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A pair of New Orleans historians take a journey of the Mississippi River and recall some of the individuals who have made it one of the world's most storied waterways.

For much of this year and the last, author-historians Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley traveled "our national river" for their upcoming National Geographic Society book Mississippi: River of History. Beginning with the river's mouth in Louisiana, their journey -- much of it aboard the Delta Queen steamboat -- extended all the way to the Mississippi's headwaters in Lake Itasca, Minn. Photographer Sam Abell joined Ambrose and Brinkley to recount the history and portray the modern life of what T.S. Eliot once called the "strong brown god."

In the following excerpts from their travel journals, Ambrose and Brinkley enter the United States through its Gulf gateway, discuss Thomas Jefferson's great land bargain, and offer a candidate for poet laureate of New Orleans.

It was March, the rest of New Orleans was recuperating from Mardi Gras, and we were hovering in an Astar 350-2 Helicopter 600 feet above land, the doors removed, at a speed of 70 knots over the bountiful blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Our pilot was Jere Cobb, a tough, muscular 65-year-old ex-Marine who worked for NASA from 1963 to 1977 training the Apollo astronauts how to carefully land their lunar modules on the moon.

We couldn't have been in steadier hands as we approached the most wondrous aerial site in America: the mouth where the three main passes of the Mississippi River rush into the sea. Ships from all over the world move up this swollen river from the Gulf, and there, standing lone guard, was the Southwest Pass lighthouse, a pragmatic Statue of Liberty welcoming to the United States rusted Russian tankers and freshly minted Scandinavian luxury liners, banana boats from Honduras and bulging barges from Greece.

To Americans, we were hovering over the geographical end of the Mississippi River -- and technically that is correct. But from our helicopter it was virtually impossible to pinpoint where the river ceased and the Gulf began. It's as if a huge dam is exploding, creating a vast coastal marsh whose raging currents are reluctant to surrender its awesome power to the saltwater sea. The Mississippi River Delta just keeps fanning out -- with no defined boundary -- in a watery vastness.

The river discharges an average of 612,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Gulf of Mexico, the result being that Louisiana's three-and-one-half million acres of coastal marshes equal over half the state of Connecticut. This was the ragged boot of Louisiana, a confusing mish-mash of archipelagos and peninsula, open lakes and bays. Exotic waterfowl were everywhere, gliding in swirling feeding frenzies all around us. On the east bank of the river, to our surprise, large waves were crashing on a two-mile-long sandbar that resembled some forlorn Caribbean beach.

With no doors on the helicopter, a sultry sea breeze engulfed us as we peered straight ahead up the Delta and were overcome with awe: before us lay big, raw, expansive America, unfolding before our eyes.

So it was that we found ourselves flying north from Head of Passes toward Pilottown, a graveyard-quiet village that consists of a single row of houses paralleling the Mississippi for a half-mile. Built of stilts in the 1890s, the community claims only a dozen permanent residents, almost all in the senior citizen category. It was the starting point of our journey.

Although Pilottown is too tiny to maintain a general store, forcing the inhabitants to go upriver some 10 miles for groceries and hardware, it does have a marvelous white clapboard Shore House where the river pilots gather to sleep in the dormitories, use the telephone and fax, or to just relax. An elegant palmetto tree at the dock gives this tiny port a deceptively West Indies feel. In truth, however, you can hear the call of the Cajun in Pilottown, where jumbo shrimp are not a delicacy but a mundane staple.

In former times, the children were taken to school by boat -- no roads reach Pilottown. The river pilots and their families used to make their homes at Pilottown, but today most prefer the modern conveniences of New Orleans or Baton Rouge.

It is here also that seafaring merchants from around the world first see the American flag holding sentry duty from a tall iron pole. Every inbound and outbound ship that cruises the Mississippi must register in the Pilottown logbook. Each ship going upstream must have one pilot on board to battle dense surface fog, unpredictable currents during high water, and suction caused by ships' passages that can pull them into banks or toward other ships. Called Bar Pilots, they are modern Mark Twains, knowing every bend, every snag, every bayou coming into the river. They captain the boats to Algiers Landing. There they get off to be replaced by Crest Pilots, who take the ships to wharves upstream, or as far as Baton Rouge.

The association is a modern medieval guild -- only the sons of pilots can join -- that is well paid, more than $400,000 per pilot per year.

North of Pilottown is the first town on the Mississippi River as you're going upstream: Venice, where the Great River Road both begins and ends. This is Plaquemines Parish, a gateway community for the Delta National Wildlife Refuge where a dazzling array of animal species coexist with oil derricks. Jetta and Texaco, in fact, operate 78 oil and gas wells in the refuge, the result being that helicopter ports are scattered around Venice, always ready to ferry workers offshore to pumping stations and drilling sites. Venice is also full of renegade fishermen and others, while the town's handful of cheap motels offers weekly rates to geologists and trappers and petrochemical engineers and roughnecks.

This is not the picturesque Mississippi of the irascible Tom Sawyer rolling boulders off the white cliffs of Hannibal. There is a Last Chance mentality that permeates throughout Venice, reminiscent of venerable trading posts that used to dot the Natchez Trace and Santa Fe Trail. Sit on any barstool long enough, downing Dixie beer, and you'll hear sorrowful laments of tattooed watermen bemoaning their shipwrecked lives. In Venice Marina, the fishing skiffs and houseboats aren't polished for show as in some precious Cape Cod town. They're bruised and battered and the always-broke owners are boastful of the scars.

Following upriver from Forts Jackson and St. Philip by helicopter, we saw the Barataria Bay on our left, an area named by the French meaning "fraudulence at sea" because so many pirates lived in the surrounding bayous. On our right was the Intracoastal Waterway, surrounded by salt marshes, drainage ditches and nameless small ponds. Dozens of massive silos lined the river to off-load grains for destinations across the United States. Spring had not yet arrived and the willow trees along the river were barren, resembling a long chain of arthritic sticks.

As small clouds drifted over the river they left dark shadows dancing on the muddy surface, making crazy patterns like a hyperactive eclipse. Occasionally we spotted an oil well pumping anxiously for riches. Mounds of coal and sulfur lined the western bank, reminding us that this is an industrial river, not a scenic postcard attraction. There was so much water on all sides of us that land -- firm, solid land -- seemed like a rare commodity. "It is a place," Harnett T. Kane wrote in The Bayous of Louisiana (1943), "that seems often unable to make up its mind whether it will be earth or water, and so it compromises."

Pollution besieges the lower river, with the Louisiana section alone receiving 97 million pounds of toxins annually -- although tighter environmental standards are starting to reduce that staggering statistic. A surprising number of abandoned boats dotted the landscape, rotting away in little murky back bayous, vegetation sprouting from their half-sunken hulls. Many of the small, ramshackle trailer homes we flew over had broken motorboats sitting just off their gravel driveways, obviously un-seaworthy but somehow deemed still too valuable for their owners to discard, an eyesore to most but to these Louisiana families, a faded memory of some fishing glory past.

But along the Mississippi, the main action was the gigantic tow barges and ocean-going behemoths, which looked from our bird's eye view like toy ships meandering up the river to New Orleans, whose skyline loomed before us like the Land of Oz.

It's commonplace today to consider America's acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase an incomparable accomplishment for Thomas Jefferson. Tourists visit the Sala Capitular in the Cabildo -- where the transfer room has been carefully recreated to look as it did in 1803 -- with a combination of intellectual curiosity and patriotic pride. What many don't realize, however, is how viciously Federalist politicians and newspapers denounced Jefferson for what they deemed an unconstitutional transaction. After all, Jefferson was up for reelection in 1804 and his opponents wanted to tattoo the phrase "idiotic folly" onto his chest for being snookered by Napoleon into purchasing what one editorial called "a wilderness unpeopled with any beings except wolves and wandering Indians."

A favorite ploy was to break down $15 million for layman's comprehension, claiming, for example, that it was the equivalent of 433 tons of silver, which would fill 866 wagons lined up for five and a half miles, or that it was enough to have paid an army of 15,000 soldiers 50 shillings a week for 25 years. Enraged New Englanders, fearful that these new western territories would someday take control of the government, evoked shrill dissent. Joseph Quincy, a Massachusetts Congressman, actually urged the northeastern states to secede "amicably if they can; violently if they must."

The critics had a right to be concerned. There was no constitutional provision for a U.S. president acquiring new territory and granting automatic citizenship to the inhabitants. Jefferson, it seemed, was putting his grandiose notion of an "empire of liberty" ahead of the constitution. And he was. But in August, as the country was debating whether the purchase was legal, Robert Livingston wrote a dispatch from Paris that Napoleon was prepared to void the purchase if the U.S. Senate tried modifying the agreement or if it wasn't quickly ratified. This catapulted Jefferson to action. Opting not to amend the Constitution, he instead submitted the treaty to Congress on national security grounds: a menacing France had to be removed from North America. It was a gamble that worked. On Oct. 20, 1803, after only limited debate, the Senate ratified the treaty by a 24-to-7 margin.

All that was left was the official transfer ceremonies, to be held at the Cabildo in New Orleans. Spain was livid over what it saw as Napoleon's treachery and Jefferson's illegal buy of the territory it had just receded to France. But King Charles IV was in no mood for war with either country and he reluctantly agreed to the transfer. On Nov. 30, 1803, two Spanish grandees arrived in New Orleans from Spain and placed the keys to the city's forts on a silver platter and presented them to the French representative Prefect Pierre Clément de Laussat. This ritual was followed by a public ceremony in which a lone cannonball was fired into the Mississippi, the Spanish anthem was played one last time, and a well-behaved crowd watched as the French Tricolor was raised.

The stage was now set for the Americans to take control of the Louisiana Territory. President Jefferson appointed two Commissioners -- William Claiborne, former governor of the Mississippi Territory, and James Wilkinson, Commanding General of the United States Army -- to go to New Orleans and oversee the transfer. Nearly all the French citizens Claiborne encountered along the Mississippi River were mortified that their beloved homeland was now being passed like an unwanted baton to Yankee Doodle rabble. Claiborne did his best to reassure everybody that the United States would honor the rights of all citizens in the vast territory, but doubt and fear were widespread.

Still the grand moment arrived without incident. On Dec. 20, 1803, Claiborne and Wilkinson met French representative Laussat in the Sala Capitular room and signed the transfer document. Wild cheers erupted from outside the building as Americans began singing old victory songs from the Revolutionary War while the French residents looked on in disgust and openly wept. The French flag came down and the Stars and Stripes went up. The Mississippi River and New Orleans now officially belonged to the United States. Claiborne was appointed governor of the Territory of Orleans amidst widespread calls for statehood -- an event that eventually took place in 1812, making Louisiana the 18th star on the U.S. flag.

In 1803, three different flags would fly over the Crescent City -- Spanish, French, and then finally American -- but the real ruler was international trade. Bounded on three sides by swamps, it was the fourth side, the riverfront, where the economic life of the city commenced. Here were bales of cotton to make the Egyptian envious, rice on par with that found in the Orient, sugar cane for the rummakers of Philadelphia, and tobacco leaves that would fill all the elegant pipes from Paris to Pompeii. Noisy keelboatsmen, called "kaintocks" by the Creoles, constantly arrived from upriver, with whiskey breath and mudcaked garb, to unload flour, corn, and indigo on the teeming docks.

After selling their merchandise, these uncouth tradesmen, with bulging biceps from days of oaring, fanned out throughout the French Quarter in search of fistfights and dice rolls. They had large appetites for brothels and fiddle music, and preferred carousing with Irish soldiers of fortune to sipping sherry in the shade of a patio with faux Spanish aristocrats possessing 10 syllable names they couldn't pronounce. They had abandoned their mule-drawn ploughs in the Ohio and Tennessee valleys and had come to New Orleans for hard currency and midnight kicks. They were the aggressive Americans and the Spanish and French Creoles disdained them.

The Louisiana Territory was now part of the United States and these boisterous newcomers had come to claim their city and hard-earned booty, and to recodify French and Spanish laws into English. "The more I became acquainted with the inhabitants of this Province," the new Jefferson-appointed governor of the territory William C. Claiborne wrote Secretary of State James Madison just days after the transfer, "the more I am convinced of their unfitness for a representative government."

Yet, the Mississippi pulled these disparate characters together. Directions were -- and are still -- given as either "upriver" or "downriver." Fear of flooding meant that levees had to be built, canals dug, and drainage ditches filled. Canal Street, the widest avenue in the United States, became a kind of boundary line between the feuding Creoles in the Old Town and the incoming Americans in Faubourg St. Mary. The wide median down the center was called the "neutral ground," a place where the two communities could mingle. And for all their differences in language and style, they shared a perennial fear of disease such as small pox and cholera.

Fire was also a constant worry. In 1788, a candle had fallen from an altar of a private chapel, the flames had spread, until the entire city was engulfed. Over 850 buildings had been reduced to ashes in just a few hours. From 1803 to the Civil War, New Orleans may have been the grandest city west of the Appalachians, but it was still dependent on pulling together, regardless of skin color or cultural mores or religious affiliation.

A fascinating reminder of just how nervous many French-speaking citizens were about the United States purchasing the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon comes alive in a handwritten letter President Thomas Jefferson sent to the nuns of the Ursuline Academy in the spring of 1804, now on permanent display in a glass case at their museum on State Street.

Because both Spain and France were Catholic countries, the nuns never really worried about which flag flew on the waterfront near their convent. But fear rippled through their world when word of President Jefferson's purchase reached them. They had carefully read the U.S. Constitution with its seemingly ironclad clause that church and state must remain separate, interpreting this to mean that all schools must be non-religious in nature. Would President Jefferson close their academy? What would happen to the poor girls they trained who had nowhere else to go?

Gov. William C.C. Claiborne visited the nuns and offered reassurances, but this was not enough. On March 21, 1804, the Ursulines' local mother superior, Sister Marie Theresa Farjon of St. Xavier, wrote President Jefferson in search of authoritative reassurances, describing in detail their distinguished track record in education. She wanted confirmation that the U.S. government would not try to confiscate their convent or close their girls' school. "This request of the Ursulines of New Orleans," she wrote, "is not dictated by personal interest nor ambitious aims."

Contrary to popular belief, Jefferson felt strongly that religion was an essential aspect of American life, that the teaching of the Bible was beneficial to all. As an Enlightenment intellectual he was skeptical of various supernatural aspects of the New Testament, but he did consider churches irreplaceable cornerstones of any community. So when he received Sister Marie Theresa Farjon's letter on May 15, 1804, he wrote in response to calm the Ursulines' worries.

"The principles of the Constitution and the government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that [your school and its properties] will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate and that your own institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority," Jefferson wrote. "Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it."

His salutation couldn't have been kinder: "I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect."

Obviously the sisters read Jefferson's letter with great joy and relief. In the years following the Louisiana Purchase they became the school of choice for the children of New Orleans' most prominent families, yet they also continued to teach the disadvantaged. Their convent has survived floods and fires to remain one of the best girls schools in America -- the Ursuline Academy has now been educating young women for more than 275 years. And while the academy is also the National Shrine of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, it's the democratic blessing of Thomas Jefferson that these American nuns cherish above all others.

When Sherwood Anderson first arrived in New Orleans, he was so enamored with the culture he wrote Gertrude Stein telling her it was "the most civilized place on earth," and then penned an article singing the frenetic glories, titled "New Orleans, the Double Dealer and the Modern Movement in America." Some, like Anderson, spent a few years during the Roaring Twenties, hosting literary soirees in his apartment in the Pontalba Building near Jackson Square. Others, like the intrepid Jack Kerouac, rambled into the Big Easy to soak up "kicks, joy, and darkness" for only a memorable week. John Steinbeck came once for a few days -- to get married.

Given New Orleans' magnetic appeal to the rootless intellectual, Walt Whitman is, in our opinion, the true poet laureate of the Crescent City. He had arrived in New Orleans on the steamer St. Cloud on Feb. 26, 1848, accompanied by his brother Jeff. A native New Yorker, he had left Brooklyn after a heated dispute with his editor over the Winnot Proviso which he supported. Two days later, he started his journey to Dixie.

"Being now out of a job, I was offer'd impromptu (it happen'd between acts one night in the lobby of the old Broadway theater near Pearl Street, New York City), a good chance to go down to New Orleans on the staff of the Crescent, a daily to be started there with plenty of capital behind it." He was a 29-year-old reporter and the experience of actually traveling down the great river of his dreams left him breathless. "The Mississippi River and its tributaries ... is by far the most important stream on the globe," Whitman enthused in his journal. "Only the Mediterranean Sea has play'd so much part in history, and all through the past, as the Mississippi is destined to play."

New Orleans in 1848 was the greatest city in the South with some 120,000 residents, plus what historian David S. Reynolds surmised was "an equally large floating population of visitors and sailors." Ostensibly, Whitman had come to work as the assistant editor of the Daily Crescent newspaper, located at 93 St. Charles Ave., and he did for three months. But it was the cobblestone wharf teeming with fellow democratic citizens flush with victory from the Mexican-American War that Whitman remembered best.

"From the situation of the country, the city of New Orleans has been our channel and entrepot for everything, going and returning," Whitman later wrote. "It had the best news and war correspondents; it had the most to say, through its leading papers, the Picayune and Delta especially ... No one who has never seen the society of a city under similar circumstances can understand what a strange vivacity and rattle were given throughout by such a situation."

At the Daily Crescent, Whitman was responsible for coordinating assignments for three staffers and overseeing the layout. His gaze, however, was always on the people, and he wandered about town interviewing such eccentric characters as an oyster vendor, a flower girl, a prostitute and a professional con man.

Whitman's New Orleans sketches are laden with an appealing mixture of slang, poetry, and prose, the famous free-verse style that become the hallmark of Leaves of Grass. His favorite spot was the levee, where the Mississippi River held a spell over Whitman. "I use to wander a midday hour or two now and then for amusement on the crowded and bustling levees, on the banks of the river," he recalled. "The diagonally wedg'd-in-boats, the stevedores, the piles of cotton and other merchandise, the carts, mules, Negroes, etc. afforded never-ending studies and sights to me. I made acquaintances among the captains, boatman, or other characters, and often had long talks with them -- sometimes finding a real rough diamond among my chance encounters."

And like any good bohemian, Whitman basked in the marvels of New Orleans' unparalleled food and nightlife. "I never have had such coffee since," he reflected nearly 40 years later. His evenings were spent in barrooms drinking mild French brandy and exquisite wines, usually at the St. Charles Hotel, which had opened in 1837.

One evening he encountered Gen. Zachary Taylor -- the hero of Buena Vista, who many predicted would become the next U.S. President -- attending a performance of the play "Model Artists," and congratulated him for his battlefield victories. "The house was crowded with uniforms and shoulder-straps," Whitman wrote. "General Taylor was almost the only officer in civilian clothes; he was a jovial, old, rather stout, plain man, with a wrinkled and dark-yellow face, and, in ways and manners, show'd the least of conventional ceremony or etiquette I ever saw."

But soon, some of New Orleans' hedonistic charm wore off on the Whitman brothers. Jeff, who worked at the Daily Crescent as a copy boy, grew homesick, unable to cope with the suffocating humidity. Meanwhile, Walt contracted dysentery and for a few weeks was bedridden. In May he got in a nasty dispute with the owners of the Crescent over money, causing him to quit.

And then, there were the horrific realities of that peculiar institution known as slavery. For just a few blocks from Whitman's apartment at 67 Gravier St. were the officers of "Pierson & Bonneval, Auctioneers" -- where Africans were sold to the highest bidder. The chattle principle nauseated Whitman, a fierce abolitionist, and his heart could not bear to witness the torturous humiliations of the cart-whip and slave pens any longer. On May 27, he boarded the Pride of the West and headed back north, where he wrote the poem "I Sing the Body Electric" about the evil auctioneering of human flesh. Whitman continued to sing the praises of New Orleans culture and the "Magnet South." But he also lamented that a city so great could tolerate such savage barbarity with Mardi Gras smile and gentlemanly bow.

click to enlarge KEVIN WILLEY
click to enlarge Stephen E. Ambrose and Doug Brinkley spent much of this year and the last travelling the Mississippi River for their forthcoming book Mississippi: River of  History.
  • Stephen E. Ambrose and Doug Brinkley spent much of this year and the last travelling the Mississippi River for their forthcoming book Mississippi: River of History.
click to enlarge Federalist politicians and newspapers denounced Thomas Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase, which they deemed an unconstitutional transaction.
  • Federalist politicians and newspapers denounced Thomas Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase, which they deemed an unconstitutional transaction.
click to enlarge Walt Whitman's New Orleans sketches are laden with an appealing mixture of slang, poetry and prose, the famous free-verse style that would become the hallmark of Leaves of Grass.
  • Walt Whitman's New Orleans sketches are laden with an appealing mixture of slang, poetry and prose, the famous free-verse style that would become the hallmark of Leaves of Grass.
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