took a deeper look at the Mississippi River and truly understood with greater clarity how, as the author puts it, ‘the river’s history is our history.’ Travelling with Paul Schneider’s words and heart is an eye-opening adventure well worth taking."—Charlayne Hunter-Gault, author of In My Place "A terrific, wonderfully written account of the river, the peoples past and present who lived there, what they loved and what they loathed (often foreigners), how they lived and died and explored and ought in the Old Man’s shadow. His tale unfolds from the beginning of north American time and it’s the best detective story you’ll read this year."—Ward Just, author of An Unfinished Season and Exiles in the Garden "A fascinating and passionate profile of the river that shaped American history and culture."—Rosemary Mahoney, author of Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff "Vividly peopled and comprehensively marshaled, this account makes a fine and flowing read, summarizing the ineffable."—Edward Hoagland, author of Notes from the Century Before and Sex and the River Styx "Paul Schneider takes us on a hugely entertaining journey along one of the world’s greatest waterways. It is a pageant of astounding color and variety, sweeping from mammoths, mastodons and paleo-Indians to the British Petroleum disaster, and from Cahokia, the largest pre-Columbian city in America, to fabulous New Orleans. We meet an extraordinary cast of characters, the Spanish conquistadors, French voyageurs, Iroquois raiders, explorers and empire builders of different hues and tongues, river pirates, bare-knuckled boatmen, the ranks of the blue and gray, slaves and civil engineers. The scope is breath-taking, and the seamless blend of history, culture and science is exceptional. This is a lucid, immensely diverting excursion that could only have been written by one who not only knows but loves the Mississippi, and fears for the future of this entrancing and mighty, but acutely vulnerable, highway. It is a great read for anyone who values Americana."—John Sugden, author of Nelson: The Sword of Albion "Reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary . . . this historical book becomes surprisingly moving and meditative."—Cedar Rapids Gazette "Another chockablock, environmentally focused, ambitious volume from Schneider...A wild ride well worth taking."—Kirkus Reviews "Nonfiction lovers with eclectic tastes and readers bored by a single-discipline approach will love Schneider’s multiple-angle portrait of the Mississippi watershed. The territory Schneider studies is what some dismiss as 'flyover country,' but what fascinating stories 'flyover country' has to tell!"—Booklist "Stunning . . . With such an expert hand on the tiller, Old Man River is an astonishing journey."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Paul Schneider is the acclaimed author of Bonnie and Clyde, Brutal Journey, The Enduring Shore, and The Adirondacks, a New York Times Book Review Notable Book. He and his family live in West Tisbury, Massachusetts.
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.
Prologue The American Watershed 1
Book One: River of GiantsContinents Collide, Glaciers Recede, Mastodons Bellow, and Humans Arrive 1. Ice on the Rocks 9 2. The Missouri Leviathan 13 3. Bones and Stones 20 4. Broken Arrows 30 5. Mammoth Season 35
Book Two: River of MoundsThe Rise and Fall, and Rise and Fall, and Rise of Native America 6. Among the Effigies 43 7. Poverty Point 54 8. 60,000 Pearls 58 9. The Mississippian Moment 64 10. The Great Serpent 73
Book Three: River of FortuneThe Spanish Exit, the French Arrive, the Iroquois Take Action 11. Bonjour Great Khan 81 12. In the Iroquois Longhouse 88 13. The American Bottom 98 14. The Illinois Country 102 15. Adrift 111 16. The Incomparable La Salle 120 17. Nous Sommes Tous Sauvages 129 18. The Wrath 136 19. If the River Don’t Rise 145
Book Four: River of EmpiresThe English Enter, the French Exit, the Iroquois Negotiate, and the Americans Take Over 20. The Scramble for the Forks 153 21. The Half King 159 22. Adieu New France 171 23. The American Watershed 180 24. Allegheny Mornings 194
Book Five: Life on the MississippiFlatboats and Keelboats, Steamboats and Showboats, Songsters and Soul Drivers 25. Down a Lazy River 205 26. I Long to See You 223 27. Up the Wicked River 236 28. All Aboard 246 29. Down Below 257
Book Six: River of bloodLincoln and Davis, New Orleans and Vicksburg, Victory and Defeat 30. Blood on the Tracks 267 31. Anaconda 272 32. Up in Flames 285
Book Seven: On the Lake of the EngineersFloods Rise, Levees Rise, Dams Rise, while Mountains Fall and Grasses Sink 33. The Mouth 305 34. All the Lists of Clay 314 35. Old Man River 331
Acknowledgments 335Source Notes 337Bibliography 353Index 381