I discovered distant relatives during my ongoing family research who lived in Angola, New York about a century ago. That seemed like an odd location for a town to carry such a name. I wondered if it could have been a coincidence, perhaps Angola was a corruption of a Native American word bestowed by the Iroquois who were known to inhabit the area. Certainly it couldn’t pertain to the Angola in Africa, I thought. What possible connection could it have to Africa?
That made me turn to the Geographic Names Information System where I discovered several other places named Angola. Some were located in the southern United States and I suspected those traced back to slavery associations. However that seemed far-fetched for a town on the western extremity of New York just outside of Buffalo (map).
"ANGOLA" …everyone asks where did the "Name" come from… Many years ago when the trains came through this area, it was called Evans Station. The people applied to the Federal Government to put a post office in this area. The Quakers had started a Colony this side of Gowanda in the Collins area and were known to help many in need. The same Quakers also helped people of Angola, Africa. In 1855, when the Angola Post Office located in Taylor Hollow (used by the Quakers) closed, the Federal Government offered it to this area and said "here is your post office" and authorities thought it best to move the post office to this area… hence the name "Angola."
That seemed plausible. The Religious Society of Friends — Quakers — had indeed settled in western New York, including within the vicinity of Gowanda during the very earliest part of the 19th Century in Collins Township. The Quakers were staunch abolitionists by this time so it would seem likely that they selected Angola as a name in solidarity with Africans rather than as an endorsement of enslavement.
The mound in Angola, Indiana
Another noteworthy Angola existed in northeastern Indiana (map), practically on top of the Indiana-Michigan-Ohio tripoint. Information was scant however one source claimed, "In 1838 when the peoples from New York migrated west to the Vermont Settlement they created the town of Angola, named after Angola, New York." If that were the case it must have been named for the original Quaker settlement because the later village of Angola, New York wasn’t named until 1855.
The Local History Department of the Carnegie Library of Steuben County offered another theory, most simply,
Angola received it’s name about the time the place was chosen as the county seat and it is said, before there was no other known place called Angola in this country or anywhere else, save in Africa. The name is supposed to have been chosen simply as being new and uncommon and one that pleased the chooser of it.
Judge Thomas Gale, the man who selected the name, was a known abolitionist. Indiana had banned slavery in its Constitution when it became a state in 1816. Additionally, the town of Angola was firmly entrenched in Northern sentiments during the Civil War and constructed a large monument known locally as "The Mound" to commemorate its Union soldiers from Steuben County. It honored all four military branches that fought in the war (infantry, artillery, cavalry and navy). While the original inspiration for the Angola name may never be understood completely, it seemed highly unlikely to have derived from any pro-slavery sentiment.
Angola in Louisiana presented the exact opposite condition. Isaac Franklin made his fortune selling slaves, establishing one of the largest slave trading firms in the nation, Armfield & Franklin. Money in hand, he pivoted from wealthy slave trader to wealthy plantation owner, controlling several hundred slaves and large plantations in Tennessee and Louisiana. His Louisiana holdings, which weren’t even his regular home, consisted of four contiguous plantations that he’d purchased: Panola, Belle View, Killarney and Angola. Franklin died in 1846 and his wife joined the properties and later sold them. The united property assumed the Angola name, inspired originally by the African people who had been subjugated and forced to toil there in the fields. The state of Louisiana acquired the Angola property in 1901 and built a prison on the site, becoming known as Louisiana State Penitentiary or simply Angola.
I was under the impression that slaves taken from Angola all went to Brazil because they were both under the colonial domination of Portugal. Most did, however some went elsewhere.
One of the biggest surprises about the history of the slave trade to the United States is the high percentage of our ancestors who were shipped to this country from Angola. African Americans have traditionally thought of Ghana and Senegal as our most common ancestral homes on the African continent, but almost half of all of the slaves arriving in this country were shipped here from two sources: Senegambia, yes, but also, Angola.
It is thought that about a quarter of African-American ancestry came from Angola. Many of those leaving Angola passed through Morro da Cruz near Luanda (map), where they were baptized before they were packed onto ships for the notorious journey through the middle passage. The site has been preserved as the Museu Nacional da Escravatura, the National Museum of Slavery.
Of the three Angola locations large enough to have histories readily available, one was an artifact of slavery nostalgia, one was not, and one might have been named simply because it sounded interesting.
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.
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.
Europeans began to subdivide the Lower Mississippi watershed into various colonial claims, and the nascent United States carved it further into states, counties and even smaller units. They used the rivers as boundaries in some instances, and straight lines laid arbitrarily in others. Both interacted to form an awesome string of geo-oddities throughout the region. I visited as many as feasible along our path. Kentucky seemed to have an overabundance of them and that’s where I began as I worked my way downstream.
Missouri and Kentucky border each other, and yet, no bridge spans directly between the two states. In fact there’s a complete lack of any bridges over the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to the Interstate 155 bridge west of Dyersburg, Tennessee, a minimum road distance of nearly 85 miles (140 kilometers) (map).
There is one additional option however, the Dorena-Hickman Ferry (map), running from Dorena, Missouri to Hickman, Kentucky. Not only does it span the gap between those widely-spaced Mississippi River bridges in a very rural area, it offers a rare, direct crossing between two states with a tiny shared border. Few people complete this feat. The ferry holds only a handful of vehicles at a time.
To be honest, I’d forgotten about this little oddity until new reader Aaron sent an email message a few days before the trip completely by coincidence and happened to mention it. I figured I’d already planned to drive within a few miles of Wolf Island so I might as well check it out along the way. I would have been kicking myself if the message had arrived a week later and I’d missed my chance.
Consider that there were couple of Kentucky exclaves on the "wrong" side of the Mississippi River appended to Missouri due to changes in the path of the river over time. This made it possible to drive between Kentucky and Missouri on dry land in a few out-of-the-way places. I examined maps closely and determined that the best spot to accomplish such a crossing would involve Kentucky’s Wolf Island via Missouri’s Route 80.
Wolf Island figured into a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1870, Missouri v. Kentucky. Missouri claimed that Wolf Island belonged to it because it had been connected physically to the Missouri from its origin. Kentucky argued the opposite point and offered witness testimony to demonstrate that Wolf Island had once been connected to the eastern shore until the river shifted. The Court found Kentucky’s argument more persuasive and affirmed the legitimacy of the Kentucky exclave.
Route 80 offered a paved surface as it headed towards the river. From there, it was a simple matter of turning onto the gravel of Wolf Island Road for just a few feet until crossing the Kentucky border. The road had an iron rail that could be closed to block access to Kentucky, however it was open when we arrived and I drove over the border just long enough to take the photograph, above. I didn’t bother to ask for permission and there wasn’t anybody nearby to ask anyway. This was actually very easy.
I’ve now crossed between Kentucky and Missouri on water (Dorena-Hickman Ferry) and on dry land (from Missouri to Kentucky’s Wolf Island exclave). I imagine there aren’t very many people who can say the same.
I’ve received numerous inquires from the 12MC audience over the years asking why I’ve never mentioned Kentucky Bend, a place sometimes called Bubbleland for its unusual shape. For the longest time my wife misunderstood what I’d been calling it and thought the name was "Bubba Land." In a sense Bubba Land felt more appropriate, actually.
Kentucky Bend formed on a sharp curve in the Mississippi River, physically separated from the rest of the state. It existed where an artificial line intersected the river. The only overland driving route goes through Tennessee.
Kentucky’s southern border with Tennessee was defined along a specific line of latitude dating back to colonial times before Kentucky and Tennessee even existed. Kentucky’s border with Missouri, however, followed the Mississippi River. Surely an accommodation would have been made had this intersection been explored and better understood when designated, although it was deep in the wilderness at the time and nobody really thought about it. Imagine the surprise of surveyors establishing a border between Kentucky and Tennessee when they finally arrived at the end of their journey and discovered that their line cut through a loop of the river.
The reason I’d never written about Kentucky Bend previously was because I wanted to visit it in person instead of simply writing about it in an abstract manner. That visit has now been completed. There’s not much out there although that’s hardly the point. I noticed the usual eye-rolls from my wife while I photographed each sign in succession. Then I photographed the road itself to record the changes in pavement that took place at the state border. Fun times.
As an aside, anytime 12MC ignores a famous US geo-oddity that truly deserves mention, it means that I’m waiting to visit it in person.
Welcome to Arkansas
I crossed state borders repeatedly as I jogged back-and-forth across the Mississippi River during our journey. Every river crossing marked a boundary between two different states. For me, those included Illinois-Missouri; Missouri-Kentucky; Tennessee-Arkansas; Arkansas-Mississippi and Mississippi-Louisiana (and Kentucky-Illinois if one counts my Ohio River crossing). The image of the "Welcome to Arkansas" sign reproduced above appeared on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge on Interstate 40, spanning between Memphis, Tennessee and West Memphis, Arkansas.
Those were wonderful opportunities from the perspective of experiencing a number of awesome bridges plus a leisurely ferry. However there wouldn’t be any state tripoint adventures this time unlike my Dustbowl trip. The tripoints, like the borders, were all located within the river.
Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park
I drove to perhaps the most obscure state park in Arkansas (map). A boardwalk led deep into a headland swamp, to a simple marker noting:
This stone marks the base established Nov. 10, 1815 from which the lands of the Louisiana Purchase were surveyed by United States engineers, the first survey from this point was made to satisfy the claims of the soldiers of the War of 1812 with land bounties.
More specifically, this marked the intersection of the Fifth Principal Meridian (north-south) and its Baseline (east-west). Why did they locate such an important surveying reference in the middle of a swamp? Again it related back to the artificial nature of straight lines interacting with rivers. The meridian began at the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. The base began at the confluence of the St. Francis and Mississippi Rivers. Their intersection by simple happenstance occurred in a swamp. This marshy spot served as a survey point for the current states of Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, North Dakota along with portions of South Dakota and Minnesota.
The marker also served as the tripoint for Arkansas’ Lee, Monroe and Phillips Counties. I may not have captured any state tripoints so counties would have suffice as a substitute.