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."

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