A Cultural Gateway, 1800-1850
by Peter J. Kastor, PhD, Washington University
No part of North America underwent a more dramatic shift in culture and demography during the first half of the nineteenth century than the Mississippi River Valley. By 1850, most residents of the Valley or their parents had been born elsewhere. That demographic change was the result of local, continental, and transatlantic changes. The new political and diplomatic circumstances drove away many of the Valley's older residents. Meanwhile, other forces would convince people in the United States and Europe that the Mississippi Valley might be an ideal place to seek a new home.
In 1800, the Mississippi Valley was Indian country. Indians were far and away the most numerous residents, and Indian villages controlled passage down the river. The largest number of white residents were of French ancestry, whether they were fur traders in the upper Mississippi Valley, merchants in the mid Mississippi Valley, or planters and sailors in the lower Mississippi Valley. The daily rules of cultural behavior came from these two groups. The small number of Indians from other parts of North America or the trickle of whites from the United States or Europe had to adjust accordingly. Beyond the particulars of Indian and French culture, however, the Mississippi Valley was first and foremost a frontier. The regional culture reflected a place where people of numerous backgrounds collided and where systems of power were uncertain.
This regional culture was a direct product of broader commercial and diplomatic factors. After all, commerce and culture worked together to shape how people negotiated with each other. Meanwhile, the lack of a clear resolution in the ongoing struggle between the United States, Indians, and Europeans for control of the Mississippi Valley preserved particular frontier circumstances.
An indication of the changes ahead came in 1798, when Daniel Boone, the fabled American frontiersman, left his home in Kentucky to start a new life in Spanish Missouri. The Louisiana Purchase and the settlement of international political disputes in the 1800s and 1810s convinced other Americans to follow. But the real change occurred in the 1820s, when economic problems and soil exhaustion in the East forced thousands of white Americans to seek their fortunes in the West. The Mississippi Valley seemed to offer a promised land of cheap, fertile land, while the river itself promised speedy connections to markets. Most of these first settlers where Anglo-American Protestants from states like Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. They soon outnumbered the old French residents. Meanwhile, as the region became increasingly crowded, white settlers demanded Indian land, precipitating conflicts which culminated in the forced removal of Indians to lands further west. During the 1840s, the Mississippi Valley—and especially the river cities of St. Louis and New Orleans—became the home to immigrants from Ireland and especially from Germany.
By 1850, the Mississippi River was not only a gateway between East and West but also a thoroughfare through the increasingly different cultures of North and South. The Lower Mississippi Valley had become slave country. Not only was the majority of the population in much of the region enslaved, but the culture itself rested on slavery. Meanwhile, a very different culture was emerging in the Upper Mississippi Valley. If planters had concluded that the Lower Mississippi Valley was the land of wealth and power, white settlers further north became convinced that the Mississippi Valley was the land of opportunity and respectability.
It was in these waning years of frontier life, when people were constantly moving through the Mississippi Valley, that the particular regional culture of Mark Twain and George Caleb Bingham took form. But if the culture of the Mississippi Valley reached a national scope as the region ceased to be a frontier, it was that frontier experience that formed the heart of what people read, heard, and saw about the Mississippi. Many of Twain's stories drew humor from the innocent newcomers and longstanding rascals that populated the Transmississippi frontier. Bingham celebrated the world of boatmen and trappers who helped propel the old frontier economy. Along with other writers, painters, and artists of all forms, they attempted to represent a frontier experience that was already becoming part of the Mississippi's history.