A riveting narrative look at one of the most colorful, dangerous, and peculiar places in America's historical landscape: the strange, wonderful, and mysterious Mississippi River of the 19th century.
Beginning in the early 1800s and climaxing with the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, Wicked River brings to life a place where river pirates brushed elbows with future presidents and religious visionaries shared passage with thieves. Here is a minute-by-minute account of Natchez being flattened by a tornado; the St. Louis harbor being crushed by a massive ice floe; hidden, nefarious celebrations of Mardi Gras; and the sinking of the Sultana, the worst naval disaster in American history. Here, too, is the Mississippi itself: gorgeous, perilous, and unpredictable. Masterfully told, Wicked River is an exuberant work of Americana that portrays a forgotten society on the edge of revolutionary change.
Gone on the River
THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER VALLEY was always a wild and unknown country. Above St. Anthony Falls in Minnesota, the track of the river meandered into vagueness: it wound through pristine forests, and vanished into unexplored valleys, and glinted among mazes of unnamed lakes. The river’s ultimate source wasn’t established as Lake Itasca in the far north until the 1830s, and the identiﬁcation wasn’t universally accepted for several decades after that—few people were willing to venture up- country to investigate. The pine forests there were trackless and spooky. The valleys were still strewn with monstrous fossils that had lain undisturbed for thousands of years: mammoths and saber- toothed tigers, dire wolves and a species of beaver that was the size of a grizzly bear—relics from the dawn world of the American wilderness, before the ﬁrst humans arrived.
In the ﬁrst half of the nineteenth century, the dominant presence in the northern forests was the Chippewa. They lived in wigwam villages, some of four or ﬁve hundred people, in glades and clearings scattered throughout the woodlands. These were mostly on the east side of the river. On the west, in the open prairies, were the settlements of the Sioux. The Chippewa and the Sioux were continually skirmishing, and had been for several hundred years. The Sioux believed, not without justice, that when the Chippewa had migrated from the east during the great Iroquois wars, they’d stolen the ancestral Sioux land. There were also white settlers— more and more of them as the nineteenth century went on. Neither the Chippewa nor the Sioux viewed them with much alarm. They generally ignored the rumors of massacres and forced migrations in the lower valley. Both nations had signed treaties with the white authorities, for one thing (the Sioux treaty even recognized their claim to the Chippewa territory), and neither had yet realized that all such treaties with the whites were worthless. Then, too, they wanted to buy from the white traders. They were notorious for taking all the guns and whiskey the traders would sell them, but they were even more eager for cookware. Their enthusiasm for the whites’ copper utensils had wiped out traditional pottery through the North Woods almost overnight.
The white settlers mostly lived in new towns along the river. These were muddy and primitive places. A typical one is described in George Byron Merrick’s memoir, Old Times on the Upper Mississippi. Merrick grew up in Prescott, Wisconsin, which is at the junction of the Mississippi and the St. Croix rivers. In his childhood in the 1840s, the population of Prescott was around two hundred. It was a remote spot; there were no roads, and the closest railroad tracks were hundreds of miles to the south. It was also precariously situated between large settlements of Chippewa and Sioux. Both came into town to trade, and occasionally to ﬁght: the whites all learned how to duck down alleys or crouch behind wagons as soon as they heard war whoops and gunﬁre.
But Merrick didn’t recall ever being troubled by the town’s isolation, or its strategic position. The main thing he remembered was the freedom. He and the other boys weren’t obsessively monitored the way children routinely are now. In fact, they weren’t monitored at all. If they weren’t in school, they were on their own—free to go off by themselves and canoe the river, or play with the boys from a nearby Chippewa village, or stage battles around the ruined French fort on the islet just downriver from town. The most romantic of their playgrounds was farther on, below the sandstone bluffs along the west bank of the river: an ancient battleﬁeld, strewn with corroded hatchets and rusted musket nails and arrowheads like fossil ﬁsh. The Chippewa boys said it was where their ancestors had won a tremendous victory over the Sioux. Eventually it occurred to Merrick that the Sioux boys probably thought it was where they’d won a victory over the Chippewa.
The lives of the boys were dominated by the Mississippi. Merrick and his friends had a kind of private ritual to symbolize the moment each year when they gave themselves up to the river. On the ﬁrst hot day of spring, as soon as school was out, they’d run through the town as fast as they could in single ﬁle and, one after the next, throw themselves off a bluff into the water. From that moment on, until the ﬁrst ice sheeted it in the fall, the river was their home.
It was an idyllic and heedless life. “It seems miraculous to me,” Merrick wrote, “that all of those boys were not drowned or otherwise summarily disposed of.” But nobody ever met with disaster. Merrick himself remembered only a handful of close calls. Mostly they were times when he and the other boys were out canoeing and got caught in violent squalls; their dugout would be swamped by the choppy waters and they had to ﬂounder desperately to the nearest shore. Once, in the open country on the western bank, Merrick was out exploring by himself when he was treed by a wolf pack. He spent a terriﬁed hour clinging to an upper branch as the wolves leaped up to snap at his feet, until the pack inexplicably had a change of mind and ran away.
The nearest he ever came to getting himself killed was a time when he and his brother were out canoeing. They paddled south to a river bend where an immense drift of logs had built up in the shallows. There Merrick’s dugout overturned, and as he thrashed around beneath the surface, he got his legs caught in a tangle of cottonwood roots. He barely managed to writhe and jerk and lunge free—and then he had to spend another frantic few seconds scrabbling beneath the drift logs for clear air. At last he burst to the surface. His brother hauled him to safety. Ten minutes later, they were ﬁshing as though nothing had happened.
It certainly never made him love the river less. “We grew into the very life of the river,” Merrick wrote, “as we grew in years.” Merrick’s father owned a warehouse along the levee, and Merrick and his brother commandeered the attic for their bedroom: it gave them a panoramic view of the levee, the docks, and the water. Like sentries, they kept watch on all the arrivals and departures. “At night no steamboat ever landed at the levee,” Merrick writes, “without having at least two spectators, carefully noting its distinguishing characteristics.”
Most of the trafﬁc was heading downriver. There were wooden barges bearing ore from the mines, and ﬂatboats carrying beaver pelts and sheaves of prairie wheat. If the harvest came in late and the river was already icing over, the ﬂatboats would off- load the wheat and store it in the warehouses until the spring thaw. There were also the big rafts ﬂoating down from the logging camps. They were guided by steering oars so large they took dozens of men to maneuver. The crews on the rafts were a notorious lot. Whenever they’d hit town, there would inevitably be a drunken riot. Merrick recalled how the ﬁghts would spill into the backstreets and the levee after midnight; all the while, the local marshal waited them out, safely perched atop a high post on the dock, a revolver in his hand, watching the action unfold “with the enlightened eye of an expert and the enjoyment of a connoisseur.”
Boats coming up from the lower valley were the most eagerly awaited, because they brought so many essential supplies. The whole town would be on the levee to help unload. There’d be barrels of salt (a prized commodity in the upper valley, so scarce it was often used in place of money), sacks of coffee beans, tuns of cured pork and beef jerky, tubs of rice and axle grease. If the boat arrived at night, torches would be lit up all along the riverfront. People ran everywhere by the ﬂickering light—stacking the barrels, dragging loaded wagons into the warehouses, throwing tarps over the goods that were going to be transshipped farther north. The torches smoked and billowed and ﬂared, shedding a steady drip of pitch and charred wadding into the black water below. And then within the hour the levee would be dark and empty again. Merrick and some of the other local boys would be allowed to stay up until dawn, skylarking among the stacks of cargo, making sure it wasn’t stolen by the ubiquitous river thieves.
Now and then, one of the boys on the levee would be on board when a boat pulled out again. He would have stowed away or else talked the captain into letting him hire on as an apprentice—usually for a couple of dollars a month, starvation wages even then. That was what happened with Merrick. When he was a teenager, he left town and was hired as a mud clerk on a boat doing regular runs up and down the valley. Over the next few years, he worked his way up to apprentice engineer, cub pilot, and eventually full pilot. (Later on he went east, where he became a newspaperman and ultimately a publisher.) He thought it was a ﬁne career, but as far as the town was concerned, that was the end of him. They had a phrase they’d use about such a boy: somebody would ask what had happened to this or that kid who used to hang out on the levee, and the answer would be a headshake, or a hand waved contemptuously in the direction of the Mississippi, and a simple dismissal:
Gone on the river.
All along its length, on its remotest upper reaches and its most laby rinthine tributaries, people were going on the river. They were sometimes called voyageurs—the word was a survival of the old French culture of the Mississippi, before the Louisiana Purchase. It has a romantic sound, but there was little actual romance associated with being a voyageur. Mostly it meant working the keelboats, barges, and rafts, which was brutal, unremitting, and dangerous labor; or else it meant taking a one- shot trip in a ﬂatboat, loaded down with local goods to sell in the great markets of the river delta. Just about everybody was tempted to try that out at some time or another. It was a simple way of scoring money at a time when most of the river valley was sunk in grinding poverty. One of those who made the trip was Abraham Lincoln: he did his ﬁrst run on the river in 1831, when he was twenty- two, just out of the family home and striking out on his own. He and some friends, backed by a local businessman, built a ﬂatboat and took it down the Sangamon River to the Illinois, the Illinois to the Mississippi, and the Mississippi all the way down to New Orleans.
What did they carry? It barely mattered. Apples or hemp or whiskey, pigs or turkeys or horses or cattle; maybe there was a local craftsman who made particularly sturdy brooms, or a brewer famous around town for an unusually sweet ale. The delta markets were known to be undiscriminating and insatiable. The voyageurs set out with anything that they could make, grow, barter for, sell on commission, or steal. Ordinarily they set out in the fall, with the pick of the local harvest, or after the thaw in the spring, with whatever miscellaneous load they’d been able to scrounge together over the winter. Sometimes the whole town would gather at the levee for their departure, and the local band would play; sometimes they’d sneak away at dawn, before anybody realized what they’d taken.
The current was a fast jog, nine or ten miles an hour in the deepest channels. It was strong enough to hurry the most heavily laden boat downstream. People didn’t have to do much in the way of fancy boating to keep moving. The Mississippi had no waterfalls south of Minnesota, and only one stretch of dangerous white water, along the Iowa-Illinois border (it was successfully dredged by midcentury). The boats were carried forward, hour after hour, day after day, as the valley unfolded around them in endless cascades. There were countless islets and bluffs, feeder creeks and sloughs, marshes and canebrakes receding into the blue depths of the valley; tributaries came rushing in through ravines; clouds skimmed down so low they clipped the pines atop the ridges; drifts of mist ﬂoated off the hillsides and melted across the water. Whole days could go by without the voyageurs seeing anyone onshore, and then it might only be a small, silent ﬁgure on the near bank, standing for a moment and solemnly raising a hand as they passed.
But the river had its own dangers. Chief among them were the sandbars. The river was deep—more than a hundred feet for much of its length— but the strong drag of the current along its alluvial bottom built up sandbars in countless numbers. The bars cut the effective depth of the channels to a few feet or sometimes a few inches. A boat that went aground on a bar might be stuck there for days or weeks, until help could be found or the river rose. In seasons of low water, these bars made the river essentially impassable. One military expedition, unwisely setting out in late summer, when the river was at its lowest, recorded that between Minnesota and Illinois they went aground on sandbars more than two hundred times.
Then there were the ﬂoating trees. There were hordes of them on the river—saplings and fully mature trees and ancient giants more than a hundred feet tall. They’d collect into impassable bottlenecks on hairpin bends and form bobbing, clunking plateaus in the shallows. Sometimes a couple of dozen of them, or a couple of hundred of them, would form into a clump glued together by the mud and debris that were constantly slipping past in the current. These were known as wooden islands, and they would go careening down the river for hundreds of miles at a stretch, until they built up enough momentum to break out of the channels and collide with whatever happened to be in their path along the shore. Everyone got to know the weird creaking, grinding sound that meant a wooden island was approaching. Any boats that couldn’t be maneuvered out of the way would be pummeled into ﬂinders by its bristling armor of splintered logs.
But the trees were even more dangerous when they were stationary. Many or perhaps most that fell into the river eventually became stuck in the mud. These were known as snags. Snags were so common that a whole specialized vocabulary was developed to categorize them. A tree that was standing straight up on the river bottom, with its branches just under the waterline, was called a planter. A tree that was stuck sideways into a riverbank or a sandbar so that it stretched out at full length under the water was a sleeper. A tree that waved back and forth in the current with a sawing motion was a sawyer. And a tree that bobbed up and down, rising up out of the water and plunging back again, as though it were performing a river baptism, was a preacher. Any of these snags could stave in or capsize a boat that glided blithely across it, and they were everywhere on the river; by one estimate there was a major snag every ﬁve hundred feet.
These perils were almost invisible to the unpracticed eye. Most of them showed up only as odd disturbances on the surface, patterns that had to be decoded from the endless ﬂuctuations of the current. A trailing braid in smooth water was a sure sign of a snag; a quilted ripple was a tangle of submerged logs; a line or fold across the water was an undertow; a persistent swirl of froth was a whirlpool, where a strong tributary ﬂowing quickly into the main current had created a vortex beneath the surface. The voyageurs had to teach themselves all these clues by experience, and the river put a premium on fast learners.
The voyageurs came to call the Mississippi the wicked river. The down-river run was so deceptive and so treacherous that it was said that at least one out of every ﬁve boats that set out for the delta wrecked along the way. Every traveler on the river got to know the sight of bodies drifting with the current, or hanging from a ﬂoating island, or bobbing among the logs piled up on a river bend—the red shirt that the voyageurs wore, the closest thing the river had to a uniform, could be spotted a mile off, like a distress signal.
Excerpted from Wicked River by Lee Sandlin. Copyright © 2010 by Lee Sandlin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Lee Sandlin is the author of Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers and Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, and also reviews books for The Wall Street Journal. His essay “Losing the War” was included in the anthology The New Kings of Nonfiction. He lives in Chicago.