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Mark Twain: insights on changing river morphology

St Louis
Steamboats on the Mississippi. Janicke & Co. "Our City, (St. Louis, Mo.)." 1859. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


Mark Twain (1835-1910) can tell us more than almost anyone else about the Mississippi. He not only wrote about life on the river, in his novels Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer; his own life and identity were river-immersed and river-entangled. As a young man in the 1850s he worked on the Mississippi steamboats and became a master river boat pilot. Even his pen name derived from the call of the leadsman at the front of the boat, who tested the changing depth of the river with a knotted or marked line, providing the pilot with a stream of information on which to base decisions from moment to moment. ‘Mark Twain!’ refers to the two-fathom mark on the line, indicating that the depth had reached 12 feet, usually a sign that it was safe for the shallow draft steamboat to proceed.

Twain’s testimony – Samuel Clemens was his real name – is relevant here because he gained first-hand experience of engaging with the dynamic Mississippi River at a crucial time in its history. His descriptions in Life on the Mississippi illuminate key themes of this book, including the entanglement of nature and culture in practice. Although the specific geomorphological conditions of the Mississippi at that time are different from those of any other river (even from the same river today), his observations can shed light on the interpretation of archaeological sites elsewhere, on which the material traces of dynamic inter-relationships between people and rivers are encountered.

Up to the nineteenth century, the strong current of the Mississippi prevented most boats from going upstream. Traffic was largely one-way, with barges or rafts coming downstream with the flow from the upper river to New Orleans. Twain himself describes watching, as a young boy sitting on the levees, rafts the size of football fields stacked with acacia boards, with encampments of makeshift huts on them, being manoeuvred down the river by crews of twenty men or more (the deforestation that was taking place upstream would itself have changed the flow of the river, and the load of sediment it carried, through the soil erosion and increased run-off it caused). Barges had to be laboriously poled by hand all the way back upriver around each and every one of the meandering bends. That all changed with the invention of the steamboat, which had enough power to go against the flow. The whole economy of the river changed as a result.

To Twain the river was the most ‘eluding and ungraspable object’. He describes just how difficult it was, while learning to be a steamboat pilot, to memorise the shape of the river:

 I would fasten my eyes upon a sharp, wooded point that projected far into the river some miles ahead of me, and go to laboriously photographing its shape upon my brain; and just as I was beginning to succeed to my satisfaction, we would draw up toward it and the exasperating thing would begin to melt away and fold back into the bank! Nothing ever had the same shape when I was coming downstream that it had borne when I went up (Twain 1883: ch. 8).

Twain was far from being a mere spectator here. As riverboat pilot he was actively engaged in navigating round snags and treacherous eddies, seeking deep water and fast currents, looking out always for sandbars and other shallows that could beach the boat. His standpoint was a mobile one. Not only was Twain’s point of view always on the move, but so too was the topography of the river,

whose alluvial banks cave and change constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose sand-bars are never at rest, whose channels are forever dodging and shirking (Twain 1883: ch. 10).

One aspect of these river shifts, he noted, was the way the loops of the river meanders got progressively larger, so that:

 in some places if you were to get ashore at one extremity of the horseshoe and walk across the neck, half or three quarters of a mile, you could sit down and rest a couple of hours while your steamer was coming around the long elbow, at a speed of ten miles an hour, to take you aboard again (Twain, 1883: ch. 17).

He further noted how the river would make cut-off channels or chutes across the neck, diverting flow away from the horseshoe bend. Significantly, the process could be speeded up:

When the river is rising fast, some scoundrel … has only to watch his chance, cut a little gutter across the narrow neck of land some dark night, and turn the water into it, and in a wonderfully short time a miracle has happened: to wit, the whole Mississippi has taken possession of that little ditch (Twain 1883: ch. 17).

This placed the plantation of the ‘scoundrel’, whose land was formerly situated in the back of beyond, onto the new river bank – multiplying its value. The old watercourse rapidly shoaled up, becoming impassable to steamboats. Formerly valuable plantations, once but no longer on the economic lifeline of the river, now dramatically lost their value. For this reason,

Watches are kept on those narrow necks, at needful times, and if a man happens to be caught cutting a ditch across them, the chances are all against his ever having another opportunity to cut a ditch (Twain 1883: ch. 17).

In other words, material investment in land along the present course of the river meant that, though some tried to change its course for profit, there were others who would go to considerable lengths to keep it where it was. There was a lot at stake in these battles to retain or change the course, not least for the riverboats, whose journey times could be greatly shortened. An important consideration here too is that the river served as state boundary as well as navigation channel. The cutting-off of a river meander could result in a town in the State of Mississippi suddenly finding itself in the State of Louisiana, or vice versa. Other strange inversions of landscape topology could occur:

The town of Delta used to be three miles below Vicksburg: a recent cut-off has radically changed the position, and Delta is now two miles above Vicksburg (Twain 1883: ch. 1, his italics).

Thus Twain hints at political and economic dimensions to changing river morphology, and human complicity in it, while at the same giving a wonderful phenomenological account of the dynamic state of the river as it was then. He was there. He was caught up in it all. He was in direct contact with the river (through the steamboat and the leadsman’s line). At the same time he portrays the Mississippi as more than just a river – as a dynamic assemblage of forces and flows and materials and artefacts all interacting with each other. One of the flows is the traffic in both directions of steamboats themselves, together with the passengers and the cargo they carry. Cut-offs or chutes can be the work of rivers, or people, or an entangled mixture of both. Not only are nature and culture intertwined, but so too are materials and ideas. Economic motives of greed and profit work both with and against the flow of the river.

The Civil War brought an end to the steamboat era. Years later Twain returned to see a very different Mississippi, its flow more controlled, its length shortened, its meanders curtailed, its levees further extended and built up on either side. Yet  he retained something of the former wildness of the river in his character (for rivers shape people as well as the other way round). To him, a river pilot in the heyday of steamboats was ‘the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth’ (ch. 14). Later in his career, something of that came through in his writing.


Twain, M. (1883) Life on the Mississippi (Boston: James R. Osgood).


The text above is an extract from the new book Fluid Pasts: Archaeology of Flow by Matt Edgeworth , published by Bristol Classical Press, part of Bloomsbury Academic (September 2011) and available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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