Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History

( 6 )


A fascinating account of how the Mississippi River shaped America

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 ...

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Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History

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A fascinating account of how the Mississippi River shaped America

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Older than the Atlantic Ocean, fought over by the French, Spanish, and English, birthplace of Washington and Grant’s military careers—the Mississippi River, as Schneider tells it, is the central character in the story of America. In this stunning tale, the author of The Adirondacks documents the rich history of the Mighty Mississipp and its watershed. From the otherworldly funerary structures built by early American peoples to the booming, bawdy river towns that arose in the wake of the nascent slave trade, and from the struggles between Native Americans and the first European explorers to the war that almost rent the nation asunder, the Mississippi has played host to myriad acts of creation and destruction that have shaped American life. Migrants, speculators, and slaves have called it home, and their legacies live on in realms as diverse as heavy industry and jazz. The river stretches from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, and Schneider guides readers all the way from geological antiquity to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. With such an expert hand on the tiller, Old Man River is an astonishing journey. 60 b&w halftones. Agent: David Kuhn, Kuhn Projects. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“[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

"Stunning...With such an expert hand on the tiller, Old Man River is an astonishing journey."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"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

"Another chockablock, environmentally focused, ambitious volume from Schneider...A wild ride well worth taking."—Kirkus


Kirkus Reviews
Another chockablock, environmentally focused, ambitious volume from Schneider (Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend, 2010, etc.). To keep his portrait of the mighty Mississippi from becoming unnavigable, the author alternates chapters of dense chronological history with tales of canoe meanderings along the river with his son. This personal approach allows the author to skim over the stultifying details of the numerous wars along the river's shores between white colonizers and Native American inhabitants, as well as most Mississippi-related Civil War battles. Schneider aims to seize the river's essence: what it meant to the people who lived near it and used it for transportation, livelihood, industry and pleasure. The Mississippi watershed is not the longest river in the U.S. (that distinction goes to the Missouri), but it feeds tributaries to 41 percent of the continental U.S. Moreover, the author delineates fondly, the Mississippi has proved instrumental in prodding the nation to its ultimate destiny. The river was the gateway to new territories in the West; their settlement sparked the debate over slave and free states that was one of the causes of the Civil War. People living alongside the river crafted the nation's defining cultural forms, including African-American jazz and blues and Mark Twain's salty prose. Schneider marks the Mississippi's slow transformation from a watering hole for mastodons and the Native American makers of effigy mounds to a staging ground for the explorations of first the Spanish and then the French, all looking for a way to the Pacific. The murky journey to the present day is not exactly merry, fraught by disasters both natural and man-made, but at least the federal government's passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 provided tools for better stewardship in the future--though the 2010 BP spill suggests those tools are laid aside as often as wielded. A wild ride well worth taking, though readers may want to portage around some of the narrative rapids.
Library Journal
"Ol' Man River" (as the immortal Kern/Hammerstein song calls it) has been rolling along for millennia, and Schneider (The Adirondacks) here starts with its geologic origins. From the Paleolithic tribes that sailed its waters 15,000 years ago, to French and Spanish exploration and Civil War battles, to its role today as the world's busiest waterway, this is the story of how the Mississippi has shaped America—and the world.
The Barnes & Noble Review
In recent years a number of books have taken seemingly small objects -- Cod, say, or Salt -- and presented them as micro-universes, pillars of culture, faceted elements worthy of book-length inquiry. In such works the object in question is shown to be vast, extraordinary, and to spread tendrils everywhere. In the case of Old Man River, Paul Schneider's exploration of America's great waterway, the subject under consideration -- the Mississippi River -- truly is enormous. It does have tendrils (or tributaries) everywhere. It is a pillar of culture, or rather cultures. And Schneider's challenge is to take something so large that it's perhaps overlooked and to help us comprehend it at the scale it deserves.

It's a mammoth project, and most of the time this ambitious book succeeds, even as Schneider reminds us that our nation's greatest river is bigger than even we may have considered. "Just as a tree without branches is merely lumber, it is pointless to separate the Mississippi from its tributaries," he writes. He then reminds us that "any moving water between the Great Lakes and the Appalachians," as well as all the way east into the Arkansas River and the Missouri River and north up to Lake Itasca at the Canadian border is truly Mississippi. The size of the river is the size of the American continental plate. Its geography is our destiny: The river's paths both form and drain the lands of the eastern U.S. Its flow shaped the way we arrived in what we now call the West. The river is our oldest passage from North to South. The river reaches into western deserts and northern boundary waters and sails out miles and miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

These are a lot of tendrils, surely, and Schneider's inquiry is no less vast. He wants to trace the geology, anthropology, prehistory, Civil War history, tribal history, and cultural and literary histories of the riverine region. He looks at mastodon bones and names the paths of nearly forgotten conquistadores. He meditates on the forming of jazz and blues. In between he narrates the experience of floating down pieces of the river on a variety of boats, including on a summer kayak trip with his son. It's an enormous lot to cover -- in fact, far too much. To his credit, Schneider hints at the vastness in broad strokes, stopping in on few key islands.

Some of these are quite memorable, especially in the beginning, when Schneider narrates the prehistory of the river. In fabulous yarn-spinning sentences, he whirs through the geologic eras in which the river was formed. "The Mississippi River was old long before the first giant sloth faced down a dire wolf or the last short-faced bear stood up to her full thirteen feet and bared her teeth to an eight-foot long beaver. It was old before the first woman to see it got her feet muddy," he writes. He sets the stage for a fabulous romp.

At other times, Schneider lingers a long time in one tributary at the expense of another, and sometimes swirls a bit in eddies of detail. He floats lazily alongside the French explorer La Salle, who tried to start a riverine empire at a northern portage spot then known as "Checagou." La Salle's life is full of misfortunes, as owning the river or even making real headway in empire building prove impossible, but this section often loses the thread, the moral, the narrative flow.

Schneider also spends great deal of time on a blow-by-blow of Civil War battles that themselves represent negotiations of river landscapes. Again, it's clear that the Mississippi is once again an instrument of politics and empire building, this time a point of negotiation in the expansion of slavery and a critical border in American westward expansion. Yet this mini–Civil War history is thick as mud. It often loses track of why, exactly, the river itself is a new ingredient in our understanding of American history. The stream gets lost in the skirmishes.

At his best, Schneider is a marvelously personable tour guide, and he seems happiest when floating, philosophizing, and arranging campouts with his son. Since this is the case, he might do well with a tad more literature, jazz, zydeco, Mark Twain. And he could be an even greater companion to ecologies -- historic, present, destroyed, and yet to come. Schneider has a real knack for capturing life on the river now, and his chapter about finding himself at the mouth of the river just as the gulf was filling from oil from the catastrophic BP "Deepwater" spill of 2010 was remarkable. He reminds us that the river now is also like the continent itself. It is ancient and will outlive us, but its present condition depends on our care. Schneider forces us to ask what the future of the Mississippi -- powerful, and also unexpectedly fragile -- will be.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805091366
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/3/2013
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 41,433
  • Product dimensions: 6.66 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Read an Excerpt




The Mississippi River was old long before the first giant sloth faced down a dire wolf or the last short-faced bear stood up to her full thirteen feet and bared her teeth to an eight-foot-long beaver. It was old before the first woman to see it got her feet muddy. The river is older than the entire fabulous menagerie of strange and outsized mammals that roamed the watershed during the two-and-a-half-million-year Pleistocene epoch, which ended about twelve thousand years ago with the most recent retreat of the glaciers. It was that most recent ice, however, that sculpted the northern features of the Mississippi River watershed into their current forms.

All across the top of the continent, the ice dammed up the northward progress of prehistoric rivers and sent them south, into the Mississippi watershed. The melting ice sheets didn’t drain into the Gulf of Mexico in any kind of measured or consistent pattern but rather in fits and starts, and floods of diluvian scope. For several thousand years, when the ice had retreated into Canada, but not far enough to allow the northern rivers to flow into Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean, a gigantic lake covered northern Minnesota, western South Dakota, and most of central Canada. This prehistoric Lake Agassiz, named for the nineteenth-century Swiss-born geographer who pioneered the radical idea of prehistoric ice ages, was larger than all of the Great Lakes combined, larger than the Caspian Sea. When at last it broke through the moraine of glacial rubble that was its southern boundary and drained for a time through Minnesota and Wisconsin, it carved the outsized gorge between those states through which the upper Mississippi River now flows. The Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin Rivers all flow through valleys that are far broader than the present water levels could have carved.

None of this is to say that the last ice age created either the Mississippi River or the land across which it meanders. The northern boundary of the watershed was shaped by glacial ice, which measures its workday in tens of thousands of years. The eastern and western walls, however, were caused by the drift of continents, which operates over hundreds of millions of years. Beneath all the lists of clay, most of the basin rests on top of some of the oldest rocks on earth. This shield of granite and gneiss known as the North American Craton, or Laurentia, has been drifting around smashing into, and breaking away from, other ancient pieces of the earth’s crust for more than two billion years. During that span Laurentia has been a component of more than a half-dozen supercontinents, including the all encompassing Pangea, which formed out of a series of titanic collisions that began five hundred million years ago.

When continents collide, oceans slowly disappear and mountains creep upward; the formation of Pangea eventually threw up a mountain range along one side of Laurentia that was higher than the Himalayas are today. Remnants of that Central Pangean Range still exist, in the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco and the Scottish Highlands. Much of what is left of the old Pangean Range, however, is now the Appalachian Mountains of North America—in other words, the eastern boundary of the Mississippi River basin.

Some rocks, when they are formed, align their internal magnetism with the earth’s poles, allowing paleomagnetologists to say with a surprising degree of confidence that those vertiginous peaks of the Central Pangean Range half a billion years ago ran roughly east-west, rather than north-south as the Appalachians do today. Rain nonetheless fell on those same slopes that would become Kentucky and Tennessee. Rain fell in showers and torrents and began the long work of tearing down the range and carrying it to the sea. Mountain brooks seem so ephemeral when approached on foot in a dry summer, or when buried under the ice and snow of winter, at least when compared with grand continental currents such as the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio, and the Arkansas. But they are not.

Bounded as they are by metamorphic walls high above the rise and fall of the seas—what geologists call basement rocks—those tiny seasonal alpine rills are more permanent in their ways than the mightiest lowland rivers. The latest sediment of the day can be found on the soles of your shoes by the banks of Old Man River, but geologists know to look for the truly ancient up in the hills. The oldest river in America, and possibly the oldest in the world, is the ironically named New River. It flows off the western slopes of the Appalachians in North Carolina through a corner of Virginia and West Virginia, where it merges with the Gauley to form the Kanawha, which joins the Ohio at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and then the Mississippi at Cairo. The New River is older than the Atlantic Ocean, older than the dinosaurs.

Roughly two hundred million years ago the supercontinent of Pangea began to stretch and rift apart, tearing its central mountain range into pieces. The first break occurred between New Jersey and Morocco, slowly opening what became the Atlantic Ocean between Trenton and Marrakech; between, if you will, the Appalachian Mountains of the explorer Daniel Boone and the Anti-Atlas Mountains of the explorer Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta; between “Dueling Banjos” and The Sheltering Sky. Laurentia drifted away from the rest of Pangea at a rate of several centimeters a year, which suggests that for many thousands of years what would become the Atlantic Ocean was strictly a tidal creek. Meanwhile, rain that fell on those proto-Appalachian ranges gathered into rivulets and brooks, and into streams and rivers, from which thirsty triceratops quenched their dry throats.

The water flowing off the Central Pangean Range did not, however, gather itself into a single proto-Mississippi. With no Rocky Mountains to corral them at the other side of the continent, various streams and rivers wound their way independently across a vast, flat, and periodically marshy land populated by the familiar cast of hulking dinosaurs and skulking mammals of the late Triassic and early Cretaceous eras. Along the way, Europe and Asia broke off from New England and drifted toward their current positions, and an upwelling of magma known as the Bermuda hotspot split the Ouachita Mountains off from the main branch of the Appalachians and sent them toward their current location in Arkansas. The new ocean widened, as the Atlantic is still widening today. What would become the Pacific shrank, as it still is shrinking today.

Finally, some hundred million years ago the ocean floor to the west of Laurentia began to slide under the crust of the neighboring plate, pushing up ranges along the leading edge of the drifting continent including, most importantly, the Rocky Mountains. The familiar pieces of North America were coming together: an older, decaying range of mountains running up its eastern coast and a younger, sharper, taller spine of ranges rising in the west.

Instead of a river between them, there was a sea. The lowlands between the new Rocky Mountains and the old Appalachians initially buckled downward, the way a piece of cardboard might pop down in the middle if pressure is exerted along two sides. Into these lowlands salt water flowed from both the Arctic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, creating a vast, shallow sea that, at its largest, stretched the entire distance between the two great ranges. For forty million years this “Western Interior Seaway” was a warm and fertile place, full of whale-size toothy mosasaurs, along with sharks and rays, finny fish, horseshoe crabs, and clams. Rockhounds today find shark teeth a thousand miles from the nearest salt water in the watershed.

Ultimately, however, the colossal uplift that forged Pikes Peak and the Grand Tetons, and lesser ranges as far east as the Black Hills of South Dakota, raised the land between the Rockies and the Appalachians. The sea retreated, until by sixty-five million years ago the mouth of what can now rightly be called the Mississippi was around Memphis. North America was just beginning to look recognizably like itself, with mountains to the left and mountains to the right and a big winding river coming down the middle when a massive meteor struck the Yucatán Peninsula, just across the Gulf of Mexico. This set in motion the great extinction of the dinosaurs and 75 percent of the other species around the globe, and gave the skulking mammals their opportunity to evolve: into mammoths, sloths, and, eventually, archaeologists and anthropologists.


Copyright © 2013 by Paul Schneider

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Table of Contents


    The American Watershed 1

Book One: River of Giants

Continents 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 Mounds

The 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 Fortune

The 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 Empires

The 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 Mississippi

Flatboats 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 blood

Lincoln 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 Engineers

Floods 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         335

Source Notes         337

Bibliography         353

Index         381

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2013

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    1 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 20, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Very Good

    lots of information and surprises about the Mississippi

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  • Posted October 18, 2013

    The Mississippi River is an amazing river and I think in this bo

    The Mississippi River is an amazing river and I think in this book I expected to find the same attachment to the river as I found as I journeyed from Minneapolis to the Gulf. Instead I found more about the Mississippi River Basin and the rivers that flowed into the River.
    It is more of a story of the human history around the river but had very little to do about the author's experience on the river. I think I would have expected more about the source of the river down to Minneapolis but instead, Minneapolis is barely mentioned and only one sentience is dedicated to the headwaters. I got so much out of the author's kayak trips on other rivers but little out of his time on the Mississippi below the Ohio River. So much is missing from this book starting at the headwaters down to the Ohio. That history is amazing but it is not contained in this book.
    The author is an excellent writer but this book is incomplete.

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    Posted October 29, 2013

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    Posted September 16, 2013

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    Posted January 9, 2014

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