Late Author Ambrose Honors Mississippi in New Book

Hillary Mayell
For National Geographic News
October 15, 2002

Sadly, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Stephen Ambrose, perhaps best known for his books on Lewis and Clark and World War II, and for founding the National D-Day Museum, died of lung cancer Sunday, October 13th in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. He was 66. Click here for a complete history of Ambrose's career.

The United States acquired the mighty Mississippi, a river called the spine of the nation, in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase—a real estate deal in which the U.S. paid France $15 million for around 828,000 square miles of land.

Next year will be the 200-year anniversary of what is known as the greatest land deal in history. The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation, written by historians Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley was commissioned by National Geographic and the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial Commission to celebrate the history, people, and geography of the region acquired in that deal.

To write the book, Ambrose, Brinkley, and photographer Sam Abell journeyed up the Mississippi, from its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico to the rivers' headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota.

The book tells the stories of the pirates, explorers, soldiers, artists, and inventors—heroes and villains, the famous and the obscure—who made their mark on the Mississippi.

Louisiana Purchase

The history of the Mississippi Valley did not begin with the Louisiana Purchase; a thriving Native American culture known as the Mississippians were building huge burial mounds in the region 3,000 years ago.

However, the European invasion, beginning with explorer Robert La Salle, who claimed much of the territory in 1682 for the French King Louis XIV, sparked nearly 200 years of territorial battles between the French, the Spanish, and the British—and ultimately the Americans—for control of the Mississippi.

The river served as a conduit for the fur trappers, boatmen, farmers, and traders who had settled along its banks. President Thomas Jefferson recognized that control of the Mississippi, especially the port city of New Orleans, was vital to the future of the U.S.

He dispatched emissaries to France with the hope of buying New Orleans. Ultimately bowing to the inevitable, for "no force on earth could stop the flow of American pioneers westward," the authors write, Napoleon decided to sell not just New Orleans, but the entire Louisiana Territory to the U.S.

Without a single shot being fired, the U.S. nearly doubled in size, acquiring land that stretched from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border.

The transaction was not without domestic critics; even Jefferson questioned its constitutionality, and he was pilloried by his political opponents for spending a ridiculous amount of money for a "vast and howling wasteland."

The acquisition changed the destiny of the United States, and the authors argue it may be Jefferson's greatest accomplishment, even beyond authoring the Declaration of Independence.

"Without Jefferson's vision, we wouldn't be a nation of 'sea to shining sea,'" said Brinkley.

The Big Muddy

But the book covers far more than just the Louisiana Purchase. At its core it is a paean to the Mississippi, "America's lifeblood—the vital economic engine and mythic symbol that flows through our history, our continent, our music, our literature, our lives."

The river starts at Lake Itasca in Minnesota as a trickle, a narrow stream of crystal-clean water that can be stepped across, and winds its way 2,353 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, into which it spews 600,000 to 700,000 cubic feet of water per second.

Along the way it widens to become several miles across in places, and is known as the "Big Muddy." Mark Twain, perhaps the most famous of authors to immortalize the river, writes "every tumblerful of it holds nearly an acre of land in solution."

The horrors of slavery, Civil War battles, and the Underground Railroad are an inherent part of the river's history, as are the natural disasters that have befallen the region. The Great Flood of 1927 at one point covered 26,000 square miles in water ten feet deep. A series of earthquakes that rolled through the region from December 1811 through February 1812 were so strong that land liquefied, the course of the river changed, and Thomas Jefferson was awakened from his sleep—in Virginia.

But the people populating the book are what give it its page-turning quality.

The book details the accomplishments of Lewis and Clark, who famously explored and mapped the people, plants, and animals of the new territory; the extraordinary engineering feats of James B. Eads who proved that deepening the channel from the Gulf of Mexico could make New Orleans a viable port city; and the adventures of Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike, whom Jefferson dispatched to find the headwaters of the Mississippi in 1805.

It tells the stories of the artists, musicians, and authors whose roots are bound to the Mississippi. Famous musicians like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, artist and bird-lover John James Audubon, and authors as diverse as Richard Wright and T.S. Elliot are portrayed.

Also included is the story of Abe Hawkins, a man born into slavery who became one of the most famous jockeys in American horse racing from the mid-1800s to 1867.

Among the not-so-famous people profiled are men like Jacob Burkle, a staunch supporter of the Underground Railroad, and Jane Muckle Robinson, who kept navigation lanterns on the banks of the Mississippi near St. Paul, Minnesota, glowing from 1885 to 1921.

And weaving its way through the entire book is the Mississippi, a river Garrison Keillor is quoted as calling the "artery of a continent, lifeblood of a country."

Related Sites

National Geographic: Lewis and Clark's Lost Missouri

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