Plantations and Meanders

Two maps describe the path of the Mississippi River and the land around it. One, Harold Fisk’s Mississippi Meander Map (1944), traces the many paths the river has taken through its evolution. The other, the Chart of the Mississippi River from Natchez to New Orleans, was originally created by Marie Adrien Persec in 1858 to show the plantations that divided the land on either side of the river. What stands out when we put these maps side-by-side? What do they tell us about different understandings of the river and its place among us?

Both mapmakers traveled the river extensively to create these drawings. Persec traveled the river by skiff, stopping at each mile to note each plantation’s bounding lines, ownership, docks and landmarks along the way. Fisk made his way from Kentucky to the mouth of the river, looking for the imprints of the river’s abandoned pathways in the terrain and topography. Fisk was also able to draw upon aerial photographs of the river to trace its pathways. The oil industry, which had begun its reach into the region’s resources by the 1940s, is also a part of Fisk’s map, as borings from oil companies enabled a deeper investigation of subsurface layers. 

An insert showing a sugar plantation from Persec's map

Persec’s map depicts the dominant economic and social modes of the 1800’s – plantations, mostly sugar and cotton, and the slave trade, indirectly. Color-coded by the product of the plantation (pink and green for cotton, green and white for sugar), his map captures land use and land division in Mississippi and Louisiana during slavery. At the top of the map are paintings of a seemingly idyllic cotton plantation and a sugar plantation with its refinery. The map’s border features a repeating pattern of sugar cane stalks, cotton flowers, and an enslaved person picking cotton and sugar. The ports of Baton Rouge and New Orleans are shown at the bottom, completing the picture of the pre-Civil War industry: plantation owners using enslaved labor to produce high-profit goods of sugar and cotton, taking advantage of the fertile alluvial soil on land they had taken from Indigenous peoples, the river as a main artery for people and goods, and government protection of racial slavery and the plantation economy to build riches.

Persec’s map also demonstrates the French system of dividing land in relation to waterfront access. The long and narrow lots are the result of regulation meant to ensure access to critical resources for the maximum number of landowners. Starting in 1716, colonial law required that lots along the river be limited to 2 to 4 arpents (approx 191 feet) in width, and extend 40 to 80 arpents from the river. With each curve of the river, this created narrowing and widening wedges of land radiating out from the river. This map shows the imposition of private land ownership and rigid property lines upon this fluid landscape, and the erasure of Native, common stewardship of land and water.The lines in this map are easy to trace today – they are present in the New Orleans’s street grid, in the grand allées of oak trees that welcome tourists to their plantation tours, and in the fencelines that do little to protect communities from the exhaust and spills of chemical plants and oil and gas refineries along River Road and Cancer Alley. 

The curving, intersecting lines in Fisk’s drawings are also part of our present, visible as oxbow lakes and multicolored swirls in aerial imagery and also as bands of alluvial deposits in soil maps. His map, made for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River Commission, highlights the ways in which it is in the nature of the Mississippi to avoid containment.

In 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission in response to lobbying by river-adjacent communities to advise a comprehensive approach to handling the Mississippi River. Initially, the Commission pushed a levees-only approach to managing the river, but this shifted following the events of 1927, when massive floods coursed throughout the river’s valley, precipitating the dynamiting of the levees in St. Bernard Parish to prevent the flooding river from wiping out New Orleans. Following these events, there has been greater allowance that diversions and other emergency relief valves may be necessary to live with the river and its floods. Fisk’s map seems like a response to that evolution of thought, showing that the river has never been fixed in place, and his report emphasizes 1927 as a pivotal year in understanding the Mississippi. The maps were de-accessioned by the Army Corps of Engineers, however, perhaps indicating that their use was seen as limited, as the Army Corps has continued to harden river levees and control structures in the decades since in an ongoing effort to keep the river from changing course. 

An aerial image used in Fisk's research for his map.

Fisk’s map can be seen everywhere today, though, from a footbridge in NOMA’s Sculpture Garden to prints for sale on Etsy. The river as a wild, dynamic force sweeping to and fro across a vast floodplain seems to inspire us, even if in reality we have done everything in our power – using dams, levees, floodwalls, floodgates, and spillways – to make the river less free flowing, less wild, and more predictable.  


The Mississippi (interactive documentary)

Mississippi River Project Flood

Mississippi Floods

Drawn Together 

Richard Campanella. Bienville's Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans. (Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2008).

Ari Kelman, A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006).