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Life and Commercial Death Near the Mississippi


In June 2008, Tom and Huck (Saul and his friend Marin) return as two senior citizens not on a raft but in a rented car, driving from New Jersey south and then west through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, and into Illinois where we see the Mississippi River near Murphysboro.

We had driven through the territory on which Daniel Boone had hunted bear, that Lewis and Clark had traversed two centuries before four lane with fast food and expensive gasoline rest stops  cut through it. We headed for the land where Louis Joliet and Pere Jacques Marquette in 1673 took their river journey with an Indian guide.

A decade later, in 1682, Ferdinand La Salle and Tonty (Frenchmen) canoed down the river and met and entertained some Indians. Deciphering the gibberish most of us learned in grade school, here’s what happened. After playing some fiddle music, the priest who accompanied the "explorers" performed some mysterious ceremony with a cross. The Indians applauded the performance and the land scammers interpreted this as formal approval to deliver the Mississippi River Valley to King Louis XIV. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris – end of the French and Indian Wars — France ceded that ill-gotten territory to England. Much of the vast area that French priest and land grabbers conned from Indian nations "belonged" to England.

The American Revolution rectified that. According to the 1783 Treaty of Paris the Mississippi "shall forever remain free and open to the subjects of Great Britain and the citizens of the United States."

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson bought the land the French stole from Indian nations. He paid Napoleon practically nothing for the immense amont of real estate, but he could have just taken it from him. Nappy was caught up in imperial wars in Europe at the time.

Jump ahead two centuries to modern Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio meets the Mississippi. Most downtown businesses have closed. Vacant houses abound amidst ramshackle dwellings. The 2000 Census estimated some 61% of Cairo school children lived in poverty, the 15th highest in the United States.  The Cairo streets look like a movie set for a dying town, replete with houses with broken windows, boards over store fronts and poor people hanging out.

Even its Fort Defiance State Park, which overlooks the joining of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, has gone to seed. From the cracked cement of the observation tower we watched the barges moving slowly down river. From the place where the rivers join, we looked into Kentucky on one side and Missouri on the other. The Cairo City and Canal Company founded Cairo in 1837. The Illinois Central Railroad ran through it by the late 1850s and it became a major steamboat port with its own Customs House, now a museum with few visitors. On the shore, the plastic and glass bottle debris from trysts and informal drinking parties remain for future archeologists to decipher the meaning of modern cultural life on the Mississippi in 2008.

Tragedy or just evolution? Not a question you would put to a descendent of the Cherokees in the nearby Trail of Tears State Park. The middle-aged woman who asks us if we need help in the visitor center got laid off from her last job in an old age home and now works ats a guide for visitors. She’s part Cherokee, she tells us. Her grandfather told her as a child what his father told him about how in 1830 President Jackson pushed through Congress The Indian Removal Act so he could negotiate treaties with Indian nations. If they would leave their lands, Jackson promised, they could settle on new and good land in the west. Over the next seven years Jackson removed some 50,000 Indians. They had no choice but to give up twenty five million acres of forests and farms for arid dirt on reservations west of the Mississippi. The Creeks and Seminoles refused. Jackson ordered the army to force them out at gun point or drag them away in chains.

Jackson’s motive? White "settlers" – speculators? — had their greedy eyes on Cherokee land. The Cherokees took their case to the Supreme Court in 1831 claiming sovereignty. In 1832, the Court ruled the Cherokees did have the right to the land, but Jackson sneered at the ruling. "Justice Marshall has made his ruling, and now he may enforce it." So much for separation of power and checks and balances!

The Georgia legislature offered Cherokee homelands to whites despite the fact the Indians still inhabited it. Cherokee Chief John Ross refused to sign a treaty with Jackson swapping good land for unknown "reservation land." Jackson found an ersatz Indian chief to sign in 1833.  He presented this fraudulent document to Congress, which ratified The Treaty of New Echota in 1835.

"Colonel Jackson was a no good double crosser," the visitor center woman declared. "The Cherokees fought for him in the 1812 War and this is how he paid them back. Took their land cause it was valuable and his political pals wanted it." 

The white farmers and developers adored Jackson. The Cherokees left a Trail of Tears, as they were forced to march from their eastern farms across rugged terrain in winter to Oklahoma. Thousands died; meaningful nationhood lost without their land.

Kids in grade school still learn about the glorious settling of the west, which Indinas had already settled. As we drove down the highways paralleling the banks of the Mississippi we saw the rich agriculture. But the small farmers who benefited from Jackson’s perfidy have long given way to agribusiness, Cheap labor tends to vast acres of soy beans, cotton, corn, wheat, sorghum and rice. Crop dusters blast them with chemicals.

In his prize winning book on Jackson, the recently deceased and much celebrated historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote: "White resentment of the Cherokees had been building and reached a pinnacle after gold was discovered in Georgia, and immediately following the passage of the Cherokee Nation constitution, and establishment of a Cherokee Supreme Court. Possessed with ‘gold fever,’ and a thirst for expansion, the white communities turned on their Cherokee neighbors." Schlesinger acknowledged that Jackson’s "command and life was saved due to 500 Cherokee allies at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814." He characterized Jackson’s removal of his former saviors as "unbelievable." Yet, he continued, "the U.S. government decided it was time for the Cherokees to leave behind their farms, their land and their homes."

"Time’s up for the Indians. Tough luck! Move on." That’s how millions learn history. I wonder if Israeli grade school teachers use language similar to Schlesinger’s. "The Israeli government decided it was time for the Palestinians to leave their homes."

The post civil war small town white and even black populations have not suffered that level of atrocities, but they have seen their way of life become downright "Wal-Marty."

In Jonesboro, Illinois, where Lincoln debated Douglass, Fred, a Korean War vet, observed that "Wal-Mart promised everything at lower prices and now they’ve put the small stores out of business, well you get what you get there, a bunch of bad Chinese toys and such."

In the nearby Bardwell, Kentucky "business district" the once ubiquitous stores of typical small town America were closed. Fred, who volunteers at the visitor center in Jonesboro, shook his head. "The people are leaving. No jobs. Why would anyone want to come here with big money to invest?" He smiled. "Different times," he said, "and you can’t blame it all on Bush. The factories started shutting down quite a while before he put his backside in the Oval Office." He chuckled wryly. "He sure has wasted a lot of our money though in that war in Eye-Rack. But business wouldn’t come here anyway. Hardly any of the companies I remember as a kid are here any more."

He didn’t mention the New Page Corporation, which emits an acrid stench from its sulfur plant in nearby Wickliffe, Kentucky, (population 749).  The nose-searing redolence almost drove us back to the interstate highway.  At a time of rotting factories and empty warehouses, which means almost everyone loses his job, "you get used to the smell," said a local man.

Hickman and Dyersburg, the Kentucky towns on the road to Memphis, parallel to the Mississippi, have similarly depressing main streets. Some antique stores have replaced furniture, shoes, jewelry or dry goods stores. Their commercial death stands in dramatic comparison to the full parking lots at Wal-Mart at the edge of town – the metaphor for early 21st Century small town America. A depressing eye opener for old Tom and Huck.


Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow whose films have won awards. (Available through
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