That Lawless Stream

A History of the Mississippi River

Published: May 20, 2013
Mississippi River

The city of New Orleans, circa 1885 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In April of 1927, the Mississippi River began to flood states from Illinois to Louisiana. After months of unprecedented rain, the flood waters poured from the river’s banks at a rate of twenty eight Olympic swimming pools each second. Hundreds of people died. Hundreds of thousands were displaced. America was reshaped, both demographically and politically.

The Mississippi River is central to the American economy and imagination. And for centuries, it has served as a battlefield for America’s most complicated social and economic struggles. On this episode of BackStory, we’re going to look at the role the river has played in the American story – how access to its waters both united and divided a country, and how efforts to tame it have consistently come up just a little bit short.

Help Us Out: We want to hear about the role the Mississippi has played in your own history. Was reading Huck Finn a pivotal moment in your young life? Did you or your family grow up in a delta town? Or perhaps you’ve experienced the flood waters yourself. Let us know, below.

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Comments (18)

{Discussion is closed
  1. Gayle Harper

    I just wrote a long comment but there may have been an error in submitting it. Please let me know if you received it or not and I will resubmit if needed. Thanks – Gayle Harper

  2. Gayle Harper

    The Mississippi River has lived in my heart since the 1st time I saw it at seven years old. I am a travel photographer and writer and recently took the road trip of a lifetime, following the entire course of the Mississippi River from the headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The journey was 90 days because that is how long it takes a single drop of water to complete that trip, so I followed my imaginary raindrop, nicknamed Serendipity, through America’s heart. I met hundreds of wonderful people who opened doors to amazing opportunities I could never have scripted.

    The book of stories and photographs from the 90-day journey is nearing completion and will be off to the publisher soon. In the meantime, I kept a blog as I traveled, called “Surrendering to Serendipity” which is still available online – this is the link to Day 1
    http://bit.ly/gayleharperDay1

    The Mississippi River is the main artery of our country in so many different ways. I love being in touch with others who love it and appreciate what a great national treasure it is. Thank you for doing this BackStory!

    Gayle Harper

  3. Brian Parkinson

    Is there any chance that you guys can tell us a story about the ancient mound city of Cahokia, which was situated along the Mississippi River just across from St. Louis? It was the largest pre-Columbus city north of the Rio Grande (up to 20,000 people, more than London at the time). Surely there’s an archaeologist out there who has good story to tell…

  4. Dave Palmer

    I’d like to second Brian’s comments about Cahokia. I’m planning to participate in the Cahokia excavation as a volunteer this summer. (I’m not an archaeologist, but I figure I can dig and follow instructions as well as the next guy — at least I hope so). Cahokia was an extremely important place from about 700 until about 1400, yet most people don’t even know it exists.

    There has often been speculation that the mound-building civilization that culminated in Cahokia was influenced by Mesoamerican civilization, but recently it has been suggested that the mound-builders of North America may have actually laid the foundations for Mesoamerican civilization. See this article in Science magazine: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/334/6063/1620.summary

  5. Kimberly Kopplin

    Growing up in Wisconsin, I was always told that the Mississippi River formed the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. It wasn’t until college when I realized that what I had been taught was wrong! The border changes into the St. Croix River when the Mississippi splits off into Minnesota. I remember being so angry when I learned this information. I was just wondering how this happened. Why doesn’t the border of the states follow the Mississippi River like every other state that borders it? How was it decided that the Headwaters were in Minnesota and not the beginning of the St. Croix?

  6. Sean

    I just wanted to recommend the book “Petrochemical America,” which connects “Cancer Alley” with its communities’ pasts.

  7. amy

    Actually Kimberly, if you follow the Mississippi, there are many places where the river has clearly established a new channel and there are parts of one state across the river from the main body of the state. if you look closely at state maps of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, you can see many examples of this. I noticed this while on a southern trip a few years ago and it made me think about state boundaries and how they are established.

  8. Natalie Franz

    I’d love for this show to talk about Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. Of all the places along the river, there is no place with more physical evidence of the French colonial presence in “the Illinois country”. Whereas other mostly French towns were subsumed by later development, Ste. Genevieve retains so much of its early character, and provides a venue to interpret the history the Mississippi during an important era.

  9. Chris Hutchings

    I fascinated by the Old River Control structure and the other Army Corps projects that were built and now maintained in an effort to contain waters that would naturally want to move and change course over a vast alluvial plane – that is now a cradle of human industry, food source and homes.

    He we got here is certainly a history topic – but I’m curious about the future of this effort. What voices in the river’s past ever dared voice the opinion that taming the river might send us down a technological dead end? Or do I have it wrong and we have adequately marshaled the raw forces of nature?

  10. Chris Hutchings

    (Note to self… check for grammar mistakes before hitting “submit”. How embarrassing.)

  11. Gerri

    Like most Americans, I had only romantic notions about Life on the Mississippi. That changed a bit when I read Thomas Buchanan’s Black Life on the MIssissippi: Slaves, Free Blacks and the Western Steamboat World. (UNC Press, 2007)

    I guiltily confess I’m glad I hadn’t read it before enjoying the steamboats passing by tiny Cassville, Wisconsin during the Grand Excursion of 2004, which commemorated the Grand Excursion of 1854. Ignorance is bliss!

  12. Corey Dargel

    The NYC-based composer and singer/performer Eve Beglarian spent several months traveling the entire Mississippi River in a kayak. She recorded and/or remembered stories that people told her during her journey. After she completed her journey, she wrote music inspired by the Mississippi River and by the people she met in its path. You can read more here: http://evbvd.com/brim/ or you can contact me at coreydargel [at] gmail [dot com] and I’ll send you more info and more music.

  13. Jon Kukla

    I hope you’ll get in touch with John Barry, whose beautifully written Rising Tide is the best and most sweeping appreciation of the Mississippi since Mark Twain. And, yes (as I mention in the foreword to my book on the Louisiana Purchase) I’ve stood at where the river leaves Lake Itasca (its just a little to wide to “straddle”; canoed, waterskied, and swam in the river near the mouth of the Wisconsin; ridden the Delta Queen; and canoed a stretch below New Orleans at Jean Lafitte park — an experience that gave me some perspective about LaSalle’s difficulties seeking the mouth of the Mississippi.

  14. Gerri

    It occurs to me that a book could be written about books written about travelling down the Mississippi! (If one hasn’t already.) One of my favorites is DOWN THE MISSISSIPPI WITH STINKY: Two Women, a Canoe, and a Kitten. In 1960, 2 Wisconsin schoolteachers spent the summer canoing from the headwaters to New Orleans, picking up a stray kitten in the muck along the way. “Stinky” became quite a celebrity up and down the river as they travelled. This is their account, written 50 years later. What made it so charming to me was that they obviously had no intention of writing a book – they were just in it for the adventure, and the book was an afterthought.

  15. Ulysses Hillard

    I would like to second Chris Hutchings request to hear something about the Mississippi RIver as a focus of engineering work. I am civil engineer in water resources and, in the United States, the Mississippi is our albatross. Nowhere is our folly and failure more on display for the world to see. My question to the history guys is, going back to the 18th century and before (since we know the record of the Mississippi’s course and the region’s archaeology going back long before Anglo settlement) how have people viewed work on the river? The river has been central to the lives of those living near it. At various times, people lived with the river, protected itself from it, and sought to control it. Going back to the first people who lived along its course, those of the First Nations, and progressing through time, what attitudes were typical in different eras and why did attitudes change? And, shamelessly hoping for a life ring here for myself and my colleagues, who have been the voices of dissent – particularly in the technical professions such as scientists, engineers, and planners?

  16. Charles Israel

    You all may be too late in the development process, but I’d like to put in a plug for an interesting meeting of historian with folk singer at the Mississippi River. Peter H. Wood wrote an autobiographical chapter for John Boles’s Shapers of Southern History (UGa Press, 2004) in which he describes growing up on the banks of and enchanted by the Mississippi River. And he describes his connection (more closely his older brother’s connection) to folk singer and sometimes riverboat pilot John Hartford. John wrote a song about his teacher, Miss Ruth Ferris, who salvaged portions of the Golden Eagle, a steamer that ran aground near Grand Tower, Illinois in 1947. John’s been dead a few years now, but his song “Miss Ferris” was a frequent favorite at his many concerts and was released on a Smithsonian Folkways album in 1998. He emulates a steam boat whistle with parts of his fiddle playing, and the song and story might make for an interesting component to your episode.