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The Context

“The Mississippi River remains what it always was,” wrote author John Gunther, “the Nile of the Western Hemisphere.”

People have always been drawn to the river. St. Louis . . . Memphis . . . New Orleans . . . the cities of today still draw life from the ancient Mississippi. For centuries, the river has been a giver of life.

Because of the Mississippi, the soil of the delta is deep and rich, and as a consequence so is the region's history.

The first people to behold the Mississippi must have had some inkling of this power. The river brought a cornucopia of aquatic life and animals as well as contact with communities from afar. A language was devised for the exchange of goods and services. Tales of the legendary city of Cahokia, in what is now Illinois, no doubt were passed up and down the great body of water. Probably renowned to anyone at the time, Cahokia was a sprawling metropolis, an enormous complex of earthen mounds and villages, crowded with people and noisy with industry.

Cahokia was not a singular wonder. Today, Emerald, Parkin,Poverty Point, Toltec and other mound complexes survive as silent monuments in rural settings where, for generations, the land bore the distinctive mark of a thriving people.

From the great moundbuilding cultures through the early westward expansion, the Civil War, and to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, the Mississippi has shaped the settlement and societies of the region. Today the river continues to give life. The bottomland forests that once lined its banks were cleared to yield thousands of tons of cotton, rice, corn, and soybeans annually. Many cultures have flourished in the abundance, leaving their own distinct impressions on the landscape as well as on music and literature.