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About the Author
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By Chris Markham
Northwoods PressCopyright © 2000 Chris Markham
All rights reserved.
ABOUT THE RIVER
Facts about the Mississippi River usually begin with the emergence of the white man on the scene, as is the case with most histories. Perhaps this is because of some sense of pride of race, feeling that land yet unexplored by white men is virgin soil. But to have a true picture of this river, we must know something of its real beginning and its first peoples. For the settlement of the Mississippi and its valley was an international effort, like the colonization of America itself, not planned and coordinated to reach its all-American climax.
Once, before there was a time, there was no Mississippi River. The angel of ice bared his frigid sword nearly a million years ago and thrust it deep into the topmost half of the North American continent. As the ice advanced and receded four times across the top of the continent, it crushed and tore, gouged and cut the land beneath its massive weight until finally there stood a great inland sea that covered what is now the prairies of Illinois, Missouri and Iowa.
As the crust of the earth shifted, bulging itself skyward here, falling into itself there, this sea lapped at the mountains holding it back from the ocean to the south; other rivers, unnamed, were forcing themselves east and west. Eventually, after many centuries, the sea had disappeared; the Mississippi was born and, with its tributaries, was racing freely to the sea.
Then the wildlife came to the warming valleys and rivers, and with the wildlife came the men — primitive men, who stretched their unknown numbers down along the western edge of the continent; east to the young, great river; and south through the stream's valley to Mexico, Central America, and beyond even to South America.
But these men, called Bison occidentalis by modern science, were not the Indians that would greet the first gold-thirsty explorers of the continent. They were late Stone-Age men, hunters of the mastodon and the prehistoric bison, who used advanced weapons for their time — spears, bows and arrows.
For more than ten thousand years these people survived solely as hunters. But then their culture surrendered to new cultures. Minor agriculture and cultivation of wild crops soothed their nomadic instincts, and the arrow maker soon became the tool maker. Thought began to evolve beyond the belly and the phallus; art and imagination entered the lives of these early Mississippi dwellers. And with imagination came belief in ghosts and the spirit world, the awareness of the overpowering mystery of death.
Small civilizations grew and withered along the Mississippi River, leaving behind little to attest to their existence until some three thousand years ago. It was then a new civilization, infatuated with the rituals of death, left its card in the form of great earthen mounds scattered throughout the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. They range anywhere from a few feet in height and diameter to monuments the size of small buildings.
Thousands of these mounds were erected so that almost every modern town along the river has or has had mounds of its own. The mound-builders' civilization had a long life, as early civilizations go, and vestiges of it remained scattered among a few Southeastern tribes for a time after the arrival of the white man to the continent. But shortly thereafter, for reasons still unexplained, they vanished. They left peacefully, leaving behind a few artifacts and many mysteries; and they left behind the growing cultures of the Sioux, Foxes, Sauks, Dakotas and Chipawas in the North, the Caddees, Wacos, Tunicas, Choctaws, Natchez and Noumas in the South to meet and fall beneath the white man's exploration, exploitation and settlement of the Mississippi.
Although the early settlement and exploration of the Mississippi River is really a French story, it was the Spaniards who first saw it, put rafts on it, and, very probably, were the first to see the river's mouth. But seeking early "Firsts" which have always been the most dominant and marvelous incidents of European history, we must first stand on the marshes of possibilities and assumptions before we can plant our historical feet firmly on the dependability of fact.
At the outset, however, we can be assured of one fact: the Spaniards who came across the Mississippi did so by accident, finding it only as an obstacle in their quest for gold. For only the promise of gold and new riches could lure the Spanish, who had no real desire for exploration per se, into financing their lusty sixteenth-century expeditions.
It was at about the same time that Cortes was setting out to make his cruel mark in history — taking not only the Aztec's gold but destroying their empire as well — that a Spanish navigator by the name of Alvarez de Pineda began his gold-hunt from the east coast of Florida. But a storm forced him westward into the Gulf of Mexico, which he navigated to the eastern coast of Mexico, possibly discovering the mouth of the Mississippi River. Although that is still somewhat speculative, we do know that Pineda placed on a chart of his travels what he believed to be the mouth of a large river. Identifying this river, Pineda named it Rio del Spiritu Sancte (River of the Holy Ghost), which, if he did see the Mississippi, would be the first early European name given to the river.
In the spring of 1528, Panfile de Narvaez, governor of Florida, set out to exercise his license to conquer and exploit his dominion. But again a storm waylaid the Spanish from their destination and blew them further into the history of the Mississippi River. Putting ashore somewhere near Tampa Bay, Narvaez and what was left of his original expedition of four hundred men and eighty horses (forty horses were lost in the storm), had the bravado to suppose they could march overland to Florida's southwestern boundary in a few days. In less than three months of battling swamps and jungles, mosquitoes and fever, doggedly attacked by Indians, the gold-dream of the would-be conquistadors died at a point no farther west than the banks of the Aplachicola River in the present Florida panhandle. Their dream now was to live. In a last attempt at survival, the men killed and ate what horses were left; then, with the determination that comes with the approach of imminent death, they sailed five makeshift boats into the gulf, praying to reach Mexico. But the unpredictable gulf quickly swallowed three of the boats, and the other two were wrecked no farther west than the shores of Galveston Bay.
One of the eighty men who crawled onto the Texas shore was Cabeza de Vaca, sent on the expedition to insure the Spanish government's twenty percent of the take. After nearly seven years of roaming blindly through the (present) American Southwest, it would be de Vaca and three other survivors (Narvaez was not one of them) who would tell of the impelling current of a large river mouth that forced de Vaca's boat more than two miles out into the gulf. We understand his amazement when he still "took fresh water within the sea, because the river came into the sea continually and with great violence."
When de Vaca and his three comrades rediscovered civilization at a Mexican outpost that April day in 1536, they had hundreds of stories to tell, stories of hardship, discovery, adventure and terror; but it was one story in particular that was to send still another expedition to the new world. He had not seen them himself, but de Vaca had heard more than one tale of the lost Seven Cities, cities with riches never before seen, somewhere west of Tampa Bay.
Hernando De Soto would go to the new world with the largest European expedition the country north of Mexico had yet seen — more than seven hundred men and nearly two hundred and fifty horses. With De Soto and his expedition we are more certain. We know as fact that for nearly two years De Soto murdered his way through the Indians of the Southwest before coming to the east bank of the Mississippi River. Exactly where he first encountered the river is not certain, though it was probably somewhere near what is now Memphis, Tennessee.
Though the determined conquistador could not possibly know it, his expedition was destined to make history with a new set of "Firsts" in the story of the Mississippi. De Soto's sighting of the Mississippi, on May 8, 1541, was the first such recorded observation of the river beyond its mouth, and when he and his greatly depleted army made rafts and sailed them across the river, they were the first white men to perform the feat.
On the western side of the river the army searched for the Seven Cities as far south as Arkansas and as far west as present-day Oklahoma. But there were no lost cities and no gold, and De Soto, with one third of his men and half of his horses dead, decided to get back to the river and sail his expedition to the safety of Cuba.
The defeated De Soto managed to get his men back to the banks of the Mississippi. There he died, probably of malaria. The fact that this great horseman and commander was mortal like any other man could not be known by the Indians, so his men, under cover of darkness, slipped his body into the silent waters of the river. More boats were made then, and a little over three hundred of the original seven hundred sailed down the Mississippi to its mouth and on through the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba. They were the first to do so.
The Spaniards had put the Mississippi on the map, but not another one would see the river for more than one hundred and fifty years. And only the Lower Mississippi had been accounted for; the Upper Mississippi was still unknown except to the Indians. It would remain so until the seventeenth century, when the more practical French would discover the "Father of Waters."
The French in the New World differed from the Spanish in two ways: when they began their occupation of New France (Canada) early in the seventeenth century, the wealth of this new land for the French was not gold; it was the valuable beaver pelt. And, unlike the Spanish, they launched no great expeditions against the Indians. Instead they took their wealth by making small settlements among the Indians, conciliating and trading with them. The riches of the New World for the French were tangible, but there was to be one dream. They had not yet penetrated much deeper into the new territory than the St. Lawrence Valley, when they heard Indians tell of a "great water" much further west. This could be nothing less than the Western Sea, across which lay China as far as the French traders were concerned!
Intent on expanding exploration and trade in the new territory, Jean Nicolet, in 1634, headed west, believing that he would reach this Western Sea and China. He was so convinced that he would be greeted by the Chinese at his journey's end that he took with him a silk mandarin robe. The explorer got as far west as Green Lake, Wisconsin. There, dressed in his colorful mandarin robe, he addressed the Winnebago Indians, in lieu of the expected orientals, firing two pistols into the air — thunder to the greatly impressed Indians — at the end of his speech. These Indians told Nicolet of a great water a few days journey away, but instead of pushing on he returned to Quebec with the news that he had gotten close to the great Western Sea.
The belief that the "great water" of the Indians was the mythical Western Sea was to continue for twenty more years. In the 1650s, Medart Chouart, Sieur des Greselliers and his brother-in-law Pierre Radissen set out on an independent expedition through still unmapped country. A few years after returning from their trading with the Indians, Radissen wrote an account of the adventure, stating that "It (the great river)," he wrote, "is so called because it has 2 branches, the one towards the west, the other towards the south, which we believe runs towards Mexico, by tokens they gave us." But this account of the river was somewhat colored with details not based on fact, and it's somewhat uncertain as to whether they were actually on the Mississippi.
Whatever the case, their story convinced the French that the western sea was really a river. But the French still clung to the idea that this river must empty into the Western Sea, or the Gulf of California, which would furnish a route to China. Speculation about the course of the Mississippi finally came to an end in 1673, when Father Jaques Marquette and Louis Joliet entered the Mississippi at the mouth of the Wisconsin and traveled by canoe to near the mouth of the Arkansas. There they learned from the Indians that the river flowed to the Gulf of Mexico. There were Spaniards there, according to the Indians, and they turned back.
Their expedition put the river on the map and ended any doubt of its being and its course forever, though the source of the river would not be discovered for more than another hundred and fifty years.
By further exploring the river, France could have an empire in the very heart of America, could greatly expand her fur trade with the Indians, and from a political viewpoint, could restrict her ancient English enemy to the Atlantic seaboard. Such was the ambition of Sieur de la Salle when, in 1682, he and twenty-three others floated down the Illinois and into the Mississippi, taking their adventurous and ambitious hearts all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. At the mouth of the river, La Salle planted a cross bearing the French coat of arms in the soil of the valley which he called Louisiana, in the name of the French Louis. It was quite an empire La Salle claimed for his France, for in those days a nation which occupied the mouth of a river always claimed all the land from which water ran into that river or any of its branches.
Indeed it was a vast empire the French had claimed for themselves. But the key was to hold this empire, and a string of forest settlements began to line the banks of the Mississippi. In 1717 a tiny settlement on the lower river was established — New Orleans. For not much less than a hundred years the French, whose influence will never be washed away by the river, controlled the entire Mississippi Valley.
But by the mid-eighteenth century France and England, both expanding their territories in the northern part of America toward one another, could no longer remain at peace. War came between the two great powers, and in 1762 France relinquished all of Canada to the British. In a secret move to keep the British from getting all of America, France ceded all of her land west of the Mississippi, including New Orleans, to Spain.
Spain was quick to take control of the Mississippi from its mouth to well above the mouth of the Missouri. She controlled all the navigation of the river, but the people along the river were still loyal to France. Too, the Sons of Liberty were making themselves known along the river, and by the turn of the century Spain was becoming nervous at the great rivers of settlers coming from the east. In 1802 no Americans were allowed to ply the waters of the Mississippi without paying duty to the Spanish, and, two years before, Spain had secretly given Louisiana to Napolean. War was the answer for the new Americans but before it could begin, the Louisiana Purchase settled the question, and the Mississippi River became an American river for all time.CHAPTER 2
AN EXPEDITION OF ONE
Unlike other biographers of personal adventures on the Mississippi, I never lived within the sound of towboats bawling for passage around a bend, never witnessed the billowing black smoke of an old stern-wheeler, and never spent boyhood summer days fishing catfish from the river's mud. Instead, I played baseball in vacant lots, roller skated on a dead-end street near a block of factories, and rummaged for near-spent flares along railroad tracks. And though I had thrilled to the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, like millions of other American boys, the magic of the Mississippi was only book-close, as was the excitement of the old West, the adventure of the seven seas, and the fascination of Tom Corbett's galaxies.
My first crossing of the Mighty Mississippi was when I was a young boy. I was on my maiden roadway voyage, heading out west to live with relatives in Oklahoma, when the driver of the Greyhound bus in which I was riding pointed down to the river as we made the St. Louis crossing.
Years later, while on my first hitchhiking adventure in the back of a pickup, I crossed the river again.
But the river would have to wait. I would go east and live with other relatives and attend school for a time. Still a teenager, I would spend hundreds of days and nights hitching the roadways and riding the rails across America. There would be a stretch in the Marine Corps, a reporter's job in North Las Vegas, some success as a photographer; but I would never be able to scratch that itchy foot born so early in my life.
Nearly twenty years later, after more than forty thousand hitchhiking miles, I decided to leave the comfort of my small, attic studio in New Jersey and set out to thumb the Mighty Mississippi; and it was Mark Twain's opening paragraph in Life of Mississippi that made me decide.
Excerpted from Mississippi Odyssey by Chris Markham. Copyright © 2000 Chris Markham. Excerpted by permission of Northwoods Press.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER ONE About the River,
CHAPTER TWO An Expedition of One,
CHAPTER THREE Indians and Dogfish,
CHAPTER FOUR On the River,
CHAPTER FIVE My First "Snow Job",
CHAPTER SIX On the Run to St. Louis,
CHAPTER SEVEN Bridges, Fire and Death,
CHAPTER EIGHT To New Orleans and the Sea,