STORIES OF THE DELTA
On June 4, 5, and 6, 1996, 25 experts on the people, history, culture, economy,
and natural environment of the Lower Mississippi Delta gathered in Memphis,
Tennessee. Their purpose was to identify key stories and some of the sites that
make this region of the country worthy of national recognition and attention.
A broad-ranging content and collaborative spirit were generated at the Lower
Mississippi Delta Symposium and became the heart of the "Stories of the
Delta" presented here. Throughout the heritage study process, the team
worked closely with these "experts", various regional partners, and
the public to affirm and enhance the work accomplished at that first meeting
The "Stories of the Delta" ó the people, places, and events that
bring this region of the country to national attention ó form a complex yet
cohesive picture of the Deltaís natural, cultural, historic, and ancient resources.
These are the stories or themes related to the Delta that visitors and residents
alike should understand to appreciate the impact this region has had on the
formation of our national character. The stories, combined with the appropriate
sites and resources to tell the stories, form the basis for the concepts found
in this heritage study.
The physical presence and historical development of the Mississippi River are
fundamental stories of the Lower Mississippi Delta Region. The river is the
defining feature that touches all aspects of life in the Delta ó settlement
patterns, agriculture, music, art, literature, architecture, and the economy.
For thousands of years the Great River and its tributaries have constructed,
destroyed, and redefined the physical landscape of the Delta. The river challenged
human inhabitants to harness its wildness and harvest its great bounty.
Dynamic geologic and human processes changed the river over time:
- Ice-Age conditions braided the river 18,000 years ago. A mere 10,000 years
ago natural forces set it on its meandering path creating a nutrient rich
- Agriculture flourished in the rich alluvial sediments laid down by the river
over the centuries.
- Successive human attempts to control the riverís power and path created
conflicts between natural and human processes.
- America has long used the Mississippi River system as a major transportation
and migration corridor from goods shipped to interior as well as international
markets to the thousands of poor farm laborers and their families who migrated
to the industrial centers of the north.
- The river influenced human settlement patterns, uniting as well as dividing.
Human interaction with the Delta environment varied with the diverse cultural
groups that inhabited the region. Prehistoric hunting practices and settlement
patterns were the first human influences on the Deltaís landscape. To a greater
or lesser degree successive generations of people manipulated the Delta landscape
to make the land inhabitable and to exploit its rich and abundant natural resources
for trade and commerce.
- The building of dams, levees, and locks altered, and in some cases, eliminated
the natural shoreline, wetlands, and hardwoods and contributed to the human
occupation of the landscape.
- The Flood of 1927 was the largest hydrologic event of this century. It signaled
the end of a levee systemís ability to control floods.
- Farming, agricultural mechanization, pesticide use, lumbering, manufacturing,
and other practices led to erosion problems and water pollution.
- The environmental awareness that began in the 1970s positively influenced
floodway improvements, levee construction, clean water issues, and wetlands
- The effect of technology on the human environment, such as air conditioning,
changed living conditions for everyone.
The story of the Delta is the story of its people and its rich cultural heritage.
The convergence of Native, European, African, Caribbean, Asian, and many other
cultures to the Delta resulted in a complex and multilayered society.
- The Deltaís earliest inhabitants left evidence of 12,000 years of human
life that preceded the arrival of Europeans. Mound sites can still be seen
throughout the Delta, though the preservation of many are threatened.
- Native American peoples have a vital and distinct Delta story. Native American
cultures adapted and survived despite interaction and conflicts with non-native
cultures, e.g., exposure to disease to which they had no immunity and the
Indian removal policies of the 1830s. Native people had vital governments,
economies, social structures, and trade networks long before Europeans arrived
in the Delta.
- The legacy of African-Americans in the Delta is rich and varied. Once an
enslaved people, their labor built much of the plantation architecture visitors
see today. But slavery is only part of the story of African-Americans in the
Delta. Art, literature, science, technology, and music reflect the diversity
of contributions African-Americans made to the regionís and nationís rich
- The Delta tells a story of the survival of the working poor, labor/work
patterns, family life, religion, spiritual expression, and the "spirit
of the cultures," such as humor, hospitality, storytelling, and gentility.
- Immigration, whether voluntary or forced, brought peoples of a variety of
cultural backgrounds, such as African-Americans and Acadians, to the Delta.
The Lower Mississippi Delta is known world-wide for its richness of cultural
expression. The blues and zydeco were born in the Delta, and gospel, ragtime,
rhythm & blues, rock & roll, and country music flourished there. Delta
art, architecture, folk art, and food reflect the adaptations of many people
to the Deltaís physical environment and are an expression of their native or
original roots, which gives the region a special sense of place.
- Music is a language that interprets life in the Lower Mississippi Delta
in a way that no other mode of expression can. Delta music has had a significant
impact on musical forms around the world.
- Delta architecture reflects the regionís diverse cultural influences. French
and Spanish influences are especially visible in New Orleans, while formal
Greek Revival, Queen Anne, and Italianate Revival "Villa" styles
and African influences can be found in many areas.
- Plantation architecture, including spatial relationships between the large,
classically proportioned plantation houses, slave quarters, and out buildings,
is the most visible symbol of the antebellum south when cotton was king.
- The Deltaís literature and art reflect a strong sense of place. The land,
water, and climate form the background for much of the Deltaís art and literature
expressions. Kinship, family, tragedy, melodrama, and class differences have
long given rise to written expression in the Delta.
- Food is a primary form of cultural expression and is readily apparent throughout
the Lower Mississippi Delta.
- The blending of cultures throughout the region is reflected in food, folkart,
SOCIAL AND POLITICAL INFLUENCES
Social and economic systems, political movements, and government policies have
a long history of shaping life in the Delta. Trade patterns, social and political
institutions, and warfare of mound-building peoples predate Europeans by many
centuries. The struggles caused by European migration and settlement, slavery,
Native American removal, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights
movement are only the most recent reflections of human interaction within the
Mississippi River Delta.
- The Deltaís earliest inhabitants established trade networks, fought for
control of vital resources, and built fortifications to protect themselves.
- European political and social practices disrupted and altered Native American
cultures and eventually forced them from their homelands. In addition European
diseases decimated tribes across the Delta.
- Slavery, the underground railroad, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Segregation,
the Ku Klux Klan, and the Civil Rights movement are key stories of national
impact in the Delta. The Delta attracted national attention during the civil
rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Local African-American churches were
the springboards for civil rights actions. The civil rights movement also
turned the region into a political stronghold for the Democratic national
- The struggle to close the gaps between racial, ethnic, cultural, and economic
differences has a long history in the Delta that continues today. The challenges
of the 21st century require developing a greater capacity to pursue development
goals within a multi cultural, global economy.
THE DELTA AND THE NATIONAL ECONOMY
The Mississippi River system ties the region together economically. America
has long used the river system as a major transportation corridor for shipping
goods to international markets, as well as supplying goods to the interior of
the country. The riverís value to the agricultural and petrochemical economies
of the Delta and the nation is preeminent.
- Cotton was the mainstay of the regionís economy for more than 150 years.
This single crop, with its roots secure in the rich alluvial soil, has had
an impact on markets around the world. It was cotton grown in the Delta that
supplied the textile markets of England and New England which, in turn, perpetuated
the slave labor system of the South. Soy-beans, corn and rice cultivation,
timbering, oil refining, and the chemical industry helped diversify the regionís
- Since 1950 technology has continued to decrease labor requirements for traditional
crops cotton, corn, rice, and soybeans resulting in a high number of displaced
- The Delta tells the story of the survival of the working poor. There is
a dignity in labor in the Delta reflected in the ways people define and sustain
themselves, which can be observed in neighborhood gardens, in folk art, and
- Travel and tourism is becoming another major industry in the Delta and the
nation. As the number one industry of the late 20th century, travel and tourism
can be a vehicle to stimulate the economies of the Lower Mississippi Delta.
Draft Heritage Study and Environmental