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The History Of The Mississippi River

Life on the Mississippi.  Pirates. River rats. Hustlers. Slaves. A new history looks at the American resonance of Old Man River.

In this July 13, 2012, photo, the Memphis Queen riverboat moves up the Mississippi River, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP)

In this July 13, 2012, photo, the Memphis Queen riverboat moves up the Mississippi River, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP)

Centuries, millennia, pass and the Mississippi River keeps on rolling.  But it changes.  And has changed a lot in this continent’s river-heavy history.  From mastadons and mammoths on the riverbank, to giant burial mounds, to American riverboats and pirates, gamblers and slaves, hustlers and haulers of a river of grain.

Historian Paul Schneider has taken his study right onto river – kayak-level – where you can smell it, sweet and earthy.  He’s traveled it in space and time.

This hour, On Point:  we’re going deep on the mighty Mississippi.

- Tom Ashbrook


Paul Schneider, author of “Old Man River:  The Mississippi River in North American History.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The Bend Bulletin: A lazy, historical steamboat ride down Twain’s Mississippi River – “We head up to the engine room to meet the captain of the boat, John Sutton. He’s been working as a river pilot for 32 years. It’s a job he describes as “hours and hours of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. ‘You’ve got to respect the power of the Mississippi River,’ he says.”

The Advocate: Farmer-fisherman exchange ties both ends of the Mississippi River — “They may speak differently, dress differently and make their living off the land in different ways, but the Barnyard to Boatyard Conservation Exchange gave farmers in South Dakota and fishermen in south Louisiana a chance to see just how connected they are.’

Excerpt: ‘Old Man River’ by Paul Schneider

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  • Chris Kealey

    OH my goodness rivers certainly do matter. I live on the Mighty Merrimack River. You can feel its power whenever you take your boat on it. For those that enjoy boating and fishing (and those who make their living on it) rivers matter very much. I love our RIVER!

    • Paul Schneider

      Ahh, the Mighty Merrimack. That’s closer to home for me. I know, John’s first question caught me a little off guard–which I guess is what makes him a good interviewer. But for me Rivers are SO important I almost had to stop and think of how to answer the question do rivers matter.

  • brian copeland

    I’m curious if your guest can discuss the roll the levees lining the river have played on the adjacent landscapes, ecosystems, etc. Maybe also discuss what roll the Army Corp of Engineers has had at the Atchafalaya River.

    • Paul Schneider

      Where to begin. The last third of my book is largely about all that. But the best book on the Atchafalaya is probably still John McPhee’s Control of Nature. And Bayou Farewell.

  • Brad Faith

    Brad Faith from Southern Indiana. I’ve lived near and in the influence of the Ohio River all my life. My father grew up on the banks of the Ohio among shantyboaters. He tell’s stories of their colorful lives, making hoopnets, catching bullheads, and playing music all night. Could you have your guest talk about the shantyboat community on the Ohio and Mississippi?

    • Paul Schneider

      I’m sorry your email didn’t get through. I’d love to hear about the shanty boaters. I’ve read about them, and of course music on the boats is as old as the river (almost.) But in my own trip down the entire Ohio I didn’t run into any I’m afraid….

  • AC

    i did a job for 7 months where the ohio meets the mississippi and i did worry about the water. the town’s people even had a local tale about a 6ft catfish that was living in it. i guess catfish eat garbage? they gave it a nickname and everything…..i can’t remember, this was in 2009
    also, i ate frogs legs. baby;s legs will forever remind me of the mississippi….

    • Paul Schneider

      if you want to see some crazy stuff try youtube for “noodling” for catfish. These folks reach into the river and wiggle their finger until a giant catfish bites their hand and….

      As for baby’s legs, I’m going to try not to remember that

  • sickofthechit

    To the caller who mentioned seeing the Sand Cranes nesting grounds. For real excitement come to Kentucky where our geniuses in the Legislature passed a law recently that allows “hunters” here to shoot them out of the sky! Maybe they thought it would make good prep for the coming drone wars….

    Yet another proud Kentucky moment.
    Charles A. Bowsher

  • truegangsteroflove

    Here’s a little trip down the Big River. youtube.com/watch?v=S34hOJE-DpU

  • Peter Newton

    You talked about the tributaries, but one caller talked about the outflows at the delta, traveling to Grand Isle. Did your guest travel any of the other delta Bayous, esp. the Atchafalya, which is trying to steal the Mississippi from New Orleans?

    • Paul Schneider

      Yes. It’s one of the most amazing things about the river. We think of it traditionally as a bunch of tribs with one outflow, but left to it’s own it would spread out into many mouths. And as you point out, the Atchafalaya in particular is in the process of “stealing” the river.

      Unfortunately most of the old distributaries have been closed, but not all.

      A great friend of mine who lives in Louisiana joined me on a GREAT canoe voyage down some of the Atchafalaya and then over onto the Bayou Teche, which is smaller and flows through the heart of the cajun country. Great food, great little towns, zydeco music on sunday mornings….

  • DeJay79

    At its closest the Mississippi comes within 100 miles of the Canadian boarder near the town of Bemidji, MN

    • Paul Schneider

      Thanks! I’m always afraid of those “number questions.” If I was just at dinner with my family, they all know I would have just made up a number, but I balked at guessing in front of a national audience because I knew you were out there somewhere!

  • mississippiwaters

    To those who spoke of cultural differences from the headwaters to the gulf, listen to Pat Donahue’s “Other End of the Mississippi River Blues.” Beautiful Song.
    I also recommend reading George Devol’s FORTY YEARS A GAMBLER ON THE MISSISSIPPI.

  • T. Pink

    Muddy Water, How it Calls Ya!

  • Willem Gebben

    I wanted to mention a new development along the upper Mississippi River called frack sand mining. It threatens both the beauty and the future of this region. There is a very good documentary on this subject called The Price of Sand by Jim Tittle he also has a website http://www.thepriceofsand.com Please look into this often forgotten aspect of Fracking.

  • Guest

    Loved this podcast! I lived in Dubuque, Iowa for a few years, and being from the mountain west had no idea what real rivers were like until I moved there! It’s amazing how massive the Mighty Mississippi really is. I miss it! Although, I don’t miss the bugs… :) Wish I had the time to listen live so I could weigh in during the show, but the podcasts save me on my twice weekly 90 minute commute!

    • Paul Schneider

      hope you like the book! As an east coast native, I too, am always refreshed and amazed by the “real” river.

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