The Mississippi River has a long and complicated history. If you are like me and enjoy reading about different aspects of the river’s history, you might wonder which books you should read to get the full picture. I’m here to help. In ten years, I’ve read a lot of books. I have suffered through some terrible reads so you don’t have to (you can thank me later), and thoroughly enjoyed many others.
Now is as good a time as any to share the results of all those years of reading, even if I still have some books stuck in my “to read someday” pile. So consider this list “Essential Mississippi River Books 1.0.” And please don’t be shy about sharing your thoughts with me, like by telling me how much you hated one of the books on this list or really enjoyed a book that I didn’t include. I enjoy all of your comments. Honestly.
Native American History
Twelve Millennia: Archaeology of the Upper Mississippi River Valley; James L. Theler; 2003
The writing style can be dry, but the book includes fascinating descriptions of the pre-Columbian civilizations that lived along the Upper Mississippi River.
Prehistory of the Central Mississippi Valley; Charles H. McNutt; 1996
A collection of essays that trace the history of indigenous people who lived along the middle Mississippi River.
Time’s River: Archaeological Syntheses from the Lower Mississippi River Valley; Janet Rafferty and Evan Peacock (eds); 2008
Not an easy read, but it covers a lot of history for people who lived along the lower part of the river.
Cahokia: Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi; Timothy Pauketat; 2009
A good overview of what we know about the Mississippian cultures of the middle Mississippi who built the greatest pre-Colombian city in North America.
Early Europeans Along the Mississippi River
Explorers of the Mississippi; Timothy Severin; 1967 (reprinted in 2002)
A chronological history of the best-known European explorers from de Soto to Glazier.
19th Century River History
Before Mark Twain: A Sampler of Old, Old Times on the Mississippi; John Francis McDermott; 1968
A selection of personal observations from travelers and residents that describe the varied life along the Mississippi River before the Civil War.
Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History; Louis C. Hunter; 1993
A thorough and thoroughly geeky account of how steamboats worked and the causes of their rise and fall.
Life on the Mississippi; Mark Twain; 1883
Mark Twain combines reminiscences about his years as a steamboat pilot with observations of how the river had changed in the 30 years since he left it.
Wicked River: The Mississippi When it Last Ran Wild; Lee Sandlin; 2010
An entertaining account of life along the Mississippi River in the years before the Civil War.
Views on the Mississippi: The Photographs of Henry Peter Bosse; Mark Neuzil; 2001
A collection of photographs of the Upper Mississippi by a Corps employee; his photos show a river transitioning from wild to highly engineered.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Harriet Beecher Stowe; 1852
A classic account of the social and moral impact of slavery in America.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Mark Twain; 1884
Huckleberry Finn goes floating for freedom and ends up questioning what it means to be free.
The Bear; William Faulkner; 1942
A hunting story set in the old woods of the Delta that is full of symbolism about the natural world, slavery, greed, tradition, and change. A light read, of course.
Engineering the Mississippi River
The River We Have Wrought: A History of the Upper Mississippi; John Anfinson; 2005
A detailed history of the political forces that have tried to turn the Upper Mississippi River into a glorified shipping canal.
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America; John M. Barry; 1997
A compelling history of the social and political forces in the South that contributed to the scale of the disaster wrought by the 1927 flood; Barry also details how that flood shaped the way we manage the river today.
Rails Across the Mississippi: A History of the St. Louis Bridge; Robert W. Jackson; 2001
A complete and thorough accounting of the construction of what we now call the Eads Bridge, with good details about the political and business climate of the day. Jackson presents a more complete picture of James Eads, warts and all, that I find more interesting than the fawning, one-dimensional profiles that are more common.
Environment and Ecosystem
The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina; Christopher Morris; 2012
The Mississippi Delta was once a wet place thanks to periodic overflows from the Mississippi River; this book describes what has happened to the region as we’ve tried to turn that wet environment into a dry one.
Immortal River: The Upper Mississippi in Ancient and Modern Times; Calvin R. Fremling; 2005
A detailed history of the Upper Mississippi River ecosystem and the impact of human attempts to control the river. The information in this book comes from a lifetime of studying the Mississippi River, which is one reason I come back to it again and again.
Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World; Thomas C. Buchanan; 2007
Much of the literature about the Mississippi River skips over accounts of the experiences of black men and women who lived along or worked on the river. Buchanan’s book starts to correct that by describing African American experiences on the 19th century Mississippi, whether free or enslaved.
Children of Ol’ Man River: The Life and Times of a Showboat Trouper; Billy Bryant; 1988
One man’s stories of a life spent traveling America’s rivers on a showboat with a theatrical family.
Shanty-Boat; Kent and Margaret Lighty; 1930
An entertaining and insightful account of a 1930 shanty boat trip down the Mississippi, one of the last accounts of traveling on the Mississippi when the river was still free, before the locks and dams of the 1930s would constrain the upper river’s flow.
Down the Mississippi; Major R. Raven-Hart; 1938
English native Major Rowland Raven-Hart was a world traveler with a fondness for canoes and a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. In 1937, he and a friend put a 17-foot collapsible canoe into the Mississippi River at Hannibal and began a 37-day “cruise” that ended in Baton Rouge. Along the way, they paddled naked, camped, searched for fresh milk, swam naked, and chatted with people living or working on the Mississippi River, including engineers building the locks and dams on the upper river. The book is an entertaining read that offers a snapshot of a time when the river was being transformed from a place where people lived and worked to one that would soon be dominated by tow boats and barges.
Mississippi Solo: A River Quest; Eddy Harris; 1998
One of the best travelogues about paddling the river, Harris is an African American man who canoed the length of the river by himself with very little preparation (and almost no previous experience in a canoe).
Profiles of People
The Last River Rat: Kenny Salwey’s Life in the Wild; J. Scott Bestul and Kenny Salwey; 2005
A month by month account of the life of a river rat in the backwaters and back woods of the Upper Mississippi River, written with great affection for the natural world and attention to detail.
From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s River; Chad Pregracke; 2007
The inspiring story of Chad Pregracke, the founder of Living Lands and Waters, who got fed up by the trash dumped in and around the Mississippi and decided to clean it up himself.
Up On the River; John Madson; 2011
Entertaining and often moving, Up On the River is a collection of one man’s stories of the life and river he knew up close and personal after 30 years of experiencing it in small boats.
The Navigator; Zadok Cramer; 1806
The first travel guide for the Mississippi River, with lots of helpful details on navigating the river and what to expect from the towns (such as they were) along the way.
The Mississippi River in Maps & Views: From Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico; Robert A. Holland; 2008
This isn’t exactly a guidebook, but it does take a unique approach to exploring the history of the Mississippi River. Holland uses antique and contemporary maps to tell a few stories about the exploration and settlement of the river valley.
The Mississippi Valley Traveler’s Guide to the Driftless Area; Dean Klinkenberg; 2010
Shameless plug! (sort of). A well-reviewed book that covers the history and culture of one of the most scenic parts of the Upper Mississippi River, with detailed descriptions of every community on both sides of the river between Hastings, Minnesota, and Lansing, Iowa, no matter how small.
The Lost Panoramas of the Mississippi; John Francis McDermott; 1958
A comprehensive look at the popular panoramic paintings of the mid-19th century.
Seth Eastman’s Mississippi: A Lost Portfolio Recovered; John Francis McDermott; 1973
McDermott again! This is an interesting collection of Eastman paintings that showed much of the upper river when it was still wild (between 1846 and 1848).
The Mississippi at Midnight; Walt Whitman; 1848
The Negro Speaks of Rivers; Langston Hughes; 1921
Children of the Mississippi; Riverbank Blues; Sterling Brown, from The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown; 1980
Mississippi River the Baptism; Henry Jones, from Run Into Blackness: Feeling My Poetic Gumbo; 2008
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