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The history and development of the Mississippi Delta Economy.


The Lower Mississippi River Valley has had an enormous impact on the economy of the Mid-South and the entire United States. The development of transportation, agriculture, engineering, and services in the Mississippi Delta has not only had a crucial economic benefit, but has also been decisive in social, political, and departmental evolutions of the entire region. The history of the changing uses of the river, the delta land, and the resources on both land and water is a story of man-made efforts to control and tame one of the mightiest natural forces on our planet.

The Lower Mississippi River Valley is actually a giant alluvial plain that stretches over parts of seven states, from southern Illinois to southern Louisiana at the Gulf of Mexico. The plain is divided into three parts: the Mississippi River Delta in the southern half of Louisiana; the Mississippi embayment on the western side of the river, stretching from southeastern Missouri to eastern Arkansas and northern Louisiana; and the Mississippi Delta on the east bank in northwest Mississippi. The Mississippi Alluvial Plain stretches from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Cairo, Illinois, in the north; to the Tallahatchie, Yazoo, and Mississippi rivers in the east; to the White, Arkansas, Quachita, and Red rivers in the west. The lower valley was created by the largest river complex in North America and one of the largest in the world: the Mississippi River.


The Lower Mississippi Valley was actually a shallow sea bed until about 325 million years ago when the floor was uplifted into broad, low domes to the east (the Nashville Dome) and the west (the Ozark Dome). The domes were connected by a low arch that was steadily eroded and weakened by the continuing uplift of the Nashville and Ozark domes. Approximately 75 million years ago, the sea returned to the area of the collapsed arch and formed an arm of the Gulf of Mexico reaching as far north as Cairo, Illinois. The cross-folding of the arch continues to this day, creating the New Madrid Fault and triggering a series of periodic earthquakes, such as the three 8.0 magnitude quakes of 1811-1812.

The Mississippi River began to form over 40 million years ago as the uplift of the sea bed between the Nashville and Ozark domes began to recur, pushing the seawaters southward. From the beginning, the river drained a very flat and wide area, and alluvium soil began to build rapidly. The soil buildup was greatly accelerated by the repeated ice ages that affected North America, with glaciers several thousand feet thick extending to the current length of the Ohio River. Although the glaciers never reached the Lower Mississippi Valley, they profoundly impacted the South by lowering the sea level and compressing the land in the northern part of the continent. The Mississippi River drainage area and volume greatly accelerated, cutting an even longer and deeper channel and depositing hundreds of feet of alluvium soil. As the river strayed east and west over the course of several million years, the alluvial soil deposits increased in thickness, becoming some of the most fertile agricultural soil in the world.

The last ice age ended in North America 10,000 years ago, and the Mississippi River was then close to its current position. The course of the river had been further west, with its banks along Crowley's Ridge, but by 8,000 BCE the river linked up with the Ohio at Cairo and took its eastward course. With these developments, the Mississippi had indeed become "mighty." Only two other river complexes were longer than the Mississippi: the Nile in Africa with a length of 4,160 miles and the Amazon in South America with a length of 3,900 miles. The Mississippi River has a combined length of 3,710 miles, with an average water flow of 620,000 feet per second, which is the fourth largest in the world. Over 41 percent of the North American continent drains into the Mississippi--some 1,200,073 square miles. This drainage has built the largest river delta in the world, yet has kept the river bed of the Mississippi under sea level as far north as Greenville, Mississippi.

When Hernando De Soto became the first European to see and record his observations in June 1541, the Mississippi Valley was in its natural state. The river was much wider than it is now because of a lack of channelization and levees. The force of millions of tons of water collapsed miles of banks, collapsed entire forests, cut new channels, and flooded hundreds of square miles of land. Giant islands were formed, and decades of debris built up. Floods were far greater then, and it was often difficult to know where the river and swampland began.

The Mississippi was used as a transportation and trade route by Native Americans long before Hernando De Soto of Spain "discovered" the river in 1541 near the area of Memphis. France was the first European nation to claim and utilize the Mississippi Valley. The French established a series of settlements and trading outposts to obtain furs and farmland, with New Orleans founded in 1701 as the capital and main port for Louisiana. Furs and produce was rafted down the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, reloaded on sea-going vessels, and shipped anywhere in the world. As early as 1705, the first recorded load, consisting 15,000 bear and deer hides, was floated down the river.

The use of the Lower Mississippi for trade, transportation, and agriculture was restricted by three factors: the flooding and collapsing of the land along the river, the turbulence and obstacles in the river itself, and the division of the river between different nations, from the Treaty of Paris in 1763 ending the French and Indian War to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 when the entire embayment was claimed by the United States.

All river travel and shipping was done by flatboat, keelboat, and canoe, requiring a great amount of manpower and time, as well as limits on the type and weight of goods that could be shipped. In 1811, Robert Fulton built the first steamboat to travel on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The New Orleans was built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and sailed down the Ohio and Mississippi. It was caught up in the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811, but although it survived and arrived in New Orleans, it was not an unqualified success because the engines were too weak to go upriver. The ship did serve on the lower Mississippi River for several years until it was lost, proving that steamships could operate on the lower river.

The greatest credit for transforming the Mississippi River as a viable commercial route went to Henry Shreve. In 1817, Shreve designed the steamboat Washington, which was powerful enough to go both downstream and upstream. Later that year the Washington went upstream from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky, in only 21 days, yet the difficulty in navigating the river continued due to the snags, islands, and underwater obstacles. Shreve then invented the snag boat to remove snags, logs, and debris from the main channels of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.


In 1829, Shreve built his first snag boat, the Heliopolis, and began to remove the incredible amount of snags, drifts, islands, logs, and parts of trees in the main Mississippi channel and then hundreds of miles of debris in the Red River channel that had accumulated over centuries. When he finally achieved what most believed impossible, the main port on the Red River in Louisiana near the Texas border was named in his honor: Shreveport.

As steamship transportation steadily improved, cities and towns developed along the Mississippi and its tributaries. Along these banks was the richest farm soil on the continent, supporting an economy of cotton, hardwood, and varied agriculture that developed later. However, this land had to be developed and its banks preserved. At first, the land that was cultivated was along the banks and was cleared by slave labor. Most of the rich alluvial soil was covered in thick forests or in swamps and flood plains. As the land was cleared and drained, problems arose when the river flooded and destroyed crops and transportation landings. In addition, the river had to be dredged constantly to accommodate the larger vessels required to economically transport larger loads of goods and people.

The development of the transportation, agriculture, and economy of the Lower Mississippi Valley did not accelerate until after the Civil War. In 1870, the steamboat The Robert E. Lee went from New Orleans to St. Louis in only 90 hours, a new record that demonstrated that steamboats had come of age. Four years later, James Eads completed the largest steel bridge in the world, with the largest arches in the world--a railroad bridge spanning the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Eads then turned his energies to opening the Mississippi River Delta to ocean-going vessels through New Orleans.


Eads developed a new series of jetties to clear sandbars by reinforcing the from erosion and the water down a narrower channel. From 1875, when he an, until 1880, when completed the jetties, between him the Army Corps of threatened halt the work. After Eads was proven correct and the jetties were completed, the economic benefit was both immediate and dramatic. In 1875, only 6,857 tons of goods were shipped from St. Louis through New Orleans to Europe, but by 1880 the volume was 453,681 tons. In 1995, greater New Orleans ranked as the world's largest port by volume of cargo.

Beginning in 1880, Charles Percy of Greenville, Mississippi, began policies to develop the Mississippi Delta by coordinating financing for cotton development, railroads, and shipping. Due to the financial chaos from the Civil War and Reconstruction, more than half of the Delta, 2,365,214 acres, had been forfeited to the state of Mississippi for back taxes. In 1881, Percy coordinated two huge state land deals. First, 774,000 acres of Delta land was sold to the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad--owned entirely by the Illinois Central. Then an additional 706,000 acres plus old levee board bonds were sold to the Southern Railroad controlled by J. P. Morgan. Due to tax exemptions worth millions, the construction of railroads, levees, and cotton farms exploded. In 1880, there were no railroads in the Mississippi Delta, but by 1890, 235 miles traversed the area. By 1903, 816 miles were operational, and the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley became more profitable than the rest of the Illinois Central.

Communities and towns were founded around the railroad depots, but the land required development, which required labor. Percy was instrumental in formalizing the use of sharecropping on a large scale. Capital was limited in the decades after the Civil War, and planters had the land. Freedmen supplied the labor, and gained a measure of independence and economic freedom. Profits were originally split in half between landowners and sharecroppers, with a larger percentage to landowners if they supplied their own equipment.

Sharecropping had a profound impact on the social, political, and economic development of the Mississippi Delta. Percy's example meant that planters and labor agents recruited freedmen from around the South, promising and delivering better pay and conditions. Blacks could receive capital and even purchase land, and thousands arrived in the Mississippi Delta. Sharecropping eventually became an economical system of serfdom, but with the implied equal opportunities and negotiated labor contracts, whites initially resented the system, while the blacks welcomed it.



Also, in order to recruit and retain laborers, Percy and other Delta whites realized that the freedmen must be respected and paid. By the turn of the century, populist demagogues regularly attacked the Delta planter elites and their laborers for ignoring whites.

In 1900, blacks owned two-thirds of all Delta farms and comprised over 90 percent of the population in several counties. Between 1900 and 1904, the number of cotton spindles increased by 12 percent worldwide. By 1904, cotton prices went to 17.5 cents a pound, four times the price of six years previously.

The spread of the boll weevil drove cotton prices even further. In 1907, the boll weevil crossed the Mississippi River, but the rich alluvial soil gave the Delta cotton some resistance. Ironically, these developments only spurred white landowners and sharecroppers into greater resentment of Delta blacks and the plantation elite.

To protect the rich plantations that were carved out of the wilderness, swamps, and flood plains of the Lower Mississippi, the river needed to be channelized and its banks reinforced. The best techniques to prevent flooding were the use of reservoirs on tributaries and the construction of outlets to reduce flood levels. However, these methods required the flooding of valuable alluvial lands and were unpopular. The simplest method of preventing flooding, developing farmland, and reinforcing banks in ports was the construction of levees, which had a more long-term danger. The more land that was cultivated-and the more levees that were built--meant that less area was available for excess water spill, increasing the force of flood water. Flooding increased in volume and frequency, such as in 1882,1912,1913, and 1922. The solution was to build the levees and banks higher, which led to the disastrous flood of 1927.

In December 1926, the U.S. Weather Bureau recorded that every gauge on all three main branches of the Mississippi trident was at the highest level ever recorded. As heavy rain storms and tornadoes hit the Mississippi Valley, with the levees already strained and the rivers rising to record highs, thousands of laborers in the Delta were forced into dangerous and brutal jobs to sandbag and build up the levees. The brutal exploitation of blacks, as well as the total lack of care for the survival and care of their families, sparked a mass exodus from the area that continued for decades.

Despite the great efforts, levees began to break, with the worst occurring on April 21,1927, at Mounds Landing, Mississippi. A tidal wave of water 100 feet high and 4,000 feet wide was created, flooding an area 60 by 90 miles wide. The National Safety Council estimated that over 1,000 people died in the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta alone, and the Red Cross reported over 1,000,000 refugees.

The flood of 1927 profoundly impacted the economy and the role of government in the Lower Mississippi Valley. The Flood Control Act of 1928 provided for a three-member commission, consisting of the Chief of Engineers of the Army, the President of the Mississippi River Commission, and a civil engineer appointed by the President, that would decide the method of flood control, without any requirements of local levee boards or state funds. However, once construction of new reservoirs, spillways, pumps, and levees was completed, states or levee districts would maintain them. The policy of relying on levees alone was discredited and discarded.

The New Deal implemented the various recommendations of the Mississippi Valley Flood Control Commission. To ease navigation and reduce flooding, five artificial cutoffs were made in the Mississippi River below Memphis. The National Recovery Act allocated more than $42 million to the River Commission in 1934 alone, with 85 Memphis firms providing snag boats, steam boats, dredges, motor boats, contract construction, and laborers to perform work along 110,000 miles of use. Reservoirs were built in the Ozarks to control tributaries such as the St. Francis, Black, and White rivers, as well as the Mississippi Delta tributaries at Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid, and Grenada. By 1942, the cutoffs and tributary work were complete.

The Second World War brought further changes to the economic development of the Lower Mississippi Valley. The War Production Board placed priorities on shipping, petroleum and natural gas storage and refining, and critical agricultural products such as cotton and soybeans for use in plastics. Bank and levee revetment work initially took precedence, but after the war the River Commission placed its emphasis on developing shipping and industrial locations. The building of new highway bridges such as the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge in 1949 and Presidents Island Dike and Memphis Harbor reflected the needs for shipping and industry. By 1960, 1,706 miles of levees had been constructed and more than 112 million tons of commodities were shipped on the Mississippi.

The Lower Mississippi River Valley today is controlled by major flooding, utilizing a combination of channelization, cutoffs, reservoirs in tributaries, bank reinforcements, and levees with major pumping facilities. Dredging the channel is still a major duty of the Corps of Engineers, but additional responsibilities consist of mat castings for industrial park and harbor locations, as well as nature and wildlife preservation and restoration projects. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set aside 9,557 acres for wetland and wildlife preservation in 1999, and recreational uses for fishing, boating, and swimming in the reservoirs have added to the diversity of the economy. Riverboat and "offshore" gambling and entertainment operations in locations such as New Orleans and Tunica, Mississippi, have also developed. In 2000, over 8.3 million people resided in the Lower Mississippi Valley, and the river has provided a common bond for the region and the nation in transportation, agribusihess, water use and conservation, industrial energy such as petroleum and natural gas, manufacturing, and engineering. Local recipes, music such as the blues, rock and roll, soul, and gospel, outdoor recreation, and literary figures such as William Faulkner, Shelby Foote, and Willie Morris have brought the society and culture of the Lower Mississippi Valley to the world.


Barry, John M. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. New York: Touchstone, 1997.

Bradley, James H. Through Winds of Change: A History of the Memphis District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 19982007. Public Affairs Office, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District, Memphis, TN, 2007.

Clay, Floyd M. A Century on the Mississippi: A History of the Memphis District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 18761976. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District, Memphis, TN, 1976.

Crawford, Charles W. "Great River Deltas--Effects on History." In Proceedings of the Regional Conference of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, 1990.


Paul W. White, Ph.D.

Dr. Paul W. White is an instructor in the History Department, College of Arts and Sciences, at the University of Memphis. He earned his doctorate at the University of Memphis and his B.A. in History and Political Science from Vanderbilt University. His areas of concentration are local, regional, and national history of the United States, as well as modern European and African history. He is a retired Major in the United States Army and is an active participant in the Veterans Oral History Project at the University of Memphis.
Chart 1. Mileage Comparison of the Nile, Amazon, and
Mississippi Rivers

Business Perspectives

Nile River          4,160
Amazon River        4,160
Mississippi River   3,710

Note: Table made from bar graph.
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Author:White, Paul W.
Publication:Business Perspectives
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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