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Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History

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 interior


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

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.
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
"With such an expert hand on the tiller, Old Man River is an astonishing journey." ---Publishers Weekly Starred Review
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.

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Old Man River

The Mississippi River in North American History

By Paul Schneider

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2013 Paul Schneider
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9836-5



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.



Someone was the first person to peer through the tall grass at an immense mammoth lumbering down to the water and think, "If we could stab that thing with a sharp rock on the end of a stick, we could light a fire and have one hell of a roast." That much, at least, is now certain about the lives and times of men, women, and mammoths in the Mississippi River basin during the waning centuries of the most recent ice age. In the past seventy-five years, Clovis and Folsom points — stone spearheads named for the towns in the headwaters of the Arkansas River where they were first identified — have turned up in hundreds of archaeological sites throughout the watershed. They have been found embedded in the bones of mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, and bison. In 1841, however, no one believed the St. Louis impresario Albert Koch when he claimed to have found a rose-colored spear point embedded in a gigantic leg bone he had just dug up in Missouri.

It was hard enough for most people to admit that there had once been strange and gigantic beasts on the land. Today, when dinosaurs stalk the cinemas and parliaments debate the economic value of polar bears, it's almost quaint to think that extinction was once a newfangled and vaguely heretical idea. The prevailing Christian view was of a perfect creation in which none of God's creatures could possibly cease to exist. Extinction, which suggested a flaw in God's plan, was theoretically impossible.

As early as 1569, the Englishman David Ingram claimed to have walked all the way across North America from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and seen evidence of elephants along the way, but his bizarre claims were soon filed away with the unicorns, the island of California ruled by women, the seven wandering Portuguese bishops, the people with dog faces, and a hundred other myths and rumors about the New World. Then, in 1705, a farmer in the Hudson River valley happened upon a five-pound molar, which he sold to a local politician for a half-pint of rum. The big tooth made its way to New York City and into the hands of the governor of the colony, who packed it off to the Royal Society in London with the memorable identification: "tooth of a giant."

This was a solid artifact that demanded an explanation, and Cotton Mather, the New England theologian and witchcraft expert, believed he had it. The tooth, he said, proved the existence of biblical giants, and biblical history in general, and was "an admirable obturation on the mouth of Atheism!" He solved the problem of extinction by suggesting that the giants — who he calculated were nearly seventy feet tall — were born of "parents not exceeding the common stature." These giant offspring were sent by God to punish their wicked parents, which one imagines they certainly would do. When they had done their job, they were exterminated in Noah's flood, and their perfect species — normal-size humanity — continued on.

The atheists, perhaps typically, were not long quieted. An occasional mammoth molar might look vaguely similar to a human tooth, but giant bones of all sorts were beginning to turn up in a wide range of places, particularly in the Mississippi watershed. At a place called Big Bone Lick, in the Ohio River valley, the massive ribs and tusks sticking out of the river mud were clearly not from humans, and discovering the nature of the mysterious beasts grew into something of a national obsession. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, among others, collected bones and promulgated theories about what came to be known as the American incognitum. Scientists and philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic traded teeth and picked apart one another's theories on whether the beast was a gentle grazer or a vicious carnivore. Did the tusks of the incognitum curl up? Or did they curl down? Or perhaps, as some thought, one tusk curled up and one curled down? Whatever the incognitum was, people also wondered where living specimens of it might be found.

Native American rumor suggested the incognitum might still be alive somewhere. A delegation of Indians from the Ohio valley told Thomas Jefferson "that in ancient times a herd of these tremendous animals came to the Big-bone licks, and began a universal destruction of the bear, deer, elks, buffaloes, and other animals, which had been created for the use of the Indians." The giant beasts were killed off by lightning bolts, they said, except for one that "bounded over the Ohio, over the Wabash, the Illinois, and finally over the great lakes, where he is living at this day."

The idea of giant people was laid to rest for good in 1804, when the painter Charles Wilson Peale and his son Rembrandt cobbled together the first complete skeleton of a mastodon and displayed it in their family's Philadelphia Museum. With his tusks inserted so that they pointed down in the manner of a terrible carnivore, the incognitum turned out to be an outsize cousin to the elephant rather than the big brother of Goliath. More important, as far as Albert Koch was concerned, the Peales' skeleton was by all accounts the first blockbuster exhibition in American museum history and made a small fortune for its owners. Fossil hunting was Koch's life's passion, but his business was entertainment.

There were plenty of the usual river town diversions available in St. Louis when Koch arrived at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri as a young German immigrant in 1836. It was a frontier boomtown, full of rowdy river boys, loose women, bad whiskey, bear baiting, marked cards, and public executions. But Koch, who had always been a collector of curiosities, saw an opportunity for more refined entertainments and opened the St. Louis Museum.

There, his visitors gawked at wax versions of well-known and exotic people, such as the Seminole hero Osceola, a "Chinese Lady," and the famous Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. They gaped at mummies, both Egyptian and Native American, and gasped at a diorama of hell called the "infernal regions." On some evenings "The GREAT PERSIAN KOULAH" presented his program of "splendid and very unique ASIATIC ENTERTAINMENTS." Koch even had live alligators, until they got into a scuffle and fell out of the window, whereupon he stuffed them.

"These are the alligators which had a tremendous battle, in which the smallest, having been overpowered by his antagonist, broke through the window, leaped over the iron balcony in front of the museum and broke his neck," he wrote in a newspaper advertisement in 1838. "The other died a few days after, in consequence of the wounds received in the fight. Both are represented in the attitude of fighting — blood flowing from their wounds, their jaws locked in a deathly embrace, and the whole representing the ferocious nature of the animals."

"The ferocious nature of the animals" was a phrase that might have raised eyebrows in the settled cities and towns of the Atlantic coast. There, the leading transcendentalists preached of the universal goodness of nature and humanity, and it was more comforting to picture the world in the romantic light of the Hudson River School paintings, which typically depicted a melancholy but benign transition from the "savage state" to the "arcadian state." On the frontier up and down the Mississippi River, on the other hand, boatmen brawled in the streets for the pure pleasure of breaking their knuckles against another fellow's nose. Rumors of mass murderers, slave insurrections, and bloodthirsty pirates competed with the endless wars of eviction against the various Native groups for public attention.

From Koch's perspective, violence sold tickets, and ticket sales paid for fossil hunting. Nothing could stop him when he got wind of a find. "I was still lying on my sofa, suffering from a shivering fit," he said about the state of his health when the tip came about the bones on the Pomme de Terre River. Yet "the possibility of a find such as I had not yet had, and which naturally could not be mine if I did not overcome my physical weakness and go immediately on the long and difficult trip" was too much to resist.


Excerpted from Old Man River by Paul Schneider. Copyright © 2013 Paul Schneider. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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