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Book Review: Wicked River the Mississippi, by Lee Sandlin
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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