As indicated by his subtitle, Paul Schneider has undertaken a large topic in his new book Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History. Covering a time scale from prehistoric to modern times, Schneider has compressed his story into manageable segments that illuminate significant periods in history while not overwhelming us with detail or minutia. The result is a readable survey that highlights the importance of the river and the present challenges facing those who live within its drainage and those who are tasked with protecting it while maintaining its usefulness in commerce and flood control.
The Mississippi and its numerous tributaries drain almost 40% of the continental United States. As Schneider points out, it is difficult to consider the history of the country without taking into account the Mississippi. Schneider organized his book into seven segments, focusing on different time periods and their relationships to US and world history.
Beginning with the geologic origins of the mountains and glaciers that ultimately determined the sources and courses of the river and its tributaries, Schneider tells us of the mysterious and prolific prehistoric civilizations known today as the Mound Builders who, throughout much of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, created huge earthen structures in the shapes of bears, birds and other creatures. Some of these ancient structures still exist.
Moving into historical time, the story addresses the early French, English and Spanish explorers and their various roles. Spain was interested in conquest, subjugation, and resource extraction, while England, competing with Spain, added settlement to the mix. France, on the other hand, tended to focus on resources with a mode of cooperation with the natives rather than conquest. With the conclusion of the Seven Years War (known here as the French and Indian War), England eventually emerged as the ultimate victor, at least for the brief period prior to the American Revolution.
Schneider addresses the significance of the Mississippi in the early years of American nationhood as a river of commerce and migration, with flatboats, keelboats and later steamboats providing the means of transport. The period between revolution and civil war was marked by dramatic population shifts into and beyond the Mississippi River Valley, bringing along the clashing cultures of free and slave states, resulting in the four years of war between Fort Sumter and Appomattox. Schneider recounts the importance of the river during the war, and details the decisive Union victory at Vicksburg.
The book ends with a look at the modern state of the lower Mississippi and the damage wrought by decades of attempts to control the floods along the river and its many tributaries. We are all familiar with the levees along the Mississippi (like the one that failed during Hurricane Katrina), but we don’t think about a the fact that that throughout the drainage there are thousands of large and small dams built to control local flooding or to provide reservoirs for local purposes. Kansas, according to Schneider, has over 6,000 such dams along tributaries, and other states have as many or more. The collective effects of such impoundments have altered the natural flow of the Mississippi, leading to elimination of much natural flooding (and therefore loss of natural soil deposition along the floodplain) as well as huge increases in the flow of mud and agricultural/industrial pollution into the delta and the Gulf of Mexico.
Schneider has given us a varied and illuminating look at the Mississippi, and without preaching or taking sides has left us with much to think about.