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Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain Life
the Lake basin and of 300,000 square miles in Texas and New Mexico, which in many aspects form a part of it, this basin contains about 1,250,000 square miles. In extent it is on the
the second great valley of the world, being exceeded only by that of the Amazon. The valley of the frozen Obi approaches Mississippi
it in extent; that of La Plata comes next in space, and probably in habitable capacity, having about eight-ninths of its area; then comes that of the Yenisei, with about seven-ninths; By
the Lena, Amoor, Hoang-ho, Yang-tse-kiang, and Nile, five-ninths; the Ganges, less than one-half; the Indus, less than Mark Twain
one-third; the Euphrates, one-fifth; the Rhine, one-fifteenth.
It exceeds in extent the whole of Europe, exclusive of Rus-
[pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens]
sia, Norway, and Sweden. It would contain Autria four times, Germany or Spain five times, France six times, the British Islands or Italy ten times. Conceptions formed from the river-basins of Western Europe are rudely shocked when we con-THE BODY OF THE NATION sider the extent of the valley of the Mississippi; nor are those formed from the sterile basins of the great rivers of Siberia, B
the lofty plateaus of Central Asia, or the mighty sweep of UT THE BASIN OF THE MISSISSIPPI is the body of the nation. All the other parts are but members, important in themselves, the swampy Amazon more adequate. Latitude, elevation, and yet more important in their relations to this. Exclusive of rainfall all combine to render every part of the Mississippi 3
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain Valley capable of supporting a dense population. As a dwell-Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three ing-place for civilized man it is by far the first upon our globe.
hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water EDITOR’S TABLE, HARPER’S MAGAZINE, supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Dela-FEBRUARY 1863
ware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers Chapter 1
that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-The River and Its History
basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Aus-THE MISSISSIPPI IS WELL WORTH READING ABOUT. It is not a tria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fer-commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways re-tile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.
markable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is It is a remarkable river in this: that instead of widening the longest river in the world—four thousand three hun-toward its mouth, it grows narrower; grows narrower and dred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest deeper. From the junction of the Ohio to a point half way river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up down to the sea, the width averages a mile in high water: one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground thence to the sea the width steadily diminishes, until, at the that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-
‘Passes,’ above the mouth, it is but little over half a mile. At five. It discharges three times as much water as the St.
the junction of the Ohio the Mississippi’s depth is eighty-4
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain seven feet; the depth increases gradually, reaching one hun-the Gulf was built by the river. This gives us the age of that dred and twenty-nine just above the mouth.
piece of country, without any trouble at all—one hundred The difference in rise and fall is also remarkable—not in and twenty thousand years. Yet it is much the youthfullest the upper, but in the lower river. The rise is tolerably uni-batch of country that lies around there anywhere.
form down to Natchez (three hundred and sixty miles above The Mississippi is remarkable in still another way—its the mouth)—about fifty feet. But at Bayou La Fourche the disposition to make prodigious jumps by cutting through river rises only twenty-four feet; at New Orleans only fif-narrow necks of land, and thus straightening and shortening teen, and just above the mouth only two and one half.
itself. More than once it has shortened itself thirty miles at a An article in the New Orleans ‘Times-Democrat,’ based single jump! These cut-offs have had curious effects: they upon reports of able engineers, states that the river annually have thrown several river towns out into the rural districts, empties four hundred and six million tons of mud into the and built up sand bars and forests in front of them. The Gulf of Mexico—which brings to mind Captain Marryat’s town of Delta used to be three miles below Vicksburg: a rude name for the Mississippi—’the Great Sewer.’ This mud, recent cutoff has radically changed the position, and Delta is solidified, would make a mass a mile square and two hun-now two miles above Vicksburg.
dred and forty-one feet high.
Both of these river towns have been retired to the country The mud deposit gradually extends the land—but only by that cut-off. A cut-off plays havoc with boundary lines gradually; it has extended it not quite a third of a mile in the and jurisdictions: for instance, a man is living in the State of two hundred years which have elapsed since the river took Mississippi to-day, a cut-off occurs to-night, and to-morrow its place in history. The belief of the scientific people is, that the man finds himself and his land over on the other side of the mouth used to be at Baton Rouge, where the hills cease, the river, within the boundaries and subject to the laws of and that the two hundred miles of land between there and the State of Louisiana! Such a thing, happening in the upper 5
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain river in the old times, could have transferred a slave from further along in the book.
Missouri to Illinois and made a free man of him.
Let us drop the Mississippi’s physical history, and say a The Mississippi does not alter its locality by cut-offs alone: word about its historical history—so to speak. We can glance it is always changing its habitat bodily—is always moving briefly at its slumbrous first epoch in a couple of short chap-bodily sideways. At Hard Times, La., the river is two miles ters; at its second and wider-awake epoch in a couple more; west of the region it used to occupy. As a result, the original at its flushest and widest-awake epoch in a good many suc-site of that settlement is not now in Louisiana at all, but on ceeding chapters; and then talk about its comparatively tran-the other side of the river, in the State of Mississippi. nearly quil present epoch in what shall be left of the book.
the whole of that one thousand three hundred miles of old Mis-The world and the books are so accustomed to use, and sissippi River which La Salle floated down in his canoes, two over-use, the word ‘new’ in connection with our country, hundred years ago, is good solid dry ground now. The river lies that we early get and permanently retain the impression that to the right of it, in places, and to the left of it in other there is nothing old about it. We do of course know that places.
there are several comparatively old dates in American his-Although the Mississippi’s mud builds land but slowly, tory, but the mere figures convey to our minds no just idea, down at the mouth, where the Gulfs billows interfere with no distinct realization, of the stretch of time which they rep-its work, it builds fast enough in better protected regions resent. To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever higher up: for instance, Prophet’s Island contained one thou-saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which sand five hundred acres of land thirty years ago; since then states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giv-the river has added seven hundred acres to it.
ing the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measure-But enough of these examples of the mighty stream’s ec-ments, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names;—
centricities for the present—I will give a few more of them as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don’t 6
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture and each was manufacturing history after his own peculiar of it.
fashion; Margaret of Navarre was writing the “Heptameron” The date 1542, standing by itself, means little or nothing and some religious books,—the first survives, the others are to us; but when one groups a few neighboring historical forgotten, wit and indelicacy being sometimes better litera-dates and facts around it, he adds perspective and color, and ture preservers than holiness; lax court morals and the ab-then realizes that this is one of the American dates which is surd chivalry business were in full feather, and the joust and quite respectable for age.
the tournament were the frequent pastime of titled fine For instance, when the Mississippi was first seen by a white gentlemen who could fight better than they could spell, while man, less than a quarter of a century had elapsed since Francis religion was the passion of their ladies, and classifying their I.’s defeat at Pavia; the death of Raphael; the death of Bayard, offspring into children of full rank and children by brevet sans peur et sans reproche; the driving out of the Knights-their pastime. In fact, all around, religion was in a peculiarly Hospitallers from Rhodes by the Turks; and the placarding blooming condition: the Council of Trent was being called; of the Ninety-Five Propositions,—the act which began the the Spanish Inquisition was roasting, and racking, and burn-Reformation. When De Soto took his glimpse of the river, ing, with a free hand; elsewhere on the continent the na-Ignatius Loyola was an obscure name; the order of the Jesu-tions were being persuaded to holy living by the sword and its was not yet a year old; Michael Angelo’s paint was not yet fire; in England, Henry VIII. had suppressed the monaster-dry on the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel; Mary Queen ies, burnt Fisher and another bishop or two, and was getting of Scots was not yet born, but would be before the year his English reformation and his harem effectively started.
closed. Catherine de Medici was a child; Elizabeth of En-When De Soto stood on the banks of the Mississippi, it was gland was not yet in her teens; Calvin, Benvenuto Cellini, still two years before Luther’s death; eleven years before the and the Emperor Charles V. were at the top of their fame, burning of Servetus; thirty years before he St. Bartholomew 7
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain slaughter; Rabelais was not yet published; “Don Quixote” in his grave considerably more than half a century, the sec-was not yet written; Shakespeare was not yet born; a hun-ond white man saw the Mississippi. In our day we don’t al-dred long years must still elapse before Englishmen would low a hundred and thirty years to elapse between glimpses of hear the name of Oliver Cromwell.
a marvel. If somebody should discover a creek in the county Unquestionably the discovery of the Mississippi is a dat-next to the one that the North Pole is in, Europe and America able fact which considerably mellows and modifies the shiny would start fifteen costly expeditions thither: one to explore newness of our country, and gives her a most respectable the creek, and the other fourteen to hunt for each other.
outside-aspect of rustiness and antiquity.
For more than a hundred and fifty years there had been De Soto merely glimpsed the river, then died and was white settlements on our Atlantic coasts. These people were buried in it by his priests and soldiers. One would expect in intimate communication with the Indians: in the south the priests and the soldiers to multiply the river’s dimen-the Spaniards were robbing, slaughtering, enslaving and con-sions by ten—the Spanish custom of the day—and thus move verting them; higher up, the English were trading beads and other adventurers to go at once and explore it. On the con-blankets to them for a consideration, and throwing in civili-trary, their narratives when they reached home, did not ex-zation and whiskey, ‘for lagniappe;’ and in Canada the French cite that amount of curiosity. The Mississippi was left unvis-were schooling them in a rudimentary way, missionarying ited by whites during a term of years which seems incredible among them, and drawing whole populations of them at a in our energetic days. One may ‘sense’ the interval to his time to Quebec, and later to Montreal, to buy furs of them.
mind, after a fashion, by dividing it up in this way: After De Necessarily, then, these various clusters of whites must have Soto glimpsed the river, a fraction short of a quarter of a heard of the great river of the far west; and indeed, they did century elapsed, and then Shakespeare was born; lived a trifle hear of it vaguely,—so vaguely and indefinitely, that its course, more than half a century, then died; and when he had been proportions, and locality were hardly even guessable. The 8
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain mere mysteriousness of the matter ought to have fired curi-ginia.
osity and compelled exploration; but this did not occur.
Apparently nobody happened to want such a river, nobody needed it, nobody was curious about it; so, for a century and Chapter 2
a half the Mississippi remained out of the market and undisturbed. When De Soto found it, he was not hunting for a The River and Its Explorers
river, and had no present occasion for one; consequently he did not value it or even take any particular notice of it.
LA SALLE HIMSELF SUED FOR CERTAIN HIGH PRIVILEGES, and they But at last La Salle the Frenchman conceived the idea of were graciously accorded him by Louis XIV of inflated seeking out that river and exploring it. It always happens memory. Chief among them was the privilege to explore, far that when a man seizes upon a neglected and important idea, and wide, and build forts, and stake out continents, and people inflamed with the same notion crop up all around. It hand the same over to the king, and pay the expenses him-happened so in this instance.
self; receiving, in return, some little advantages of one sort Naturally the question suggests itself, Why did these people or another; among them the monopoly of buffalo hides. He want the river now when nobody had wanted it in the five spent several years and about all of his money, in making preceding generations? Apparently it was because at this late perilous and painful trips between Montreal and a fort which day they thought they had discovered a way to make it use-he had built on the Illinois, before he at last succeeded in ful; for it had come to be believed that the Mississippi emp-getting his expedition in such a shape that he could strike tied into the Gulf of California, and therefore afforded a for the Mississippi.
short cut from Canada to China. Previously the supposition And meantime other parties had had better fortune. In had been that it emptied into the Atlantic, or Sea of Vir-1673 Joliet the merchant, and Marquette the priest, crossed 9
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain the country and reached the banks of the Mississippi. They A big cat-fish collided with Marquette’s canoe, and startled went by way of the Great Lakes; and from Green Bay, in him; and reasonably enough, for he had been warned by the canoes, by way of Fox River and the Wisconsin. Marquette Indians that he was on a foolhardy journey, and even a fatal had solemnly contracted, on the feast of the Immaculate one, for the river contained a demon ‘whose roar could be Conception, that if the Virgin would permit him to dis-heard at a great distance, and who would engulf them in the cover the great river, he would name it Conception, in her abyss where he dwelt.’ I have seen a Mississippi cat-fish that honor. He kept his word. In that day, all explorers traveled was more than six feet long, and weighed two hundred and with an outfit of priests. De Soto had twenty-four with him.
fifty pounds; and if Marquette’s fish was the fellow to that La Salle had several, also. The expeditions were often out of one, he had a fair right to think the river’s roaring demon meat, and scant of clothes, but they always had the furniture was come.
and other requisites for the mass; they were always prepared,
“At length the buffalo began to appear, grazing in herds as one of the quaint chroniclers of the time phrased it, to on the great prairies which then bordered the river; and
‘explain hell to the salvages.’
Marquette describes the fierce and stupid look of the old On the 17th of June, 1673, the canoes of Joliet and bulls as they stared at the intruders through the tangled mane Marquette and their five subordinates reached the junction which nearly blinded them.”
of the Wisconsin with the Mississippi. Mr. Parkman says: The voyagers moved cautiously: “Landed at night and made
‘Before them a wide and rapid current coursed athwart their a fire to cook their evening meal; then extinguished it, em-way, by the foot of lofty heights wrapped thick in forests.’
barked again, paddled some way farther, and anchored in He continues: ‘Turning southward, they paddled down the the stream, keeping a man on the watch till morning.” stream, through a solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of They did this day after day and night after night; and at man.’
the end of two weeks they had not seen a human being. The 10
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain river was an awful solitude, then. And it is now, over most of scribe. A short distance below “a torrent of yellow mud rushed its stretch.
furiously athwart the calm blue current of the Mississippi, But at the close of the fortnight they one day came upon boiling and surging and sweeping in its course logs, branches, the footprints of men in the mud of the western bank—a and uprooted trees.” This was the mouth of the Missouri, Robinson Crusoe experience which carries an electric shiver
‘that savage river,” which “descending from its mad career with it yet, when one stumbles on it in print. They had been through a vast unknown of barbarism, poured its turbid warned that the river Indians were as ferocious and pitiless floods into the bosom of its gentle sister.” as the river demon, and destroyed all comers without wait-By and by they passed the mouth of the Ohio; they passed ing for provocation; but no matter, Joliet and Marquette cane-brakes; they fought mosquitoes; they floated along, day struck into the country to hunt up the proprietors of the after day, through the deep silence and loneliness of the river, tracks. They found them, by and by, and were hospitably drowsing in the scant shade of makeshift awnings, and broil-received and well treated—if to be received by an Indian ing with the heat; they encountered and exchanged civilities chief who has taken off his last rag in order to appear at his with another party of Indians; and at last they reached the level best is to be received hospitably; and if to be treated mouth of the Arkansas (about a month out from their start-abundantly to fish, porridge, and other game, including dog, ing-point), where a tribe of war-whooping savages swarmed and have these things forked into one’s mouth by the out to meet and murder them; but they appealed to the Vir-ungloved fingers of Indians is to be well treated. In the morn-gin for help; so in place of a fight there was a feast, and ing the chief and six hundred of his tribesmen escorted the plenty of pleasant palaver and fol-de-rol.
Frenchmen to the river and bade them a friendly farewell.
They had proved to their satisfaction, that the Mississippi On the rocks above the present city of Alton they found did not empty into the Gulf of California, or into the Atlan-some rude and fantastic Indian paintings, which they de-tic. They believed it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. They 11
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain turned back, now, and carried their great news to Canada.
they entered the realms of spring. The hazy sunlight, the But belief is not proof. It was reserved for La Salle to fur-warm and drowsy air, the tender foliage, the opening flow-nish the proof. He was provokingly delayed, by one misfor-ers, betokened the reviving life of nature.” tune after another, but at last got his expedition under way Day by day they floated down the great bends, in the at the end of the year 1681. In the dead of winter he and shadow of the dense forests, and in time arrived at the mouth Henri de Tonty, son of Lorenzo Tonty, who invented the of the Arkansas. First, they were greeted by the natives of tontine, his lieutenant, started down the Illinois, with a fol-this locality as Marquette had before been greeted by them—
lowing of eighteen Indians brought from New England, and with the booming of the war drum and the flourish of arms.
twenty-three Frenchmen. They moved in procession down The Virgin composed the difficulty in Marquette’s case; the the surface of the frozen river, on foot, and dragging their pipe of peace did the same office for La Salle. The white canoes after them on sledges.
man and the red man struck hands and entertained each At Peoria Lake they struck open water, and paddled thence other during three days. Then, to the admiration of the sav-to the Mississippi and turned their prows southward. They ages, La Salle set up a cross with the arms of France on it, plowed through the fields of floating ice, past the mouth of and took possession of the whole country for the king—the the Missouri; past the mouth of the Ohio, by-and-by; “and, cool fashion of the time—while the priest piously conse-gliding by the wastes of bordering swamp, landed on the crated the robbery with a hymn. The priest explained the 24th of February near the Third Chickasaw Bluffs,” where mysteries of the faith “by signs,” for the saving of the sav-they halted and built Fort Prudhomme.
ages; thus compensating them with possible possessions in
‘Again,’ says Mr. Parkman, “they embarked; and with ev-Heaven for the certain ones on earth which they had just ery stage of their adventurous progress, the mystery of this been robbed of. And also, by signs, La Salle drew from these vast new world was more and more unveiled. More and more simple children of the forest acknowledgments of fealty to 12
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain Louis the Putrid, over the water. Nobody smiled at these the Teche country, whose capital city was a substantial one colossal ironies.
of sun-baked bricks mixed with straw—better houses than These performances took place on the site of the future many that exist there now. The chiefs house contained an town of Napoleon, Arkansas, and there the first confisca-audience room forty feet square; and there he received Tonty tion-cross was raised on the banks of the great river.
in State, surrounded by sixty old men clothed in white cloaks.
Marquette’s and Joliet’s voyage of discovery ended at the same There was a temple in the town, with a mud wall about it spot—the site of the future town of Napoleon. When De ornamented with skulls of enemies sacrificed to the sun.
Soto took his fleeting glimpse of the river, away back in the The voyagers visited the Natchez Indians, near the site of dim early days, he took it from that same spot—the site of the present city of that name, where they found a ‘religious the future town of Napoleon, Arkansas. Therefore, three out and political despotism, a privileged class descended from of the four memorable events connected with the discovery the sun, a temple and a sacred fire.’ It must have been like and exploration of the mighty river, occurred, by accident, getting home again; it was home with an advantage, in fact, in one and the same place. It is a most curious distinction, for it lacked Louis XIV.
when one comes to look at it and think about it. France stole A few more days swept swiftly by, and La Salle stood in that vast country on that spot, the future Napoleon; and by the shadow of his confiscating cross, at the meeting of the and by Napoleon himself was to give the country back waters from Delaware, and from Itaska, and from the moun-again!—make restitution, not to the owners, but to their tain ranges close upon the Pacific, with the waters of the white American heirs.
Gulf of Mexico, his task finished, his prodigy achieved. Mr.
The voyagers journeyed on, touching here and there; Parkman, in closing his fascinating narrative, thus sums up:
‘passed the sites, since become historic, of Vicksburg and
“On that day, the realm of France received on parchment Grand Gulf,’ and visited an imposing Indian monarch in a stupendous accession. The fertile plains of Texas; the vast 13
Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain basin of the Mississippi, from its frozen northern springs to tween La Salle’s opening of the river and the time when it the sultry borders of the Gulf; from the woody ridges of the may be said to have become the vehicle of anything like a Alleghanies to the bare peaks of the Rocky Mountains—a regular and active commerce, seven sovereigns had occupied region of savannas and forests, sun-cracked deserts and grassy the throne of England, America had become an indepen-prairies, watered by a thousand rivers, ranged by a thousand dent nation, Louis XIV. and Louis XV. had rotted and died, warlike tribes, passed beneath the scepter of the Sultan of the French monarchy had gone down in the red tempest of Versailles; and all by virtue of a feeble human voice, inau-the revolution, and Napoleon was a name that was begin-dible at half a mile.”
ning to be talked about. Truly, there were snails in those days.
The river’s earliest commerce was in great barges—