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How America's 'Old Man River' Shaped History

A screenshot of the Mississippi River watershed from the stream mapping tool created by the Department of the Interior.

From transporting Native Americans to the founding of the United States and beyond, the Mississippi River is an integral part of American history.

In his new book, Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History, author Paul Schneider weaves together all of these stories and more to tell the greater story of a continent formed and transformed by a river which both divides and unites.

According to Schneider, a battle over the Ohio River Valley (a tributary to the Mississippi) started the French and Indian War, which in turn led to the British taxing colonists in order to pay for the war. In essence, the Mississippi River caused the French to leave the continent and provided the impetus for the American Revolution.

The river was again pivotal in the Civil War.

"It split the Confederacy in half," said Schneider. "We don't often imagine how important Texas and Arkansas were to the Confederacy, but basically the blockade of the ports, of the Southern ports, was so effective, that the South could not export anything out of its traditional ports. And so, the only way it could get exports out once the bottom of the river was closed was across the river and down through Texas and out through Mexico. So that was the only way they could get hard currency."

Beyond wars, the Mississippi River played a fundamental role in the transportation of people and goods from the time Native American tribes first touched its shores. And once river boats began going up and down its length, the river transported music too. According to Schneider, most of the music considered truly American developed along the Mississippi River.

Paul Schneider talks about the role the Mississippi River played in the development of American music.

Today, the Mississippi River continues to play a pivotal role in the United States, largely in the economy. It transports almost 90 percent of the nations' exports.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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