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.
We stopped at Arkansas Post Museum State Park and learned of its storied past and former glory (map).
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:
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.
Wolf Island, Virtually
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, Virtually
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.
The Riverboat Adventure articles:
I have a soft spot for places now obscured that "might have been" had history unfolded a little bit differently. I’m not sure that it’s an interest shared universally by the 12MC audience. Hopefully the topic appeals to a few of you though because that’s what this article offers. I think it was about a year ago that I discussed Alabama Capitals. I’ll jump one state to the right and provide something similar for its neighbor, Georgia.
Immediately, I noticed that greater research — or at least more data available publicly on the Intertubes – existed for Georgia than Alabama. Readers who want comprehensive details can refer to better sources like The Story of Georgia’s Capitols and Capital Cities, where I found the chart I’ve reproduced below. I’ll pick out a few oddities and let the experts provide a more complete narrative.
1780-81 Heard’s Fort*, miscellaneous sites in Wilkes County
1782 Ebenezer*, Savannah
1784 Savannah, Augusta
* Temporary meeting sites of state government
Georgia’s Shifting Capital Cities
The volatility struck me right away. The dates suggested an explanation for the ping-ponging capital; the American Revolution (1775–1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865). Despite the long list and the back-and-forth, Georgia is recognized generally as having "only" five capital cities: Savannah, Augusta, Louisville, Milledgeville and Atlanta. I’ll focus on the two lesser-known locations, Louisville and Milledgeville, since the other three receive plenty of attention on their own.
Louisville, like the more recognizable city with the same name in Kentucky, derived from Louis XVI of France. However it’s pronounced differently: LEWIS-ville. The capital shifted to Louisville because it was thought to more centralized when the Georgia population began moving away from the seacoast towards the growing interior. The site stood at a crossroads linking several larger towns including Savannah and Augusta.
While a capital for only a decade, it became an interesting historical footnote when it served as the focal point of a scandal called the Yazoo Fraud. Georgia sold a huge territory, most of the northern half of present-day Alabama and Mississippi, to a small number of land speculators at rock-bottom prices. Well, surprise, a number of elected officials and legislators supporting the act that authorized the sale were bribed by the beneficiaries. The fraud came to light and people reacted with rage. It got ugly in the capital city. A marker has been placed near the site of the old capitol building, to commemorate perhaps the most significant event occurring during Louisville’s brief tenure as a state capital.
Louisville Market House
Louisville was also known for The Market House, one of the few structures constructed during its capital period that survived to the present (albeit heavily restored). Everything imaginable was sold from this location. Allegedly it even served a slave market although the local community claims, "Recent research… casts doubt on this and suggests that the old Market House may have a much more benign history as an ordinary commercial market."
Milledgeville experienced a much longer tenure as Georgia’s state capital, lasting beyond the first half of the Nineteenth Century in the years leading into the Civil War. From this location, the state of Georgia seceded from the United States and joined the Confederacy. Milledgeville laid in ruins by the end of the conflict.
The history of events leading to the transfer from Louisville to Milledgeville are a bit hazy. It was a planned community though, built from scratch to serve specifically as a capital city. Milledgeville was centrally located like Louisville and it additionally stood at a point where the coastal plain met the Piedmont’s hills like so many other important cities along eastern edge of the United States during that time. This was the farthest navigable inland point when shipping was so vitally important to transportation and trade. Milledgeville was placed at the fall line, connected directly to the larger world via the Oconee River.
Old Georgia State Capitol, Milledgeville, Georgia by Ken Lund, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license
Milledgeville became an obvious target during the war, the capital city of a rebellious state. General Sherman’s troops decimated the city during The March to the Sea.
Houses, stores and barns were looted by Sherman’s troops, who rampaged through the city “foraging.” The capitol building was occupied and a group of soldiers led by Brigadier General Judson H. Kilpatrick held a mock legislative session and “repealed” Georgia’s ordinance of secession before looting the building and inflicting thousands of dollars in damage. The roof of nearby St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church was blown off when the soldiers ignited captured Confederate armories and magazines.
That was it. Milledgeville never fully recovered. The capital moved to Atlanta during Reconstruction, "a city emerging as the symbol of the New South as surely as Milledgeville symbolized the Old South." The seat of power has remained in Atlanta ever since 1868.
Two significant signs of the old capital still remain in Milledgeville, the former capitol building, now a museum, and the former Governor’s Mansion.