The rich history of the Lower Mississippi valley didn’t start with the Europeans. What they left behind however became an indelible legacy along the banks of a river that mirrored the growing pains of a nascent nation and continued to reverberate into modern times. We attempted to immerse ourselves in various facets spanning multiple centuries. I wouldn’t even pretend that this 12MC summary was at all comprehensive; numerous scholarly works written by professionals over their lifetimes and presented in exacting detail have been devoted to these subjects. I had space only for a few words.
Europeans first settled along the Lower Mississippi in 1686, having pushed inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Explorers stopped at the banks of the Arkansas River near its confluence with the Mississippi, a place that came to be known as the Arkansas Post. The French established the first post there under the command of Henri de Tonti and used it as a base to trade for furs with Native Americans from nearby Quapaw villages. They later used Arkansas Post as a military garrison to defend French claims in the Lower Mississippi valley. The exact location oscillated over the years as hostilities, flooding and various other uncertainties dictated.
France ceded land west of the Mississippi River to Spain in 1763 as part of a series of complicated land transactions at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. Arkansas Post became a Spanish possession. It later returned to French control briefly at the beginning of the 19th Century, and then conveyed to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Arkansas Post became the first capital of the Arkansas Territory in 1819. It began a long spiral towards irrelevance when Little Rock became the capital in 1821, and of course Little Rock never relinquished the title. I tried to envision what Arkansas Post would have looked like today if it had remained the capital. That was hard to imagine with only a handful of houses set deep in the countryside.
Louisiana Cotton Museum
Cotton cultivation underpinned much of the Lower Mississippi as we continued farther south and downstream into Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Cotton defined the history of this area and extended deep into the larger narrative of the United States. It was cotton that delivered extreme wealth to a small segment of the population, an economic windfall built on the sweat of enslaved Africans and their descendants. This was a crop characterized by intense, backbreaking toil, with unimaginable riches going to white slaveholders at the expense of those who labored in the fields. Eventually this immense inequality would rip a nation apart and spark a civil war.
The Louisiana State Cotton Museum in Lake Providence (map) brought this story to life from the earliest antebellum days through the present. Cotton continues to remain an important crop within the Lower Mississippi watershed albeit now largely mechanized.
Anchor and Chain
Columbus-Belmont Park (map) marked the site of a Confederate fortification that existed during the early part of the Civil War circa late 1861 – early 1862. The riverbank formed a high bluff on the Kentucky side of the shore, an excellent defensive position for cannons to fire upon enemy gunboats passing below. The Lower Mississippi was a vital commercial highway and each side fought hard to control it.
Confederate General Leonidas Polk fortified the bluff with artillery and called it Fort DeRussey. He then took an additional step, a rather unusual one. He stretched a mile-long chain across the width of the Mississippi River to slow his adversaries and make them even easier targets for his guns. The anchor and chain spanned the border between Kentucky and Missouri, on the eastern and western banks. The plan didn’t work as intended. Instead, Ulysses S. Grant took a path of lesser resistance. He moved his Union forces overland on the side not protected by artillery. The Confederate army abandoned its "Gibraltar of the West" without firing a single shot to defend it.
The anchor and a portion of chain survived the war and are preserved within the park.
National Civil Rights Museum
African Americans continued to suffer deprivation and repression, a troubling story recounted as we walked slowly through sequential exhibits at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee (map). The museum had just finished a multimillion dollar renovation only ten days prior to our visit and it was at the top of its form. The story hit with an emotional punch, a journey of suffering, struggle and ultimately hope.
The entire set of exhibits built to a final crescendo of immense historical significance, the Lorraine Motel, the site where Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. He’d been staying at the motel since arriving in Memphis several days earlier to support a sanitation workers strike. James Earl Ray fired a shot from a rooming house across the street, striking King and killing him as he stood on the second-floor balcony outside of his room.
The museum was built around the old Lorraine Motel, preserving its façade and rooms. A path led through the museum, climbing uphill gradually while offering context to the Civil Rights struggle, delivering visitors ultimately to King’s Room 306, preserved as it appeared in 1968 and protected behind plexiglass. From there, the story led across the street to the rooming house and a view from the assassin’s perch. Chilling. Go up to the photo above and select the right arrow to scroll through entire set.
This museum should be placed high on anyone’s "must see" list when traveling through Memphis.
The Riverboat Adventure articles:
- Part 1 – The River
- Part 2 – Original Inhabitants
- Part 3 – Borders
- Part 4 – History
- Part 5 – Americana
- Part 6 – Signs