This semester I am teaching a course, “Rivers, Politics, and Power in the US,
” that has allowed me to consider the purpose and challenges of thinking about river history. In our first class, my students were a bit disappointed to learn that there was no single definition of a river and that one person’s ditch was another’s river. Yet as we have reached the middle of the semester, we have come to appreciate the uncertain boundaries of what defines a river. This vagueness has helped people to use rivers while fleeing enslavement
or to seek independence on fertile, if also flood prone land. And a river’s porous boundaries also suggests why restoring urban rivers
can be particularly effective at fighting environmental injustice since this work extends so far beyond the river channel. Though neither law nor science offers a compelling definition of rivers, history, my students and I realized, actually offers the best definition of a river, mainly that every river is itself historical and is defined by constant change. Our readings have shown how a range of historical actors have attempted to deny this fundamental aspect of rivers. Attempts to fix rivers as unchanging in law, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, or as a border have resulted in the exclusion of many of the rivers’ residents who have known their own local rivers. However rivers themselves have also challenged these attempts to fix themselves in space such as when the Rio Grande shifted course
and hundreds of acres of land rested uncertainly between the United States and Mexico.
While the letters, oral histories, and images presented on Confluence will show how the river and its residents have changed over time, what about the maps upon which this history is overlaid? River maps, such as the one created by Thoreau on the Concord River can raise many questions about the relationship between people and place, but most maps still leave rivers fixed in time and space. In 1944 a Louisiana State University Geology Professor, Harold Fisk, published a series of maps on the Mississippi River that incorporated the centrality of change into his design. The maps, pictured below, show the variety of paths, called meanders, taken by the Mississippi River. The fact that these maps were published by the Army Corps of Engineers is especially surprising since no organization has done more to attempt to fix the Mississippi River, and many other rivers, in time and space. Despite, or often because of the Corps’ efforts, rivers continue to change, a fact that has only been heightened by climate change, a term that likes rivers, is defined by change and human influence.