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Mapping Life on the Mighty Mississippi

“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day.”
– Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

From its origins in northern Minnesota to the spidery channels of its delta in the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River runs more than 2,300 miles through the North American continent. About 40% of the country lies within its watershed. I have crossed this river at least 4 times (that I can remember), and each time I’ve been struck by its grandeur.

In the 19th century, the Mississippi River was a bustling thoroughfare and the heart of the young American nation. Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884 and set in the 1830s-40s, narrates a boyhood tale of adventure and misadventure on the great river. As depicted in this illustrated map, originally published with a calendar in 1959, the story begins near Hannibal, Missouri, and ends in Pikesville, a fictional Arkansas village. Colorful drawings of locations from the novel – towns, shacks, and steamboats – provide a visual representation of contemporary life along the river.

Pictorial map showing locations and characters from "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain.

The adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the book by Mark Twain : [Mississippi River]. Everett Henry, 1959.

The American Civil War which split the nation in the 1860s divided the Mississippi as well. From its source to its confluence with the Ohio River, the Mississippi was a Union river; from there to its mouth, it was a Confederate river. The states of Missouri and Kentucky on either side of the river were hotly contested. Strategically important to both sides as an avenue for shipping and transport, the Mississippi was the site of several influential battles. This map gives a broad view of the Mississippi River in wartime, showing the 1,300-mile stretch from St. Louis to the delta. Inset illustrations feature panoramic views of cities and fortifications, and an impression of the bustling river traffic of the period. With their victory at the siege of Vicksburg in July 1863, the Union gained control of the entire length of the Mississippi River, from the source to the sea.

Map showing the Mississippi River in four panels, from the confluence with the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico. Four small illustrated panoramas show towns and ships at various points along the river.

Panorama of the Mississippi Valley : and its fortifications. Charles Magnus, [1863?].

Section of ribbon map from the Arkansas-Louisiana border to St. Francisville, Mississippi.

Detail of Ribbon map of the [Fa]ther of Waters. Coloney & Fairchild, 1866.

The full length of the great river is laid out on the Ribbon map of the [Fa]ther of Waters, an incredible relic of its time. Made and patented during the heyday of steamship travel, the Ribbon map unrolls from its small wooden case to a full length of 11 feet. As the boat proceeded up the river, the Mississippi traveler could follow the mile markers, towns, and even names of individual landowners noted along the route. The map’s utility, however, is hampered by its lack of a second spool onto which it could be rolled as travel progressed; by the time you reached Minnesota, you’d have 11 feet of map trailing behind you in the breeze.

Learn more: 

  • An upcoming exhibit in the lobby of the Geography and Map Reading Room will focus on maps of the Mississippi River.
  • This blog post looks at a map showing river meanders of the Mississippi over the years.
  • Another blog post delves into a pictorial atlas of a major city on the Mississippi – St. Louis.

2 Comments

  1. Anne Brataas
    October 13, 2022 at 4:34 pm

    This is fantastic, bravo and thank you!

    Do you have any similar stories told in maps of Lake Superior? Thanks!

    • Amelia Raines
      October 13, 2022 at 5:04 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the post! The post Among the Greats uses maps to compare the Great Lakes of North America with the Great Lakes of East Africa, but we don’t have one focusing on Lake Superior yet. It’s a superior idea, though!

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