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Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History
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Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History

4.5 7
by Paul Schneider

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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


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.

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.

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt


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

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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Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Superior_Shores More than 1 year ago
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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efm More than 1 year ago
lots of information and surprises about the Mississippi
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