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Slavery, cotton, sugar and the Mississippi - they made the American south prosper. But the money, power and prestige are intertwined with racism in the history of America's greatest river. The river is still a symbol of slavery - and freedom. Andrew L. Urban found this amazing account of the river’s furious past.

Me-see-zee-be, is how the Chippewa Indians called it; they lived on its banks and knew what they were talking about. It means old, strong, vast and deep river. Less than two centuries ago, no-one knew where the river rose. In 1823, Costantino Beltrame arrived in St Louis, fired with exploratory passion. Trusting the general consensus that it rose somewhere far north in a pine forest inhabited by Indians, he set sail on the Virginia towards Port Anthony. From there, he kept heading north by canoe with some Indian guides.

He met with Indian chiefs proudly displaying dozens of scalps on their belts before arriving at a small lake in Minnesota, the source of the Mississippi, some 2,550 kms from its giant delta on the Gulf of Mexico. 

But poor old Beltrame became the first political victim of the Mississippi. Returning to New Orleans, he announced his discovery with great zeal, comparing himself with Icarus, the Phoenicians and Marco Polo. This didn't go down too well with the sanguine locals, who dismissed him as a raving charlatan. It didn't help matters that in his excitement, he failed to provide any instructions on how to get to this little lake, which he had named after the woman he loved, Julia. 

Nine years later, two Americans, Zebulon Pike and Henry Schoolcraft (curly names destined for history) reached the lake, and promptly named it Itasca, formed by parts of the Latin words Veritas Caput, meaning the heart of the matter. (Beltrame, somewhat miffed, went to Europe and published a book there about his "pilgrimage", which duly earned him accolades and seats on various scientific academies. He was appeased, though the two Americans retained their claim to fame.)

Yet the real source of the Mississippi is still a mystery, for a little river flows into Itasca from Lake Elk, which is joined by other rivers and canals to other lakes...In other words, it's a river with no beginning and no end, a giant spiritual metaphor, one instinctively understood by the thousands of slaves brought through New Orleans.
It begins modestly enough, first heading North from the lake, just three meters wide, thirty centimetres deep. But it is determined, and after 100 kms, it turns sharply to the East, into lake Bemidji. When it leaves here, it is already 70 m wide, and heading South. Like the civil rights movement of the 60s, it is gathering force.

About 40 kms from St Louis, the Missouri joins the Mississippi, then a little further on, the Ohio joins in. The Gulf of Mexico is still 1730 kms away, only 82 metres lower. Here, the Mississippi takes on a new personality, becoming an enraged, schizophrenic force, flowing on a bed 1300 to 1500 metres wide, with bends, loops and twists. The blacks christened it Old Devil, and the Army Corps had to build 3500 kms of dikes and embankments - levees. 

From Baton Rouge to New Orleans in Louisiana, the river is 13 to 30 metres deep. It runs past the many old plantation homes, like Houmas House and Nottoway (the latter Australian owned) which are now open to the public. Their grand proportions and white facades stand as monuments to the era of Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler. 
From 1772 when New Orleans was founded, the Mississippi became a major waterway. In a few short years, seven thousand slaves were brought over from Africa. By 1790, half of New Orleans' 80,000 inhabitants were slaves. 

Elmer Thomas is black but she seems totally unaware of the irony of her situation as tour mistress at Nottoway. Tall, well groomed and dignified, Elmer was born and bred in the area, and had always hoped that somebody would "fix the place up" one day.

She takes visitors through the 64 room mansion, telling them its history, its brief part in the Civil War, and about the Randolphs who built it. John Randolph's sugar plantation grew to 7000 acres, and it was worked by slaves. He married Emily Liddel, who brought with her a dowry of $20,000 and 20 slaves. (Andrew L. Urban stayed in the Randolph’s master bedroom to get closer to the mood of the place.)

Standing in the grounds of Nottoway on a typical misty autumn morning, you can watch the occasional sugar cane cart trundle past, down River Road with its cane bundled high, the levee rising five or more metres, hiding the river from view. When a paddle steamer goes by, a replica of The Mississippi Queen or Delta Queen, all that can be seen from here is the top of the funnel, moving, it seems, along the top of the embankment, like some weird Punch and Judy show, its hurdy gurdy music hanging unanchored in the air as the funnel floats away.

Down the road is the Madonna Chapel, built in 1902 by Tony Gullo, an Italian farmer who promised the Virgin Mary he would build her a church if he recovered from a long and painful illness.

Tony's bravado pulled him through, but he was a man of modest means, (the locals had to donate the timber) so the church is rather small, the smallest in the world in fact, seating two or three people. Still, there it is on the banks of the Old Devil, locked up but with the key in the letterbox next to the door. And although mass is celebrated only once a year, Rita Zito, a neighbourly caretaker, keeps two candles lit next to the statute of Mary, and the flowers fresh. 

This is Point Pleasant, a small, predominantly black community in Iberville Parish, closer to Baton Rouge than New Orleans. On Sunday mornings, the meagre, timber-and-tin local church is surrounded by battered old cars, and the cluttered, weather beaten verandas are guarded by grannies with greying, blank faces. It's eerie.

The river flows through thousands of bayous in this section, its overall length varies from year to year, and it is infamous for sudden, dramatic changes. It has swallowed up whole towns: between Cairo and New Orleans, it obliterated Kaskaskia, the old capital of Illinois, and Nueva Madrid, founded by the Spaniards who hoped to make it the capital of the New World. Instead, it was buried in the riverbed in the 1811 earthquake, which turned the Mississippi into a torrent that crashed down on the houses, river boats and the fishing fleet.

At another time, Grenville, once on the riverside, became an inland town when the river suddenly changed course. In 1927, the Old Devil rose 17 metres and forced a million people to flee their homes. Over the last 8000 years (a mere instant in geology) the delta of the Mississippi has changed six times, and formed much of what is now Louisiana with its alluvial deposits brought down from Northern States. Once more, the river imitated political life, foreshadowing the Southward move of America’s political morality.

Even now, after countless engineering schemes, the Old Devil is intent on moving its delta some 200 kms from its present site. This will be its seventh delta, and is already beginning to form east of the present one: it is the Atchafalaya River into which, north of Baton Rouge, more than 30% of the Mississippi waters pour.

River barges 30 metres long used to ply the Mississippi, and in 1811 the first steamboat, The Clermont, was put into service, followed by the Washington, working from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.

Steamboats would often race each other neck and neck, a recklessly dangerous escapade which was largely responsible for the drowning of some 40,000 passengers in the course of 30 years, not to mention countless burst boilers. But every time one ship blew up, another was built. One exploded a short way out of Memphis, killing 1550 of the 2134 soldiers on board, who were returning from the Civil War. The toll was 37 higher than the Titanic's. Many of the sunken ships now lie under farmlands, as the river has kept changing course. 

In 1891 a farmer's plough hit the top of the main mast of the Brennan White, a steamboat which had sunk in 1850 with US$100,000 in its safe. The farmer worked for three years, digging away at it, alone and in absolute secrecy. 

He reached the safe one night, and went to bed exhausted but exhilarated, anxious to be up at dawn to try and open it. In his rush, he had a bit of an accident, which delayed him three days; when he got back to the wreck, there was nothing there. The river had risen and flooded his farmlands, and as it subsided it carried away the sunken treasure chest.

But once the Mississippi reaches the delta, it is a vast swamp of canals and marshes which slows it down to a lazy meander. It is the home of oversize exotica, like frogs as big as soccer balls, alligators that swallow 100 kg turtles, sturgeons over 2 metres long, and sheep-fish that grind the shells of molluscs in their jaws and use their swim bladder as a percussion instrument.

Their rhythms have accompanied the spirituals, the blues and the legendary jazz that the blacks squeezed out of their souls over the last four generations, all along the river banks. Here, too, the Mississippi echoes its own social history. It’s past is buried, now - but not forgotten.

Published June, 2012

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Chippewa Indian

Clamming on the Mississippi in the 1800s

Below: The Madonna Chapel built in 1902 by Tony Gullo, an Italian farmer who promised the Virgin Mary he would build her a church if he recovered from a long and painful illness.

The world's smallest chapel
(Photo by Andrew L. Urban)

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