Long before Europeans and their descendants tagged the Lower Mississippi River valley with a cornucopia of artificial lines, forming states, and counties, and meridians and so forth, the area already had a remarkable human history. Native Americans left behind laboriously-constructed earthen mounds for a variety of residential, ceremonial and funereal purposes all along the river and across the surrounding terrain.
We stopped first at Wickliffe Mounds near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, on the Kentucky side of the border (map). The Middle Mississippian cultural group that selected this site didn’t choose it accidentally. They clustered on high ground well above the floodplain at the meeting of two mighty rivers, occupying their bluff from around 1100 to 1350 as determined by artifacts they left behind.
Wickliffe was a small village, with a few homes clustered around a central plaza and augmented with a burial mound and a ceremonial site. As noted by Kentucky State Parks,
Peaceful farmers, they grew corn and squash, hunted in the neighboring forests and fished the river; they made pottery from shell-tempered clay with elaborate designs and decorations; they participated in a vast trade network up and down the rivers; they had stone, shell and bone tools; they had a complex chiefdom level society; they lived in permanent style houses made of wattle and daub; and they built flat topped platform style mounds.
An amateur archeologist purchased the site in the 1930′s and turned it into a degrading roadside display called "Ancient Buried City." The unearthed remains of the original inhabitants were disinterred from their burial mounds as an attraction for gawking tourists. It wasn’t until the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990 that ancient skeletal remains were removed from public view. The property passed to Murray State University which conducted proper archaeological reviews, and then later became a property of the State of Kentucky. All bodies of the original Mound Builders were reburied in a restored mound under the supervision of the Chickasaw Nation although that had to wait until 2011.
Every exploitative vestige of Ancient Buried City was removed. One could always visit the smoke shop and souvenir stand across the street, I suppose, if one were somehow nostalgic for those days.
Winterville Mounds, Mississippi, USA
We’d hoped to visit Winterville Mounds outside of Greenville, Mississippi (map). It was the day the skies cracked opened and rained so hard that we holed-up in our hotel room for a full afternoon, which actually turned out to be a good idea because we were completely exhausted. I couldn’t find a decent photograph of the mounds with a Creative Commons license so we’re stuck with the Street View link. Double fail.
Winterville was a Lower Mississippian site settled around the same basic time as Wickliffe. As the State of Mississippi explained,
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Indians who used the Winterville Mounds may have had a civilization similar to that of the Natchez Indians, a Mississippi tribe documented by French explorers and settlers in the early 1700s. The Natchez Indians’ society was divided into upper and lower ranks, with a person’s social rank determined by heredity through the female line. The chief and other tribal officials inherited their positions as members of the royal family. The elaborate leadership network made mound building by a civilian labor force possible.
I’d like to come back for another attempt should I ever find myself in the area again. The descriptions sounded pretty impressive.
Poverty Point was a considerably more colossal site, located in what is now northeastern Louisiana (map). This was also a much older site, constructed during the Archaic Period and peaking about 3,000 years ago. Poverty Point was one of the largest sets of mounds in North America, covering nearly a thousand acres. The National Park Service estimated that its construction was "the product of five million hours of labor."
It was so massive that no single photograph from ground level could do it justice. The photo I took and posted above was a portion of mound called the Bird Mound. However I didn’t have the camera angle to show the six concentric crescents aligned in front of this earthen monolith that formed a central plaza facing Bayou Marçon. It’s all best appreciated from the air. The structure showed up decently in Google Maps’ Terrain View, however, the embed function has been disabled in the "new and improved" maps. Instead I’ll post a photo I took in the Visitors Center.
The Bird Mound was the small square at the middle-back of the crescent.
There were scores of mounds left behind by these pre-Columbian Native Americans in what came to be known as the Central and Southern United States. It’s a little understood piece of history with a level of sophistication not always appreciated. Mounds that weren’t desecrated for souvenirs or destroyed by farmer’s plows were true survivors, telling a story of a highly advanced culture that existed before Europeans set sail for the Americas.
A long-term member of the 12MC community and I were discussing dream jobs lately, ones that combined our slightly obsessive-compulsive list-making tendencies with our respective divergent interests. Mine focused on geographic and historical oddities of multiple flavors tied together with a healthy string of County Counting progressions. The trick, as we thought about it, was to find a way for someone else to finance our peculiarities and allow us to pursue our hobbies professionally. I couldn’t find a feasible solution for my personal situation at the time although I have one now. I simply needed to add my fondness for trashy television to the mix.
Right, it would have to be a pseudo-reality show where I’d travel the countryside in a customized RV, pursing all 3,142 counties and county-equivalents, stopping at geo-oddities while providing historical context, and meeting interesting characters along the way. I’m thinking it would be targeted at the History Channel or its ilk. It might be an amalgamation of How the States Got their Shapes combined with American Pickers and maybe Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy.
I’d need a clever title. "County Counter" might be sufficient. It’s short. It’s descriptive. I think it needs a pun though, and maybe even a double entendre with a salacious second meaning that arouses curiosity and builds an initial audience. Suggestions are welcome.
I’d also need a logline. "Traveling through hidden corridors in pursuit of the real American; one man’s quest to explore the story behind every U.S. county." That’s not catchy enough. I need to find a better hook.
Then I’d need to film a pilot episode. Actually, that already began. I wrote this article in advance and set it to post on Thursday evening thanks to the magic of WordPress software. I’m already on the road heading towards the Riverboat Marathon Series. I’m not a runner, just a driver delivering a runner from site-to-site. Last year I drove between sites at the Dust Bowl Marathon Series and had a wonderful set of adventures (beginning here). One participant even self-published a book about the races. I made a minor appearance as a character known as "Beer Geek." Imagine that.
This is the basic route for the Riverboat Series. Well, not Graceland. I threw that one onto the end for my own enjoyment.
The Basic Route
I appreciated the ideas and suggestions provided by the 12MC audience and some of those will happen during the trip. I’ve done a lot of research and believe everyone will be pleased with the itinerary and the geo-oddity surprises that are likely to unfold in these pages over the next several days. Readers who are anxious to learn the plotline and maybe a few spoilers in near real-time should follow the 12MC Twitter Page (you don’t have to subscribe to Twitter; you can check that link manually). Tweets may have already begun. I guess. I can’t be certain because I wrote this days ago. Certainly I would have tweeted something by now.
I’m not fooling anyone and I don’t plan to quit my day job. My wife has stated on multiple occasions that if I want to travel full-time by RV and become a professional County Counter that it would have to be done with my NEXT wife. Point taken. For the sake of family harmony I hereby release my idea for a television pitch to the public domain. If one of you actually makes it happen, all I request in return is a nice brewpub dinner. Oh, and mention 12MC in the credits. And maybe a guest appearance.
I’ve been following Every County lately while the author winds his way virtually through, well, every county. He was at the northern end of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula at the time of publication, typing his was down from the Straits of Mackinac. The name Schoolcraft(¹) kept recurring as I read through new installments, a frequent geographic designation in Michigan.
Schoolcraft, for those unfamiliar with Michigan’s history, was Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864), a jack-of-all-trades, a geologist, explorer, geographer, politician, ethnologist, writer, publisher, you name it. He wandered within and around many parts of the American Frontier as it was defined in early 19th Century, particularly the Upper-Midwest in Michigan and Minnesota. Consequently, a lot of places in both states bear the Schoolcraft name.
Schoolcraft County, Michigan
Schoolcraft County, Michigan, USA
Schoolcraft County was the largest geographic namesake, an area familiar to Henry Schoolcraft during his lifetime. Michigan established the original Schoolcraft County in 1843, reorganized it in 1871 and established the current boundaries in 1885 as noted in the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries for Michigan. The Schoolcraft Chamber of Commerce explained,
In 1832, the "Snowshoe Bishop" Frederic Baraga established a Catholic mission on the eastern shore of Indian Lake. It was also during this time that Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Michigan’s first Indian Agent and the county’s namesake, was mapping the area, documenting the lives of tribal residence and negotiate treaties. Schoolcraft County was officially organized in 1871, with Manistique designated as the county seat.
I drove through this area a number of years ago on a trip around and across Lake Michigan. I’d love to return someday.
Village of Schoolcraft, Michigan
L S & M S Station, Schoolcraft, Michigan, rppc. postmarked August 31, 1908. by Wystan, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license
Paradoxically the Village of Schoolcraft wasn’t founded in Schoolcraft County, rather it appeared on Michigan’s Lower Peninsula south of Kalamazoo (map).
The Village of Schoolcraft was the first settlement established in Kalamazoo County. In fact, the original Village was platted in 1831, six years before Michigan became a state… Lucius Lyon, who had settled in the area and who had… been a member of the Cass expedition, as well as a friend of Schoolcraft, decided to name to Village in his honor.
Schoolcraft had also been a member of the 1820 Cass Expedition, named for its leader Lewis Cass who was the Territorial Governor of Michigan. Schoolcraft served as the expedition’s geologist. Think about that for a moment. The governor led an expedition through the wilderness. Imagine the governor of any state today with enough courage and leadership to do something physically demanding, dirty, and even a little dangerous.
Schoolcraft Lake and River
Schoolcraft Lake and River
The Cass Expedition focused on several objectives and motivations, including some scientific. One involved a search for the true source of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. The explorers trekked as far inland as Cass Lake then turned back because water levels were too low for their canoes to paddle any farther in July. The expedition named the lake for its leader, declared Lake Cass the Mississippi source and called it a day.
However that differs from what people understand today, that Lake Itasca was the source. Indeed Cass Lake was many miles downstream from Itasca (map). Schoolcraft suspected the true source laid beyond Lake Cass so he returned in 1832 to finish the job, and then identified Lake Itasca as the headwaters of the mighty river.
There was a tiny Schoolcraft Island on Lake Itasca named in his honor (map)
12MC Walked Across the Mississippi River
It wasn’t very far away from the spot where one could Walk Across the Mississippi River as Twelve Mile Circle did a few years ago. However there was a more significant accolade nearby than the tiny island within Itasca, namely Schoolcraft Lake and River, the first significant tributary of the Mississippi River.
Kite Over Schoolcraft College  by Juan N Only, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license
There were several more Schoolcraft tributes although I’ll feature only one more. Schoolcraft College was established in Livonia, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I thought it was creative of them to name their dining hall "Henry’s Food Court," a fitting memorial to Henry Schoolcraft.
(¹) I think the name grabbed my attention because it sounded like a version of Minecraft that might be created by an educational institution. Minecraft has become frequent and ubiquitous in our household with our two young boys. It’s all Minecraft all the time in our home.