The Meandering Mississippi River

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Meander Map created by Harold Fisk, 1944

This is a map of the Mississippi River, created in 1944 by a cartographer named Harold Fisk.

It’s called a “meander map”.

It demonstrates all the various paths that the Mississippi has taken over the millennia. The different colors represent moments in history when the river jumped her banks and changed her course dramatically.

Native Americans used to move their settlements along with the river’s constant shifts and changes, but Americans saw things differently.

In the 1940s, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to lock down the Mississippi River into a certain course. They built walls and levees and declared: “These are now the official boundaries of the Mississippi. She doesn’t move an inch from HERE.”

Nature, of course, has had different plans.

The blogger Jason Kottke beautifully evokes how these maps visualize the river’s long history, representing

thousands of years of course changes compressed into a single image by a clever mapmaker with an artistic eye. Looking at them, you’re invited to imagine the Mississippi as it was during the European exploration of the Americas in the 1500s, during the Cahokia civilization in the 1200s (when this city’s population matched London’s), when the first humans came upon the river more than 12,000 years ago, and even back to before humans, when mammoths, camels, dire wolves, and giant beavers roamed the land and gazed upon the river.

To see all the maps created by Harold Fisk, check out Radical Cartography. “Part of an otherwise technocratic report for the Army Corps of Engineers, Fisk’s maps of the historical traces of the Mississippi River are a wonderful surprise. Presented here are all fifteen maps, stretching from southern Illinois to southern Louisiana.”

Featured image of Mississippi River courtesy of Istock.

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