• 2 •
Alonso Álvarez de Piñeda was the first known European to see the big river. His view of it came from across the rail of a sailing ship as he and his Spanish exploration fleet followed the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in 1519, sailing from Florida, bound for Mexico. Around June 2 he passed the outflow of a mighty stream and he made a note of it in his log and gave it a name — Rio del Espiritu Santo, or Holy Spirit River, because he had sighted it on (or around) the Catholic feast day of Espirito Santo, or Pentecost. But noting and naming it constituted the extent of Álvarez’s interest in the river, and he sailed on to Cabo Rojo, Mexico.
Another Spaniard, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, was the next European to see it. His view was a lot closer up than Álvarez’s. He and his contingent of explorers were traveling cross-country, slogging and plodding their way from Florida toward Mexico, exhausting themselves in the wilds and marshes, amid harassing Indians in Louisiana and Texas. Sometime in 1528 Cabeza de Vaca and his party managed to cross the Mississippi near its mouth and kept going on what was to become an eight-year trek, which only Cabeza de Vaca and three others of his party survived.
Hernando de Soto, another Spanish explorer, made deadly enemies of the Indians in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi and was forced to fight them repeatedly as he and his steadily diminishing army, starting at Tampa Bay, moved up the Florida peninsula into Georgia and South Carolina, then turned west and traversed Alabama and Mississippi, coming at last, perhaps near present-day Greenville, Mississippi, to the banks of the wide and muddy river, which he saw merely as an obstacle on his way to the imagined gold that awaited his looting. He crossed the river and traveled as far as the northwest part of Arkansas before turning around and heading back to the big river. After three years of fruitless searching for treasure, he contracted a disease and died near the banks of the river in June 1542. The few survivors of
Père Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet descend the Mississippi River by canoe in 1673. They were the first Europeans to explore the river, seeking to discover where it would take them. Marquette recorded in his journal the name the natives gave the river — Missisipi, as Marquette spelled it, meaning “great river” (Library of Congress).
his army placed his corpse in a hollowed-out tree trunk and sank it in the river, lest the Indians discover that despite what he had told them, he was not immortal after all. The survivors then fled down the river and made their way to Mexico.
A 35-year-old French Jesuit missionary priest, Jacques Marquette — known to history as Père Marquette — and a Canadian-born Jesuit seminary dropout turned explorer, 27-year-old Louis Joliet (or Jolliet), were the first Europeans to actually explore the big river. Unlike the Spaniards who had preceded them, Marquette and Joliet set out not merely to cross the mighty stream but to discover where it would take them — perhaps, they thought, to the Pacific Ocean. Further unlike the Spaniards, they meant to befriend and proselytize the natives they would meet along their way, not conquer and pillage them. It was Marquette, moreover, who recorded in his journal the name the natives had given the big river — Missisipi, as Marquette spelled it, the “great river.”
On May 17, 1673, Marquette and Joliet launched their two canoes into Lake Huron near Michelmackinaw, at the lake’s western end, and with five fellow explorers, all of them half Indian and half French Canadian, began paddling their way westward through the Straits of Mackinac and into Lake Michigan, then along the south shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Arriving at the mouth of the Fox River at present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, Marquette and Joliet ascended the Fox to Lake Winnebago, then continued on to a Mascouten Indian settlement at present-day Berlin, Wisconsin, where they stopped and rested and learned of a portage, farther south, that would lead them to the Wisconsin River, which flows into the Mississippi. Following the Indians’ directions, they crossed overland to the Wisconsin River near Portage, Wisconsin, put their canoes back into the water and traveled downstream to the Wisconsin’s confluence with the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien, reaching the big river on June 17, 1673, exactly a month after their departure.
Days of further travel led Marquette to deduce that, contrary to their hopes, they were not headed toward the Pacific Ocean. “Judging from The Direction of the course of the Missisipi,” he wrote, “if it Continue the same way, we think that it discharges into the mexican gulf.” When the explorers passed what apparently was the mouth of the Missouri River, however, Marquette guessed that that was the river that would take them toward California and in his journal he expressed the hope that he might later explore it.
Marquette and Joliet continued their brave descent of the Mississippi as far as the Arkansas River and there they decided they had gone far enough. They estimated that they were within a few days of the Gulf of Mexico and were fast approaching Spanish-held territory and consequently feared capture or worse.
And so on July 17, 1673, the little party of explorers turned their canoes upriver and started the trip back to the French settlements whence they had come, finally arriving in late 1674 after making several stops along the way. Marquette never got to explore the Missouri. He died in 1675, a victim of dysentery contracted on his historic voyage down the Mississippi. Joliet married shortly after his return. In 1680, as a reward for his service to Canada (or New France), Joliet was granted Anticosti Island, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. In May 1700 he became lost and died while on an expedition to one of his land holdings.
Rene-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, born in Rouen, France, in 1643, was perhaps the first to see the Mississippi for what it was — a broad highway that, with its tributaries, provided access into the heart of a vast continent teeming with promise and potential. Another dropout from the Jesuit priesthood, he left France to seek a new life in Canada in the spring of 1666, arriving in Quebec in 1667. He managed to acquire a land holding on the western end of the island of Montreal, a section known as Lachine. From the Iroquois natives in the area, whose language he learned, La Salle heard stories of a river called the Ohio that flowed into the great river, the Mississippi. Without the benefit of what Père Marquette and Louis Joliet were later to discover, La Salle leaped to the conclusion that the Mississippi was the hoped-for route to the Pacific Ocean and China and started making plans to explore it.
With a go-ahead from the Canadian governor and after selling Lachine to finance his expedition, La Salle in 1669 set out for the Ohio with a party of fifteen men in five canoes. He claimed to have reached the Ohio and to have followed it as far as present-day Louisville, but he didn’t make it to the Mississippi. His attention was diverted to the establishment of a fur-trading business, at which he became a success. In 1682, apparently bored with the fur business, he had another go at exploring the Mississippi. He launched an expedition of twenty-three Frenchmen and eighteen Indians from Fort Crevecoeur, near present-day Peoria, Illinois, into canoes and descended the Illinois River to the Mississippi and then paddled down the big river to present-day Memphis, where he built a fortification he named Fort Prudhomme. From Memphis he and his party continued down the river all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, stopping at a site near present-day Venice, Louisiana, on April 9, 1682, to plant a marker post and a cross that claimed for France the entire Mississippi River basin, including all the land drained by the big river and its many tributaries. Nineteenth-century historian Francis Parkman vividly memorialized the momentous event :
On that day the realm of France received ... a stupendous accession. The fertile plains of Texas; the vast basin of the Mississippi, from its frozen northern springs to the sultry borders of the Gulf ; from the woody ridges of the Alleghanies to the bare peaks of the Rocky Mountains — a region of savannas and forests, sun-cracked deserts and grassy prairies, watered by a thousand rivers, ranged by a thousand warlike tribes, passed beneath the scepter of the Sultan of Versailles; and all by virtue of a feeble human voice, inaudible a half a mile.1
And to that immense, diverse territory La Salle gave a name. He called it Louisiana, in honor of the king of France, Louis XIV.
From the mouth of the Mississippi La Salle returned to Canada and then to France. In 1684 he again left France, this time with four ships and three hundred hopeful emigrants to found a colony on the Gulf of Mexico. The venture suffered a series of disasters, including attacks by pirates and Indians and the woeful consequences of poor navigation that took them farther west than they apparently intended to go. One of the ships was lost to pirates in the West Indies, another sank in an inlet off Matagorda Bay, and the third ran aground at Matagorda Bay. La Salle and the other survivors erected a fortification near present-day Victoria, Texas, and La Salle then led a group on foot to seek out the Mississippi River, a futile effort that ended when the thirtysix surviving members of the expedition mutinied. Four of the mutineers murdered La Salle on March 20, 1687, near present-day Navasota, Texas. The little colony that he had planted was wiped out in 1688 when Indians slaughtered the colony’s twenty adults and carried off their five children as captives.
The intrepid explorers of the Mississippi during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonstrated that the big river flowed uninterrupted from high in the continent’s heartland through changing climes to the Gulf of Mexico, the mid-continent’s gateway to the seven seas. But the early explorers never traced the Mississippi northward to its source. That notable deed awaited the coming of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.
Restless and curious, Schoolcraft disdained staying near home, joining his family’s glassmaking business and leading a conventional life. In 1818, twenty-five years old and still single, he bade his family and friends in Albany, New York, his hometown, goodbye and set off on a journey of exploration that would let him follow his interests in geography, geology and mineralogy. In 1821 he joined an expedition led by General Lewis Cass, probing the upper peninsula of Michigan and northern Minnesota and hoping to discover, among other things, the source of the Mississippi. In Minnesota Cass and his party of explorers found a lake they decided was the river’s headwaters and named it, as something of a memorial, Cass Lake.
Back from that adventure, Schoolcraft took a job as an Indian agent in 1822, stationed at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, at the northeastern tip of the upper peninsula. There he met and married Jane Johnson, daughter of an Irish fur trader and an Ojibway woman, and from her he learned a great deal about Indian culture and language. In 1832, on a mission to smooth over relations between the quarreling Chippewas and the Sioux, he determined that the Mississippi did not originate at Cass Lake and decided to try to find the big river’s true source.
After days of paddling upstream and across lakes and portaging through sandy, brushy, marshy and piney wilderness, Schoolcraft’s party of explorers discovered that the stream of the Mississippi separated into two branches above Cass Lake, something that the available maps failed to show.
The explorers pressed on, wearied by the demands of the portage and stopping often to rest and lay down their burdens for brief respites, and at last came the accomplishment of their arduous mission, recounted by Schoolcraft in his journal:
Every step we made in treading these sandy elevations, seemed to increase the ardor with which we were carried forward. The desire of reaching the actual source of a stream so celebrated as the Mississippi — a stream which La Salle had reached the mouth of, a century and a half (lacking a year) before, was perhaps predominant; and we followed our guide down the sides of the last elevation, with the expectation of momentarily reaching the goal of our journey. What had been long sought, at last appeared suddenly. On turning out of a thicket, into a small weedy opening, the cheering sight of a transparent body of water burst upon our view. It was Itasca Lake — the source of the Mississippi.2
Known to the French as Lac la Biche, the lake, as described by Schoolcraft, was “a beautiful sheet of water, seven or eight miles in extent, lying among hills of diluvial formation, surmounted with pines, which fringe the distant horizon and form an agreeable contrast with the greener foliage of its
immediate shores.” The outlet of the lake, through which it begets the Mississippi River, was ten to twelve feet wide, and the water there, as it poured into a stream, was twelve to eighteen
inches deep. From such a beginning came the mighty Mississippi.
Schoolcraft gave the lake
a new name, one that he contrived by splicing together parts of two Latin words, “veritas caput,” which translate into English as “true head”— meaning the river’s
actual source. Thus the lake became Lake Itasca.
Schoolcraft’s discovery of the “true head” provided the Mississippi’s total measurement, from source to finish. From Lake Itasca in Minnesota the river stretches approximately 2,350 twisting, curving Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, discoverer of the miles to its debouchment into source of the Mississippi in 1832. He named the Gulf of Mexico, its coursethe Minnesota lake from which the river and length forever changingsprang Lake Itasca, a name he coined by splicwith the vagaries of its flow. Iting together parts of the Latin phrase “verireceives into its broad streamtas caput,” meaning “true head” (Library of
Congress). the waters of some 250 tributaries, and the area that it drains comprises about 1,250,000 square miles, nearly half of the continental United States.
The Mississippi is America’s mightiest river — and its most important, a fact keenly realized by President Thomas Jefferson and his secretary of state, James Madison, who purposed to gain the free navigation of the river and acquire for the United States the city that commanded the river’s outlet to the sea. “There is on the globe,” Jefferson wrote in 1802, “one single spot, the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market, and from its fertility it will ere long yield more than half our whole produce and more than half our inhabitants.”3
“The navigation of the Mississippi,” President Jefferson declared, “we must have.”4
Control of the Mississippi and access to the Gulf of Mexico were, together, a highly inflammatory issue in 1802. France had lost much of its valued New World territory as the price of peace in the French and Indian War, which ended in 1763, but it still had aspirations of empire in America. France had undergone a revolution beginning in 1789, which had deposed Louis XVI and swept away most of the old order, and in late 1799 General Napoleon Bonaparte in a fraudulent popular election had been voted first consul of the newborn French republic and had taken over the French government. On March 21, 1801, he had re-acquired from Spain the vast Louisiana territory as a first step in his plan for French expansion. But in the spring of 1803 he changed his mind, his thoughts shifting away from the New World and settling instead on the nearby hated nation that stood as the major obstacle to his achievement of world domination. The conflict he sought and the conquest he desired were not in America, he decided, but rather in England. Louisiana became disposable.
After several tough bargaining sessions, Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe, representing the United States, bought Louisiana, including New Orleans, for about twenty million American dollars. They signed the purchase agreement on May 2, 1803, in Paris.
All concerned were delighted. “The negotiations leave me nothing to wish for,” Napoleon remarked. Monroe grandly called the negotiations the “extraordinary movements of the epoch in which we live.” Perhaps seeing much farther than the others, Livingston exultantly declared, “This is the noblest work of our whole lives.”
By a vote of twenty-four to seven, the United States Senate on Monday, October 17, 1803, ratified the treaty of purchase, the final action needed to seal the deal. By its extraordinary purchase the United States acquired an
View of New Orleans in 1839. The United States acquired the city in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Its importance was emphasized by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Through New Orleans, he wrote, “the produce of three eighths of our territory must pass to market.” New Orleans controlled navigation on the Mississippi, and, “The navigation of the Mississippi,” Jefferson declared, “we must have” (Library of Congress).
additional 827,987 square miles, or 529,9 11,681 acres, more than 22 percent of the present-day United States, everything from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, including all or parts of the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado as well as the state of Louisiana.
Not only the Mississippi River but all the land that it drained, from the east and from the west, would now forever belong to the United States and its people. A whole new era of American agriculture, industry, commerce and transportation had dawned, brilliant with opportunity and promise. All that was needed then was a suitable vessel to travel the big river, bearing settlers and developers into the mid-continent’s rugged vastness and carrying from it the wealth of produce, materials and products that it yielded.
Travel down the big river was not much of a problem. Canoes and pirogues and, later, flatboats, keel boats and barges simply went with the current, steered by sturdy river boatmen manning paddles or oars. Travel up the river was another matter entirely. The river’s many bends and twists rendered sail power impractical, so that boats going upstream had to depend on the manpower of their crews, who laboriously poled, paddled, rowed or towed their vessels against the relentless current to upriver destinations. Those arduous and limited methods of propulsion prevented the full use of the river and stood in the way of America’s realization of its tremendous potential.
Then came a revolutionary, history-changing invention. Many men, both in the United States and in Europe, contributed to its development, but it was Robert Fulton, a poor immigrant’s son from Pennsylvania, who made it work successfully. To him went the credit and the fame for the creation of the steamboat.
No longer then was the river master. It became servant. Perspicacious witnesses to the coming of the earliest steamboats realized what was happening. When the first steamer to ply the Mississippi, the New Orleans, pulled into Natchez on its maiden voyage in January 1812, an elderly slave who watched it in admiration immediately sensed its meaning. Throwing his hat into the air, he exultantly shouted, “Ol’ Mississip done got her master now!” Or so the story goes.
Development of the land and resources along the Mississippi and its tributaries rapidly followed. The banks of the river, on both sides, became dotted with settlements and towns and the landings for the steamboats that were the main means of transportation. New communities sprang up, and older ones grew larger and busier. Travelers on the steamboats that served the river cities and towns got sort of a water bird’s view of the mid-continent from the decks of the boats. For many, particularly nineteenth-century immigrants, the voyage into America’s heartland began at the city that was founded to serve as the mid-continent’s gateway.
It stood as a geographic curiosity, perilously poised on the east bank of the threatening river, the storied city of New Orleans, which by the middle of the nineteenth century had become the commercial terminus of the vast Mississippi valley. From the steamboats’ upper decks passengers could peer down on the city, over the ridge of the protective levee, viewing the city’s structures as if from an elevated railway, which was the sight that onetime river pilot Samuel Clemens remembered seeing as his vessel approached the city. “In high-river stage, in the New Orleans region,” he wrote, “the water is up to the top of the inclosing levee rim, the flat country behind it lies low — representing the bottom of a dish — and as the boat swims along, high on the flood, one looks down upon the houses and into the upper windows. There is nothing but that frail breastwork of earth between the people and destruction.”5
As steamers bucked the muddy flow and churned northward from New Orleans they made stops where their freight or passengers required, often being hailed to shore by passengers seeking to board them from an isolated spot on the levee. But many of their landings were regular stops, one of the first of which, going upriver, was Donaldsonville, Louisiana, where Bayou Lafourche — which a couple of millennia or so ago was the main stream of the river — splits off from the Mississippi to make its own way to the gulf. The voyage to Donaldsonville, about seventy-eight river miles from New Orleans, became one of the standard speed measurements for Mississippi steamers. The record — four hours and twenty-seven minutes — was set by the steamboat Ruth, which met an unseemly end when in 1868, some twelve miles above Vicksburg, it caught fire and burned.
The site of a trading post as early as 1750 and of a Catholic church by 1772, the town was laid out by William Donaldson, who had acquired a large tract of land there in 1806. The new town soon became known to the area’s French population as La Ville de Donaldson. Situated as it was in the heart of sugar-cane country, it became an important shipping point for cane growers, who made of it a prosperous community of elegant homes and other attractive buildings. For three months in 1830 Donaldsonville served as the capital of Louisiana.
The next big steamer stop above Donaldsonville was Baton Rouge, the Louisiana capital city, which Samuel Clemens saw as a veritable garden in the nineteenth century, “clothed in flowers ... like a greenhouse. The magnolia trees in the Capitol grounds were lovely and fragrant, with their dense rich foliage and huge snowball blossoms.”6 The nineteenth-century capitol, built to resemble a European castle, was one of the city’s chief tourist attractions. The environs of Baton Rouge presented to steamboat travelers scenes of sugar cane plantations, with elegant plantation houses, sprawling fields of cane and clusters of slave houses.
After Baton Rouge the next significant stop was Bayou Sara, Louisiana, at the mouth of the stream named Bayou Sara, just below St. Francisville, on the east side of the Mississippi. Bayou Sara, the town, had been a popular port and safe haven for flatboats since the late 1700s, and by the 1860s, with the coming of steamboats, it had grown into one of the major shipping points between New Orleans and Natchez, made so by the nearby cotton plantations that it served. Repeated flooding, however, eventually forced the town’s residents and businessmen to move their homes and buildings to the higher ground of St. Francisville, situated on a bluff. During the years of the area’s booming cotton economy in the mid–nineteenth century, St. Francisville became an affluent community, known for its handsome plantation homes and town houses. The town of Bayou Sara, meanwhile, declined and by the end of the century had disappeared, all but one of its buildings having been dismantled, demolished or carried away by the Mississippi’s raging floodwaters.
The bluff overlooking the Mississippi at Natchez. The British novelist Frances Trollope traveled down the Mississippi in 1827 and in her travelogue wrote that Natchez appeared “like an oasis in the desert.” By the mid–nineteenth century its natural beauty had become enhanced by the dozens of elegant mansions built by multi-millionaire cotton planters (Library of Congress).
Natchez, a hundred river miles above St. Francisville, was one of the few places that Frances Trollope, the early-nineteenth-century British novelist, found to her liking as she traveled down the Mississippi in 1827. “At one or two points the wearisome level line is relieved by bluffs, as they call the short intervals of high ground,” she wrote in her travelogue and commentary, Domestic Manners of the Americans. “The town of Natchez is beautifully situated on one of those high spots. The contrast that its bright green hill forms with the dismal line of black forest that stretches on every side, the abundant growth of the pawpaw, palmetto, and orange, the copious variety of sweetscented flowers that flourish there, all make it appear like an oasis in the desert. Natchez is the furthest point to the north at which oranges ripen in the open air, or endure the winter without shelter. With the exception of this sweet spot, I thought all the little towns and villages we passed wretchedlooking in the extreme.” By the mid–nineteenth century it was not only Natchez’s natural beauty that made it attractive but the hundreds of mansions built by wealthy cotton planters who made Natchez a city of millionaires.
Unavoidable for steamboat travelers was the most notorious part of the city — the dockside section known as Natchez-Under-the-Hill, a rude cluster of saloons, gambling joints and brothels built on the mud flats beside the river, always the first and last part of Natchez that steamboat passengers saw.
Being a major port on the river, Natchez became one of the most prominent speed-measuring destinations for steamboats operating out of New Orleans. The steamer Ruth held the record for that run, too, making the trip from New Orleans to Natchez, about 350 river miles, in fifteen hours and four minutes in 1867, a time unsurpassed until 1909, when the battleship USS Mississippi made the run in fourteen hours, after starting two miles farther up the river than had the Ruth.
Vicksburg, seventy-five river miles above Natchez, situated where the Yazoo flows into the Mississippi from the northeast, is another city built on a hill that rises from the riverbank. Its known history began in 1715 with a French-built fort, Fort St. Pierre, which became Fort Nogales under the Spanish administration in 1719 and was renamed Fort McHenry after the Americans took it over in 1811. The town was named for the Methodist preacher, Newitt Vick, who bought 1,100 acres atop the bluff to build a community there. By 1826, when Vicksburg was incorporated, it had become a thriving town, enlivened by the steamboat traffic that came to carry the area’s cotton away. Its riverfront grew to become almost as boisterous and disreputable as Natchez-Under-the-Hill. By 1860 the town’s population had increased to 4,600. (Before the nineteenth century ended, Vicksburg gained distinction as the birthplace of Coca-Cola. Joseph Augustus Biedenharm, a candy-store and soda-fountain owner, in March 1894 put his popular soda-fountain drink in bottles that he could take out and sell in the countryside, and thus was the popular soft drink born.)
From Vicksburg, steamers continued upriver to Lake Providence, Louisiana, on the west bank — so named, it was said, because its sheltered landing, beside the lake of the same name, provided refuge from river pirates in the 1700s and early 1800s. Clemens called Lake Providence “the first distinctly Southern-looking town you come to” on a voyage down the Mississippi. After Lake Providence, it was on to Greenville, Mississippi, on the east bank, another prominent cotton shipping point.
For many years Napoleon, Arkansas, at the mouth of the Arkansas River, was a major port on the river, the next one above Greenville. There where Marquette and Joliet had halted their exploration of the lower Mississippi and two Indian villages had welcomed them in 1673, there eventually rose a European settlement that by 1832 was large enough to warrant a post office. In 1851 the town was visited by Peter Daniel, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, who wrote about it in a letter to his daughter, telling her, “I reached this dilapidated and most wretched of wretched places at noon today and am compelled to wait until 2 P.M. tomorrow for the mail boat to Little Rock. This miserable place consists of a few slightly built, wood houses, and the best hotel in the place is an old, dismantled steamboat.”7
Nevertheless, Napoleon became a thriving community, its prosperity owing to the cotton crops of plantations in the area. At its peak, Napoleon had a population estimated at 2,000, plus a large but uncounted number of transients. It was the county seat of Desha County until 1874, when the county seat was moved to Watson after the river ate away a section of the riverbank and a number of buildings were washed away in the powerful flow of the river. That event marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon. By the 1880s there was nothing left of it.
Upriver from the Napoleon site is Helena. In the mid– and late 1800s Helena was the second largest city in Arkansas, with a population of about 5,000. More than merely a cotton center, the city prospered from its commerce in lumber and grain, and it was home to a foundry, machine shops, mills and wagon factories, all of which made it a major stop for steamers.
Memphis was next. The Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto is believed to have been the first European on the site of Memphis, having arrived there in the 1540s. By the 1680s French explorers had erected Fort Prudhomme there, and by 1796, when Tennessee was admitted to the Union, the site was occupied by the new state’s westernmost settlement. The community was established as a town in 1819 by General Andrew Jackson, Judge John Overton and General James Winchester on a 5,000-acre land grant. In 1826 it was incorporated as a city, named for the ancient Egyptian metropolis on the Nile. It became a hugely prosperous cotton trading center, where more than 40 percent of the nation’s cotton crop was traded, making of its waterfront a bustling shipping point thronged by steamboats. Prosperity swelled the city’s population from 1,800 in 1840 to more than 18,000 in 1860.
After Memphis came New Madrid, Missouri, on the west bank. First established in 1789 and nearly destroyed in the 1811 earthquake that made it famous, the town, situated between the river and the forest, had been rebuilt and repopulated and had resumed its position as a regular stop for riverboats throughout the nineteenth century.
Hickman, Kentucky, one of the next small stops, was noticeable for its warehouses that held the region’s tobacco crop till it could be shipped out aboard steamers.
Then came Cairo, at the extreme southwest tip of Illinois, where the Ohio River delivers itself into the waters of the Mississippi, demarcating the lower Mississippi from the upper Mississippi, some one thousand miles above New Orleans. Protected by levees, the town stands on a narrow peninsula created by the two rivers as they rush toward their confluence. Because of its strategic position at the mouth of the Ohio, the site was a natural for some sort of settlement and fortification, as the Jesuit priest and explorer Pierre Francois Xavier observed in 1721. The settlement that resulted was first incorporated as a city in 1818, and after faltering in its development — for the first few decades of the nineteenth century it had only two buildings, one a log cabin and the other a warehouse — the community made a new start in 1837 and in 1858 was re-incorporated. By 1860 it had become an important steamboat port, and its population had risen to more than 2,000.
At Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the next stop, a hill rises quickly from the riverbank, and the city is built on that hill, as if holding its feet out of the water. In the early 1800s about a dozen families comprised the community, but in the mid– and late 1800s visitors arriving by steamboat could see the Jesuit school for boys that had been built not far up the hill and, above a sloping lawn, the public college that stood farther uphill, two institutions that helped account for Cape Girardeau’s reputation as the Athens of Missouri. The town had begun about 1793 and by the end of the nineteenth century it had become the busiest port on the river between St. Louis and Memphis.
Above Cape Girardeau, conspicuously standing out from the wooded hills, is a natural feature that helps vary the scenery, a sixty-foot-high rock called Grand Tower. It’s about an acre in area and rises from the river near the Missouri side. The town of Grand Tower, on the Illinois shore, opposite the rock, was another steamboat stop, once known as Jenkin’s Landing.
Ste. Genevieve, the next stop, believed to be the oldest European settlement in Missouri, was another town populated by no more than a dozen or so families in the early 1800s. Steamboat passengers arriving from the lower Mississippi and disembarking at Ste. Genevieve may have been surprised to discover that many of the town’s structures were built of logs standing vertically on the ground, French style, with no foundation, or on a sill, rather than logs laid horizontally, one on top of the other, the usual American way of erecting log buildings. Three of Ste. Genevieve’s so-called poteaux en terre (posts in the ground) structures have survived into the twenty-first century.
The 200-mile voyage between Cairo and St. Louis offered scenery that differed noticeably from what steamboat passengers could see on the riverbanks below Cairo — hills lush with green foliage bordering the river on both sides, a welcome relief to the lower Mississippi valley’s extensive flatlands.
St. Louis riverfront around 1870. From a French trading post in 1764 St. Louis blossomed into a booming American metropolis by the 1850s, when steamboat commerce made it the largest city west of Pittsburgh and steamboats stretched for a mile along its busy wharves (Library of Congress).
Passengers traveling upriver past Cairo knew they had entered a new phase of their journey.
When they reached St. Louis, mid–nineteenth-century travelers could see what a vibrant boom town it was, its riverfront alive with steamboats taking on and discharging passengers and freight. In the 1850s St. Louis was the largest city west of Pittsburgh, its population swelled by an immigration influx in the 1840s that brought thousands of Germans, Italians and Irish to the city. From fewer than 20,000 residents in 1840 St. Louis grew to almost 78,000 in 1850 and to more than 160,000 by 1860, despite a cholera epidemic in 1849 that took the lives of nearly 10 percent of the city’s population. In addition to its permanent residents, St. Louis in the mid–1800s had its full share of transients — steamboaters stopping over on their way to or from elsewhere.
The city had begun as a trading post in 1764, built on the site of ancient Indian mounds by Pierre Laclede and his teen-age stepson, Auguste Chouteau, who with a small group of men had managed to make their way up the Mississippi from New Orleans. There near the mouth of the Missouri River, the avenue to the wild and wide-open West, the little settlement quickly became a fur-trading center and drew scores of new residents. Like New Orleans, it passed from France to Spain and back to France, then to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. By then St. Louis’s population had increased to about a thousand residents.
In May 1804 St. Louis was the jumping-off place for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their historic exploratory journey into the vastness of the West, and it was to St. Louis that the two explorers returned with a wealth of new knowledge in September 1806. St. Louis was incorporated as a town in 1809, and as a city in 1822, following Missouri’s admission to the Union as a state in 1820.
It was the coming of the steamboat, though, that turned St. Louis into a booming metropolis. The Zebulon M. Pike was the first steamer to ascend the Mississippi all the way to St. Louis and when it landed at the St. Louis riverfront on July 27, 1817, it became the first of many hundreds that would dock there. In the mid–1800s river travelers arriving at St. Louis could watch as their boat took a place in the mile-long row of steamboats that crowded the bustling riverfront.
Now, in the summer of 1870, two other steamers, two of the century’s swiftest and best, were rushing toward St. Louis to see which of them would be first to join the crowd of steamboats gathered at that riverfront.