Sunday, November 4, 2012

Christopher Morris's "The Big Muddy"

Christopher Morris is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is the author of Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Vicksburg and Warren County, Mississippi, 1770-1860.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples, from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina, and reported the following:
On page 99 is an illustration of the Mississippi River at the mouth of the Red River. It was drawn in 1839 by an engineer named George Dunbar, who was a member of a team of engineers hired to improve the channel at this location. Forty years earlier the Spanish colonial governor of Louisiana, Manuel-Luis Gayoso de Lemos, had listened while his engineers told him of their plan to reduce flooding by shortening the river so that excess water could run more quickly to the Gulf of Mexico. The governor asked his engineers if they were certain of how the river would respond to their modifications. They were not, and so he asked them to leave it alone. In 1831, Henry Shreve and the US Army Corps of Engineers did precisely what the Spanish engineers had wanted to do, with the results Gayoso had feared. Shreve’s modifications had caused the channel between the Mississippi and the Red rivers to fill with silt, limiting steamboat passage. The Red River was at risk of becoming disconnected from the Mississippi. Dunbar was assigned the task of fixing Shreve’s mistake, but he never entirely succeeded.

As explained on page 99, “Six hundred years ago the Red and Ouachita Rivers merged to form the Atchafalaya, which flowed to the gulf independently of the Mississippi River. Four hundred years ago a Mississippi River meander loop cut into the intersection of the other rivers, and some portion of the Red River started flowing into the Mississippi while some portion of the Mississippi spilled into the Atchafalaya. In 1831, Henry Shreve and the US Army Corps of Engineers completed the cut-off Gayoso had refrained from undertaking.”

Today, about half the Mississippi flows into the Atchafalaya, and it would all go but for concrete structures put in place by the Army Corps of Engineers.

What happened in this location has happened to the Mississippi Valley more broadly. On the one hand, for centuries people living in the valley have altered the course of the Mississippi River. On the other hand, the Mississippi has a history of doing its own thing. People may change it, but it is quite capable of changing on its own. There have always been people who understood this, the last Spanish governor being an example, and there have always been people, such as Henry Shreve, who instead believed they could tame the Mississippi and make it serve human purposes.

Participating in the ongoing debates over the reconstruction of New Orleans post-Katrina and the future of the Mississippi Valley are many Manuel Gayosos and Henry Shreves.
Learn more about The Big Muddy at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue