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The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild

Written by Lee SandlinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Lee Sandlin

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On Sale: October 19, 2010
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-37951-1
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

1
 
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.




From the Hardcover edition.
Lee Sandlin

About Lee Sandlin

Lee Sandlin - Wicked River

Photo © Frank Blau Photography

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.

Praise

Praise

"In this lush, exuberant, action-packed and history-drenched book, Sandlin has brought the river back home again. . . . A vivid torrent of facts and passions, in an inspired agitation of water and words. . . . Wicked River is the best kind of history book. It is organized around people and their fates, not wars and dates and treaty signings. It artfully separates reality from fables, but it recognizes that fables have a story to tell, too, that our tall tales and our songs and our exaggerations and our mythologies can be as revelatory as topographical maps and temperature charts."
Chicago Tribune

"Gripping stuff. . . . Appreciators of what Greil Marcus calls the Old, Weird America will savor Wicked River. Its many ghastly scenes, vividly rendered by Mr. Sandlin, started showing up in my dreams. . . . I was surprised, upon finishing Wicked River, to read that this confident and swift-moving book is the author's first. It makes one eager for the next."-John Jeremiah Sullivan, The Wall Street Journal

"A biography of the river in its pre-Twain period."
—The Washington Post

"Entertaining. . . . Chicago essayist and journalist Lee Sandlin tells tales about the Mississippi in the days when the river and the people who floated on it or lived along it were wild and untamed in the extreme. . . . Sandlin has done an impressive amount of research. For all that, his prose manages to avoid the snags and shoals of academic English. . . . A lot of fun to read."
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Remarkable. . . . Told with the same verve and affinity for a good yarn that encomia to the river tend to inspire, Wicked River looks at life along the Mississippi in the 19th century, before Twain had us thinking it was all Americana adventures. . . . Sandlin may singlehandedly destroy the view that the Midwest is a mellow place."
—Time Out Chicago

"Marvelously captured. . . . A superb book debut. . . . Sandlin writes of a recurring sense of looming catastrophe that gripped many residents. . . . Fascinating."
—Chicago Sun-Times

"Sumptuous writing and fascinating tales of the days when life on the Mississippi was rough and wild. . . . Sandlin transports readers back to a renegade time on the Mississippi, a rollicking ride full of marauders, floating brothels and rough characters spit straight from the pen of Twain himself. Sandlin's own prose style is a fluvial joy."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"A gripping look back at the forgotten history of the river that made America."
—The Daily Beast

"Splendid. . . . Intriguing. . . . Full of great stories. . . . makes for amusing and stimulating reading."
—Columbus Commercial Dispatch (MS)

"[A] superb book debut. . . . Thoroughly engaging, entertaining and seductively educational history. . . . a grand, clear-eyed look at river towns' 'semi-barbarism.'"
The Denver Post

"Sandlin pulls no punches . . . it's almost as if he decided Twain was wrong and we need to find out the truth. He tells of pirates, drownings and slavery even uglier than most history books will tell us, of people who fell off boats and had no way of being rescued in a wilderness. . . . if you love the river and its history, read it. It's fun."
—Rochester (MN) Post-Bulletin

"A gripping book that plunges you into a rich dark stretch of visceral history. I read it in two sittings and got up shaken."
—Garrison Keillor

"Raucous, fascinating and fun. . . . [Lee] Sandlin debuts with a rollicking history of the Mississippi Valley before commerce and technology tamed it. . . . [He] seems to have adopted some of Twain’s technique in Life On the Mississippi—i.e., disappearing for pages into long narratives/legends/rumors associated with the valley and its denizens. . . . [He] provides some John McPhee–like detail about geology and riverine history, and also examines the human history of the region. . . . Apart from his generous offering of surprising facts, it’s obvious that Sandlin loves the lore of the river, its narratives, legends and lies. . . . Readers will delight in stories about Annie Christmas (who wrote tales about prostitutes), Marie Laveau (the Voodoo Queen), the Crow’s Nest pirates and John Murrell and his so-called “Mystic Clan. . . .Gorgeous. ”
—Kirkus

"Wicked River almost makes you feel guilty for enjoying an education so much. I learned things at every S-curve, neck deep in a fine, fine story. I lived a stone's throw from that river, and though I knew it flowed through eons of meanness and sadness and ribaldry, I didn't know it was this twisted. "
—Rick Bragg, author of The Prince of Frogtown

“Great stuff, essential stuff, and yeah, wicked.” 
—Roy Blount Jr, author of Alphabet Juice and Long Time Leaving Dispatches From Up South

"Geographically, culturally, and metaphorically, the Mississippi River has been at the center of American reality and imagination for 400 years. In Wicked River, Lee Sandlin has lived up to his epic subject, taking us into overlooked, if not forgotten, epochs of history and folklore. Through labor and erudition he weaves the incredibly complicated strands of a story that seems too big to contemplate into a coherent tale that is surprising and entertaining on every page. He's made the river his own, and extends it as a welcome gift to the reader."
—Anthony Walton, author of Mississippi: An American Journey

"What a wickedly wild ride of a read! I loved this book! It may be nonfiction, but Sandlin tells his stories with a narrative drive that any novelist would envy. The events and characters from the early days along the Mississippi, which he so evocatively recreates, are among the most fascinating you’ll ever encounter anywhere. Honest to god, reading history has never been more fun!".
—William Kent Krueger, author of Heaven's Keep

“One of the best book’s ever written about the Mississippi River. Each page rounds a new bend full of delirious missionaries, hell-bent-for-speed steamboat captains, and gaudy traders in ‘fancy girl’ slave prostitutes. You won’t put it down till you’ve read every steamy, malarial, fascinating page.”
—Mike Tidwell, author of Bayou Farewell

“Today we think of the Mississippi River as an elder statesman of the American landscape, but for most of the nineteenth century it was pure frontier: unruly, unregulated, and dangerous. Wicked River perfectly captures the great river's secret history, overflowing with wonderfully chosen and impeccably delivered character sketches, set pieces, and side trips.”
—Scott W. Berg, author of Grand Avenues

“In a narrative worthy of Mark Twain, Lee Sandlin tells of the Mississippi River when it was not only wild but wicked, home to sharpers and humbuggers, jackanapes, tub thumpers, and naked revelers.  This is a grand tale of America’s mightiest river and the larger-than-life men and women who rode its waves into history.”
—Sandra Dallas, author of Whiter Than Snow and Prayers for Sale

“A fascinating book, rich in detail and lore, the kind of strange object one wants to curl up with for long periods of time and gaze into the past we know much less well than we imagine. Wicked River is bound to cause a stir among readers who always want to know a little more about some place or some thing than the usual sources allow. Reading it is going to school again, in the best possible way. An entrance into a world so magical and unlikely that every page is a new episode full of real swashbuckling, nasty critters (human), and the roiling history of the big bad river.”
—Frederick Barthelme, author of Waveland

"[A] superb book debut. . . . Thoroughly engaging, entertaining and seductively educational history. . . . a grand, clear-eyed look at river towns' 'semi-barbarism.'"
—The Denver Post

"Sandlin pulls no punches . . . it's almost as if he decided Twain was wrong and we need to find out the truth. He tells of pirates, drownings and slavery even uglier than most history books will tell us, of people who fell off boats and had no way of being rescued in a wilderness. . . . if you love the river and its history, read it. It's fun."
—Rochester (MN) Post-Bulletin

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