Historical Overview - How the Mississippi Became American

by Peter J. Kastor, Ph.D., Washington University


If the Mississippi Valley was American by 1850, it is far more difficult to give it one label in 1800. Rather, it was a set of distinct subregions. And while each of those regions might have certain social, environmental, or political factors in common, people in those regions disagreed about how to define themselves. This proved to be the case in large part because by 1800, the Mississippi Valley was home to some of the most complex cultural, commercial, and diplomatic activity in North America. It was home to people of numerous backgrounds and numerous beliefs. Those people defined their lives on profoundly different ways, and many of them recognized that being forced to accept one identity would threaten their beliefs or their very lives.

All this changed in rapid and dramatic fashion during the first half of the nineteenth century. Appropriately enough, this occurred because culture, commerce, and diplomacy underwent their own distinct yet interconnected changes. And while those changes took numerous forms, they revolved around a small number of general issues. First and foremost was the ability of the federal government to expand its authority into the West. As the United States asserted its power through foreign and domestic policy, the federal government extinguished sources of European and Native American power that had competed for control for centuries. For a while, those Europeans and Native Americans continued to live in the region, preserving their own identities even as they were forced to acknowledge that the United States was clearly in charge. During the 1820s, however, the population began to change. This second major shift occurred not only because white settlers from the eastern United States thought the Mississippi Valley might be a good place to live, but also because they had ample reason to leave their homes in the East. The Panic of 1819 combined with soil exhaustion in the East to push thousands of white Americans into a westward migration at the very moment that the United States was defeating the Indians of the Midwest, the Deep South, and the eastern Plains. Those white settlers built the most democratic political culture in the United States. But democracy also meant that representatives followed their constituents' demands, and among the most important concerns of those constituencies was racial supremacy and access to land. No longer content to demand Indian subservience, federal leaders demanded Indian removal. The Native American population plummeted, whether from disease, warfare, or forced relocation.

As the Mississippi River and the surrounding countryside played an increasingly important role in American culture, it made perfect sense that by mid-century men from the Mississippi Valley would come to dominate American public life. The change started in the political realm. As sectional disputes fueled by the fate the Mississippi Valley led to secession, two men from the Valley assumed leadership of warring governments. Those men also exemplified the two cultures taking form in the Mississippi Valley even as both of them honestly claimed to speak for American principles. As President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois expressed ideas of independence and union that had been common in the Mississippi Valley. Many white settlers believed that a strong union among the states was the best form of protection on the dangerous frontier. Still others believed that the democratic society of the Mississippi Valley offered the greatest possibility for America to realize its promise of equality. As President of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi also spoke from the experience of the Mississippi Valley. The slave system that Davis promised to defend had been essential to the development of the Mississippi Valley, and by 1850 the majority of Mississippi's residents were enslaved African Americans.

Observers outside the political realm agreed that the Mississippi was critical to American development. As Lincoln and Davis began their political careers, two landscape artists—George Caleb Bingham and George Catlin—were helping fashion a distinctly American artistic style through their representation of the people and the landscape of the Mississippi Valley. By the time Lincoln and Davis went to war in 1861, Mark Twain was already publishing his own accounts of life on the Mississippi. But of course, Twain's target was much bigger than the Valley. He had larger points to make about the entire United States. That he believed he could make his point through the story of the Mississippi Valley speaks volumes to the way the Mississippi had changed in the eyes of so many observers.

All of these changes suggested how the Mississippi Valley had gone from nation's frontier to its heartland, from the periphery to the center. The Mississippi Valley remained a boundary between East and West. It revealed the distinctions between North and South, often with violent consequences. But if the river continued to reveal differences, it also symbolized unity, for by 1850 the Mississippi had become critical to the way people defined what it means to be American.