Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. 1919.

Changes of Three Centuries

On Board U. S. S. Mississippi,
October 1, 1907.

After speaking at Keokuk this morning we got aboard this brand new stern-wheel steamer of the regular Mississippi type and started down-stream. I went up in the Texas and of course felt an almost irresistible desire to ask the pilot about Mark Twain. It is a broad, shallow, muddy river, at places the channel being barely wide enough for the boat to go through, though to my inexperienced eyes the whole river looks like a channel. The bottom lands, Illinois on one side and Missouri on the other, are sometimes over-grown with forests and sometimes great rich cornfields, with here and there a house, here and there villages, and now and then a little town. At every such place all the people of the neighborhood have gathered to greet me. The water-front of the towns would be filled with a dense packed mass of men, women, and children, waving flags. The little villages have not only their own population, but also the farmers who have driven in in their wagons with their wives and children from a dozen miles back—just such farmers as came to see you and the cavalry on your march through Iowa last summer.

It is my first trip on the Mississippi, and I am greatly interested in it. How wonderful in its rapidity of movement has been the history of our country, compared with the history of the old world. For untold ages this river had been flowing through the lonely continent, not very greatly changed since the close of the Pleistocene. During all these myriads of years the prairie and the forest came down to its banks. The immense herds of the buffalo and the elk wandered along them season after season, and the Indian hunters on foot or in canoes trudged along the banks or skimmed the water. Probably a thousand years saw no change that would have been noticeable to our eyes. Then three centuries ago began the work of change. For a century its effects were not perceptible. Just nothing but an occasional French fleet or wild half savage French-Canadian explorer passing up or down the river or one of its branches in an Indian canoe; then the first faint changes, the building of one or two little French fur traders’ hamlets, the passing of one or two British officers’ boats, and the very rare appearance of the uncouth American backwoodsman.

Then the change came with a rush. Our settlers reached the head-waters of the Ohio, and flatboats and keel-boats began to go down to the mouth of the Mississippi, and the Indians and the game they followed began their last great march to the west. For ages they had marched back and forth, but from this march there was never to be a return. Then the day of steamboat traffic began, and the growth of the first American cities and states along the river with their strength and their squalor and their raw pride. Then this mighty steamboat traffic passed its zenith and collapsed, and for a generation the river towns have dwindled compared with the towns which took their importance from the growth of the railroads. I think of it all as I pass down the river.

October 4.… We are steaming down the river now between Tennessee and Arkansas. The forest comes down a little denser to the bank, the houses do not look quite so well kept; otherwise there is not much change. There are a dozen steamers accompanying us, filled with delegates from various river cities. The people are all out on the banks to greet us still. Moreover, at night, no matter what the hour is that we pass a town, it is generally illuminated, and sometimes whistles and noisy greetings, while our steamboats whistle in equally noisy response, so that our sleep is apt to be broken. Seventeen governors of different states are along, in a boat by themselves. I have seen a good deal of them, however, and it has been of real use to me, especially as regards two or three problems that are up. At St. Louis there was an enormous multitude of people out to see us. The procession was in a drenching rain, in which I stood bareheaded, smiling affably and waving my drowned hat to those hardy members of the crowd who declined to go to shelter. At Cairo, I was also greeted with great enthusiasm, and I was interested to find that there was still extreme bitterness felt over Dickens’s description of the town and the people in “Martin Chuzzlewit” sixty-five years ago.