I forget now what first steered me towards this non-fiction tribute to the Mississippi. Maybe it was because Huckleberry Finn has been in the news so much recently. Or maybe it was because I grew up near the levees of the lower Mississippi River. Either way, I didn’t expect to be wowed by Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin. I wrongly assumed that since I had read John Barry’s Rising Tide and I was born within site of the river, I must know a thing or two about the river and its history. Wrong.
The first revelation comes early in the book when Sandlin reports that Mark Twain’s great Mississippi River novels were essentially nostalgia pieces by the time they were written. The Mississippi river had largely been tamed by the time Twain, a former riverboat pilot, got around to writing it all down, much to his dismay. Twain noted that the wild river was crowded with river traffic, but the newly tamed river, in stiff competition with the emerging railroads, was virtually empty by comparison.
Sandlin paints a picture of lawlessness and civic mayhem as the general rule of the river prior to the Civil War. There are bands of pirates patrolling the river. Duels. Land grabs/land disputes. Civic law was minimal as the country began expanding westward. Courts were few and there were no police departments, even in the biggest cities. When official court proceedings produced unsatisfactory results, the citizen’s along the river reverted to “Lynch’s Law.” I found it interesting that “lynching” wasn’t usually racial and didn’t necessarily result in hanging until much later. Certainly, lynch law was no less harrowing for its defendants.
While its inhabitants were certainly wild, it is the river itself that was most wild and unpredictable. The river was full of snags and would frequently change course, to the detriment of river traffic. The river could change course so suddenly that one could go to sleep in a “slave state” and wake up in a “free state”. Of course, the river also routinely swelled well beyond its banks, wiping out all who built or farmed too near its course. The river could also travel downstream with so much force that it could wipe islands of solid rock in days. It took a certain amount of bravery to venture on to the river and a blend of luck and expertise to survive a trip down its length.
The river was ultimately tamed by the U.S. Corps of engineers who set out to make it safely navigable, to control flooding, and to otherwise make it less dangerous to life and property. The Corps set to work after the Civil War on what was at the time the largest Federal program ever attempted. The “taming” of the Mississippi and its consequences are covered in great detail in Barry’s Rising Tide, which is highly recommended.
I also highly recommend Wicked River for all with an interest in the Mississippi and/or the strange goings-on of our young country. Sandlin is a fantastic story teller, and the historical nuggets he’s mined are nothing short of fascinating. So far I’ve given two copies of the book as gifts and my copy is out on loan.