Book Review: Wicked River the Mississippi, by Lee Sandlin

Book Cover "Wicked River"
Book Cover "Wicked River" | Source

Most of my life I’ve lived near the Mississippi River but never knew a whole lot about it. I found this book to have information about the river and its history that surprised me.. For instance, growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota I was well aware the river originates in Itasca State Park, which is what we call the North Woods. Some of what I did not know was that until mid-nineteenth century the forest up there was primarily inhabited by a few hundred Chippewa on the east side of the river who fought with the Sioux on the west side and had done so for centuries. Only a few hardy white people lived along the river. It wasn’t until the 1830’s that the source was identified and it was not totally accepted until much later.

The book is subtitled “When it Last Ran wild.” This is the river of the frontier. The river before Mark Twain and before the Corps of Engineers came to tame it. It is the river of Mike Fink and Davy Crocket. Of keelboats and rafts. From Lake Itasca in Minnesota the river runs to the Gulf of Mexico, carried much trade down the river along with those who worked on the river, largely on “keelboats, barges, and rafts. Which was brutal unremitting, and dangerous labor...” Sometimes one might take a load on a flatboat. The person would load it down with almost any goods it would carry to sell in the delta markets. It was often a one shot deal. Go down the river, sell your goods and even break down and sell the lumber the boat was made of. According to the author, Abraham Lincoln did this when he was twenty-two years old in 1831 and just going out on his own. They called themselves “voyageurs” after the early French culture before the Louisiana Purchase.

Between the Louisiana Purchase in 1804 and the War of 1812 migration to the river valley boomed. “They were coming across the Alleghenies through the Cumberland Gap; they were riding keelboats and flatboats and arks down the Ohio.” Added to this was steamboat passage across the great Lakes, and sailing ships. A couple hundred thousand people became tens of millions.

He talks of the steamboats, which started to be part of the river in 1811. There was only one at that time but by the Civil War there were four thousand of them. Why? Because they could move upriver fairly easily. The steamboats were thought of as glamorous. It was probably that glamour that attracted men like Mark Twain to the river life. Gambling was a part of steamboat life, especially poker. According to the author, some unknown person in New Orleans invented poker around 1820.

Fires were such a threat to river towns, which were mostly filled with wooden houses as brick and stone had not become common, yet. There was much belief that the fires had some nefarious origin. In addition there were not a lot of professional firemen. St. Louis was the first to have a professional fire department on the river.

This is a delightful book for the history it tells about the river, for the folklore associated with it and some anecdotes. He tells of how the river would change its course and the practical effects of that. He tells how a man might be a slave in a state along the river and when the river changes course he finds himself in a different state as a free man. It could work the other way as well.

The book has illustrations, an index, and notes on sources.

“Wicked river” is a delightful read. If you like history, folklore or adventure I am sure you will enjoy this book.

Copyright 2012 Don Hoglund

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Comments 18 comments

michiganman567 profile image

michiganman567 5 years ago from Michigan

Nicely done. I was wondering how they got back upriver with their rafts and boats. I guess that they didn't. Very interesting.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi michiganman.Thanks for being the first to comment.If they did it wasn't easy.The book mentions people who went down river with a load and walked back taking months to do so.

agreenworld profile image

agreenworld 5 years ago from CT-USA

You have piqued my interest. I love history and will check out the book. Steamboats have always been fascinating to me and the Mississippi River has so much folklore attached to it that it would be refreshing to see some updated facts. Thank you for such an informative article.

B. Leekley profile image

B. Leekley 5 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

That sounds like an interesting book. My father's step-mother was descended (a granddaughter, I think) from Captain Daniel Smith Harris. See

Generations of the Leekley family lived in Galena, Il, which was a port on the Mississippi until the Galena River silted up.

Did you ever read the 1890s book HEADWATERS OF THE MISSISSIPPI by Glazier?

htodd profile image

htodd 5 years ago from United States

Thanks for the great post nice hub

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

agreenworld, thanks for commenting. Just the idea of the river before the days of Mark Twain, before the channels and dams is a different world.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Thank you B. Leakey, This I think is the first book I have read about the Mississippi. Galena is an interesting town. When we lived in Illinois we would go there just to visit and look around.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi htodd. Thank you for the nice comment.

Keri Summers profile image

Keri Summers 5 years ago from West of England

Voted up and interesting. I love American history, even though I'm a Brit. I'm currently reading Sam Gwynne's book Empire of the Summer Moon, about Quanah Parker and the Comanches, which is also fascinating and very evocative.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Keri, thanks for the comment. Maybe you could write a Book Review of that book when you finish it.

Keri Summers profile image

Keri Summers 5 years ago from West of England

I shall dahoglund, thank you for the encouragement.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

I'll look forward to reading your review.

Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Thanks for the review of this book about the Mississippi River. Sounds very interesting just with the examples of things you cited. My, how times have changed from those early days of navigating the mighty Mississippi. Interesting & useful votes & will share this with others.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Hi Peggy, if you like history it is a book with bit of history that rather surprised me. There is some real frontier stuff here.Thanks for commenting, voting and sharing.

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States

Sounds like an interesting book. On the East Coast, we know so little about the Mighty Mississippi, and most of my "information" comes from watching those old Disney shows about Mike Fink, etc. and from reading Mark Twain. I'd love to see the great river in person as well. Seeing it from a plane was awesome, but that ain't enough.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Dolores,I think you would enjoy the book.I've lived near the river most of my life but the book is historical so most of it I did not know.

Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


This is a very interesting and excellent review of "Wicked River." I really regret not having taken a ride on the Mississippi when I lived in the States. After reading Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" I became captivated by the Mississippi River. I'll also remember viewing it from a plane 30,000-40,000 feet up when I was travelling from Maryland to Salt Lake City. Do they still offer steamboat rides up and down the Mississippi? Voted up and sharing with followers and on Facebook. Also Pinning and Sharing.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 3 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids Author

Paul, I haven't lived by the Mississippi River for a few years. By rock Island, IL, where I used to work, the started having riverboat gambling casinoes. I think they also offered excursions, but I am not sure.Thanks for commenting, voting and sharing.

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