Monday , April 22 2024
A history of the Mississippi larded with interesting tales and people.

Book Review: ‘Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History’ by Paul Schneider

Paul Schneider’s Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History takes the reader on an engrossing journey through time as it traverses the river’s length from its prehistoric beginnings to more modern man-made attempts to control its force, stopping to highlight historic and geographical points of interest much the way a river boat steaming down the river might stop to let the tourist off to look around. It is a popular history which provides just enough information to whet the reader’s appetite for more, the kind of book that will send hungry readers down to the local library for greater depth.

Whether he’s talking about prehistoric arrowheads and possible mastodon remains or General Grant’s maneuvers around Vicksburg, whether describing the way a keel boat is worked up river or effigy mounds on the upper Mississippi there is more than enough to intrigue the novice without turning off readers who may know more about any one particular aspect of the subject. After all, in a book that takes readers from melting ice sheets to the BP oil spill, there are bound to be readers who know a lot about De Soto, but not that much about the reasons Napoleon was willing to make the Louisiana bargain.old man river

He lards the book with fascinating tales. There is a long quotation describing the torture of the captured Jesuit Father Joseph Bressny by the Iroquois. There is the story of La Salle’s expedition down to the Mississippi delta to claim the land for France. There are the stories of villainous attacks on those traveling the river by bandits in the notorious Cave in the Rock.

He introduces us to a huge cast of interesting characters, both the famous and the lesser known. The young George Washington comes to negotiate with the French on the Ohio. Abe Lincoln defends bridge builders in suits from river boat moguls. Zebulon Pike is sent to explore up river, and he’s sent by General James Wilkinson, a Jefferson political appointee who was also a paid spy for the Spanish government. There’s Admiral Abraham Whipple, a hero of the revolution, who managed to sail down the river to Cuba. There are the Harpe brothers, “Little” Wiley and “Big” Micajah, serial thrill killers. There is the nineteenth century fossil hunter and showman, Albert Koch. One after another they are all painted with gusto.

He adds personal anecdotes about his own contacts with the river and its environs. He wanders about alone among the mounds where he finds the place where Lydia and Mike have been carved in a sycamore. Late in the day he takes a picture for a couple at the Great Serpent Mound. He goes on a kayaking trip down river with his son. He has a depressing visit to an Indian Casino. He is ferried about the mouth of the river just a bit after the oil spill. He stops off at what seems a biker bar for a burger. Not the kind of thing you’d find in a scholarly history, but just the thing to give the reader something just a bit of a respite.

Old Man River may not be a comprehensive study of each and every period in the history of the river, but for the layman there’s information enough, and most importantly it’s presented with both intelligence and style.

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