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The Mississippi

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Coloney & Fairchild's Patent Ribbon Maps ... Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866
Two thousand six hundred miles in eleven feet. Someone standing at the barely perceptible headwaters of the Mississippi near Lake Itasca, Minnesota cannot imagine a single map could capture all 2,600 miles of the Mississippi into a strip map a mere two inches wide and eleven feet long. But here it is, the river’s natural sinews straightened to allow it to fit on a scroll. The river begins faintly, a thinly penned line, and then traverses Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. This is the most ambitious of Coloney & Fairchild ribbon maps, backed on linen and coiled around a covered spool controlled by a hand crank. This is the revised edition, with significant material on river towns added by William Bowen, president of the Pilot's Association of St. Louis. While there is no record of the first issue, copies exist at the Minnesota Historical Society and the Newberry Library. Distances from New Orleans are printed on the river at intervals to the source.
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Map I The Junction of the Ohio and Mississippi, in The Navigator: Containing Directions for Navigating the Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers with an Ample Account of these Much Admired Waters. Zadok Cramer. Pittsburgh: 1808
The Navigator was first in a long series of guides to the western rivers. Manuscript notations on several maps indicate this copy was used for trips down the river.
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Map of the Course of the Mississippi from the Missouri and the Country of the Illinois to the mouth of this River. Plate 23, in A Journey in North America, Containing a Survey of the Countries Watered by the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Other Affluing Rivers... George Henri Victor Collot. Paris: 1796 (But 1826 due to delay in publishing)
Collot's map is among the earliest detailed maps of the Mississippi River Valley. It is based on his travels on the river in 1796.

The Father of Waters, the Mississippi River, is 2,600 miles long from its source at modest Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to its delta near New Orleans, where it finally empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the longest rivers in the world, and with its many tributaries including the Ohio and the Missouri, the Mississippi watershed drains water from over 30 US states.

The Mississippi has long been an object of fascination to the American public, from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to big wheel turnin’ to home of the blues. The River was no less a fascination for early American navigators, who sought to understand its many twists, turns, and eddies as it meanders southward. To tame the river into a course for travel, transport, and commerce, it first needed to be mapped.

The maps in this case illustrate the earliest attempts to capture Old Man River in all its glorious length.

—Barb Mackraz, MLA Program Graduate Student, ’16