This is volume I of a two-volume heritage study of the Lower Mississippi Delta (the Delta) region. Stretching from just north of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and Fort DeChartre, Illinois, to the mouth of the Mississippi below New Orleans, the study area is vast and is home to some of North America’s richest natural resources. In addition the region’s diverse and complex cultural history and heritage have helped shape our national character. From the Mound building civilizations of the Mississippian period to the modem architecture of Memphis, Jackson, and New Orleans, and from "King Cotton" of the 19th century to the Delta blues of the 20th century, the Delta has been at the forefront of national trade, settlement, political agendas, and social struggles. This heritage study presents several concepts for preserving and presenting to visitors different combinations of heritage resources across the region. These combinations would help preserve for future generations the rich natural and cultural heritage of a truly unique region of the nation.
Volume I of the study includes background information on the study area, legislative mandates, concepts, and management alternatives for conserving, managing, and using the heritage resources of the Delta. Volume I also includes a list of parallel efforts in the LMDR (see appendix B) and analyzes the environmental consequences of the management alternatives. Volume II contains cultural, natural, recreational, and economic resource overviews as well as lists of national historic landmarks and districts, national natural land marks, and data analysis on over 2,000 resources in the Delta. Together the volumes create a base of information from which Congress can make decisions regarding future planning and/or implementation strategies related to heritage tourism in the Delta. The information contained in these volumes will also be available to state and local agencies in the study area as well as heritage tourism and/or preservation or other interested groups, organizations, or residents.
Congress established the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission (LMDDC) in October 1988 to study and make recommendations regarding economic needs, problems, and opportunities in the Lower Mississippi Delta Region (LMDR), and to develop a 10-year economic plan for the region. In the commission’s final report (May 1990) recommendations were made regarding health, education, housing, community development, agriculture, public infrastructure, entrepreneurial development, and technology, business, and industrial development. The commission also identified tourism, cultural resource preservation, and environmental protection as key elements to economic success in the region.
The commission’s report told the compelling story of the people who dwell at the very heart of the nation:
These are the people who thrive, or in some cases, barely survive, along its great living artery — the Mississippi River. These are the people who by virtue of place are surrounded by thousands of square miles of some of the country’s richest natural resources and physical assets and who have used their sense of place to develop a cultural and historical heritage that is rich and unique (Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission 1989).
The report acknowledged that these are also the people who, by statistics, constitute the poorest region of the United States — jobs are scarce, infant mortality is high, and illiteracy reigns as a supreme piece of irony as demonstrated in the fact that the region has produced some of the best writers and worst readers in America (Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission 1989).
One of the results of the commission’s report was passage on October 31, 1994, of title XI - Lower Mississippi Delta Region Initiatives (Delta Initiatives) (PL 103-433). The Delta Initiatives established a comprehensive and ambitious program, especially in an era of government downsizing and federal budget deficits. Sections 1103 and 1104 of the Delta Initiatives are summarized below.
Section 1/03. Prepare and transmit to Congress within three years a study of significant natural, recreational, and cultural resources in the Delta region. This study would cover such topics as transportation routes (roads, trails, and waterways), vehicular tour routes, the Great River Road, routes commemorating the timber industry, and comprehensive recreation planning. A list of potential national historic landmarks would also he developed.
Section 1104. Prepare a plan within three years after funds arc made available that establishes a Delta Region Native American heritage corridor and cultural Center; a Delta Region African-American heritage corridor and cultural center; and a music heritage program with specific emphasis on the Delta blues. This plan would also propose a network of heritage sites, structures, small museums, and festivals in the Delta region and make recommendations for grants to small, emerging, minority or rural museums. Technical assistance and needs assessments would also he provided.
PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
A part of the National Park Service’s response to the Delta Initiatives has been the preparation of tthis Phase I Lower Mississippi Delta Region Heritage Study. The purpose of the study is to provide guidance to Congress for implementing sections 1103 and 1104 of the legislation. In response to section 1103 the study presents a broad overview of the natural, cultural, and recreational resources of the study area and presents, based on the important people, places, and events of the Delta, possible combinations of heritage sites, museums, rural sites, and festivals that could enhance heritage tourism and resource preservation in the region. In addition the study includes a large data base inventory of natural, cultural, and recreational resources including a list of national historic landmarks and districts and national natural landmarks found in the study area.
The heritage study lays some groundwork for implementation of section 1104 of the Delta Initiatives. Concepts 5 and 6 present resource combinations for preserving and presenting to visitors the important American Indian and African-American heritages of the Delta. Concept 8 presents a blues commemorative area within the Delta that would highlight the world renown music form that had its beginnings in the Delta.
Finally the heritage study presents several alternatives for organizing and managing the region’s rich combinations of heritage resources and analyzes the environmental consequences of the alternatives. The information in this heritage study will serve as a foundation for subsequent studies, plans, grants, programs, and other actions to enhance the quality of life in the Delta and to preserve the region’s rich heritage.
Beyond the scope of this study are the requirements in section 1103 for preparing a "comprehensive recreation, interpretive, and visitor use plan" for historic and tour routes described in the section. Neither does the study analyze whether certain portions of the Great River Road or the Old Antonio Road or Highway 84 should he designated as components of the national trails system.
THE STUDY AREA/ DELTA ENVIRONMENT OVERVIEW
As defined by the Delta Initiatives the study area encompasses all or part of seven states and 308 counties and parishes. This area includes all of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi; 29 counties in southeast Missouri; 16 counties in southern Illinois; 21 counties in western Kentucky; and 21 counties in western Tennessee (see the Study Area map). For the most part it is bound together by its ties to the Mississippi River drainage system; however, there are portions of the study area in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas that are outside the direct influence of the Mississippi River. The 1994 legislation, under which this heritage study has been prepared, added to the LMDC ‘s original study area by requiring that states with more than 50 percent of their geographic area encompassed by the Delta Region be included. The primary focus of this heritage study has been on the areas of the original LMDC’s work while acknowledging the importance of the geographic, social, and natural influences of the additional counties of the legislatively defined region.
As is true with any politically delineated study area, the Delta region encompasses much more than the boundaries by which it is defined. The Lower Mississippi Delta is a vast and vital part of the American landscape. This broad, alluvial valley reaches from southern Illinois to the southeastern tip of Louisiana. The Delta’s 90,000 miles of rivers and streams cover some 3 million acres, dictating much of the region’s landscape and land use.
The Delta provides habitat and ecological support for a wide variety of flora, fauna, and aquatic species. The Mississippi River forms the most important bird and waterfowl migration corridor on the continent. The Mississippi flyway is one of the four major migration routes for bird species in the United States. The flyway provides breeding areas and wintering grounds for numerous bird species including 20% of the duck species found in the U.S. and substantial numbers of cranes, geese, swans, hawks, falcons, and neotropical birds.
The river bottoms comprise North America’s largest wetland area and bottom land hardwood forest. Taken together the forests and wetlands cover approximately 5.5 million acres of the study area. In addition to the bottom land forests in the Delta a variety of upland forests, both deciduous and coniferous are found in the Delta’s hills and elevated tracts.
Further, the Mississippi River’s role as a major transporter of goods and people has long distinguished the region’s history and character. Since the earliest days of human habitation the Mississippi River has provided a convenient and economic avenue for transportation, communication, and commerce for residents of the corridor.
The river promoted trade, and the fertile land facilitated the rise of agriculture. The Delta’s renowned agricultural productivity is a direct reflection of the fertile alluvial soils, the temperate climate (average temperature between 54-65 degrees F), and the extended growing season (200-340 frost free days per year). 55-60% of the Delta’s land area is utilized as cropland and produces much of the nation’s soybeans, rice, sugar cane, various feed grains, and cotton.
The Delta’s natural resources also gave rise to extractive industries like salt, timber, and oil and gas. The river has also facilitated the growth of recreation and tourism activities as major contributors to the region’s economic base.
The Delta’s cultural traditions are as rich and diverse as its natural resources. This is a land of converging cultures with a unique complexity and density of history, antiquity, and cultural expression. Archeological sites across the Delta attest to the thousands of years of human presence in the Delta. Over the centuries American Indians, French, Arab, Spanish, African, German, English, Irish, Scots-Irish, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and Southeast Asian people have established and maintained their distinctive ethnic identities. Often these cultures intermingled to form discreet, new cultural expressions, such as Creole culture, found only in the Delta.
Millions of travelers visit the Delta each year and provide over $17 billion in direct revenue to counties and parishes. Nearly three hundred thousand jobs are travel-related with a payroll of over $3 billion. Heritage tourism development, which seeks to expand and revitalize urban and rural economic development opportunities through the preservation, management, and utilization of natural, historic, and cultural resources for future generations, has been recognized as an opportunity to improve a segment of the economy by training and employing local residents in new ways.
Despite its many resource advantages, rich cultural heritage, and growing tourism industry, the Lower Mississippi Delta Region remains a depressed area economically. In 1990 Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi had higher unemployment rates and greater levels of people living in poverty than the rest of the nation. In Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee, 80 of 87 Delta region counties had higher unemployment rates than the rest of the U.S. Eighty-four counties had a greater percentage of people living in poverty.
The study team was faced with the task of completing an inventory and analysis of natural, cultural, and recreational resources within an area that encompasses parts or all of seven states and 308 counties and parishes and to make recommendations as called for in the LMDR legislation.
Seeking first the important stories or themes of the Delta, the team uncovered the important people, places, and events that make the Delta worthy of national attention. Using the National Park Service’s recently revised "Thematic Framework," historical topics important to understanding this complex region of the country began to emerge. Once the "Stories of the Delta" were identified and analyzed an inventory and analysis of the sites (museums, historic sites and structures, and other places) where those stories could be or are already being told was completed.
The concepts presented in this study reflect the important "Stories of the Delta" and the sites where those stories could best be told. A key to the success of this study has been the close working relationships forged among state, local, and federal agencies; private/nonprofit organizations; academic institutions; communities; individuals; groups living in the Delta and interested in its future and National Park Service (NPS) personnel. Extensive public involvement through public meetings, newsletters, and an Internet web site has been an integral part of ensuring that the completion of the heritage study reflects a collaborative effort.
The following summary describes the three-step process used to complete the heritage study:
Step 1: Stories (Thematic Framework)
Symposium. On June 4, 5, and 6, 1996, 25 experts on the people, history, culture, economy, and natural environment of the Lower Mississippi Delta gathered in Memphis, Tennessee. They were asked to identify the key stories and some of the sites that make this region of the country worthy of national recognition and attention.
The primary product of the symposium was a framework of stories, or themes, that form a complex yet cohesive picture of the Delta’s natural, cultural, historical, and ancient resources and are contained in the report entitled Stories of The Delta: Symposium Findings. This resultant thematic framework has served as the foundation for developing the "Stories of the Delta" (see page 101) and is the basis for the concepts presented in the study.
Public Participation. Through newsletters, public meetings, and an Internet Web page, the study team solicited additional input on stories and resources from federal, state, and local governments and agencies and local residents. More than 700 people across the Delta responded to requests for stories, sites, and comments, while the mailing list for the study includes more than 3,000 names. In addition to public meetings, newsletters, and a Web page, the study team met with representatives of American Indian and African-American communities in the Delta to discuss ways of meeting the intent of section 1104 of the LMDR initiatives legislation.
Meetings With American Indian Representatives. During the course of the study, the team held meetings with the Delta’s federally recognized tribes. The tribes were introduced to the study and given the opportunity to add stories important to American Indians in the Delta and to offer recommendations for implementing section 1104 (Native American Heritage Corridor and Cultural Center) of the legislation.
In addition to meeting with tribes in the Delta, the National Park Service held a meeting in Quapaw, Oklahoma, with federally recognized tribes that have historic ties to the Delta region. Again, tribal representatives were given an introduction to the heritage study and its purpose. They were also given the opportunity to add to the stories about American Indians in the Delta and were asked for their recommendations related to section 1104. (The reports on those meetings can be found in volume II, appendix E.)
African-American Heritage Preservation Workshops. Six meetings took place with representatives from African-American communities throughout the Delta. The first meeting was held in August 1995 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with another in Alexandria in December 1996. In March and April 1997, four additional meetings were held in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. People at these meetings were asked to tell stories about the Delta as they relate to African-American heritage. Participants were also asked to indicate which sites/resources would be appropriate to include in an African-American heritage corridor and cultural center as outlined in section 1104 of the LMDR initiatives legislation. The reports from those meetings can be found in volume II, appendix F.)
Step 2: Data Collection/ Analysis
Once the important stories of the Delta were identified, the study team collected data on sites related to those stories. The sites were analyzed according to their story representation, integrity (current and future), and their level of national importance (i.e., do they represent a diversity of the national character, are they part of a nationally distinctive landscape, and do they represent an important part of the national experience?).
In addition to the study team’s data collection and analysis efforts, the National Park Service contracted with the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to conduct a museum survey (volume II, appendix A) to determine what stories are already being interpreted and presented to visitors at museums in the study area. The National Park Service also contracted with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi to conduct a survey of sites in the Delta related to its stories other than national register, national natural, or national historic landmark sites (see volume II appendixes G and H).
Step 3: Findings/ Concepts
The concepts presented in this study represent possible configurations of heritage sites, museums, parks, festivals, and natural areas that could be used to present the "Stories of the Delta" for residents and visitors in the Delta. It is important to reiterate that the information gathered from Delta residents at various public meetings, African-American heritage preservation workshops, meetings with Native Americans, as well as the responses to the project’s two newsletters were vital in developing the concepts. The conceptual representations reflect a truly collaborative effort between the planning team and the Delta’s agencies, organizations, and residents.