Between Maps & the Mississippi
University of Westminster
Final 5th Year Dissertation

Mapping is a highly selective activity. Constructed through a series of conventions and techniques, mapping has the ability to produce very artificial and flawed representations. Correspondingly this dissertation undertakes a critical analysis of a sequence of mappings of the Mississippi and its alluvial valley. The nature and informational complexity of the investigations into the Mississippi river and its alluvial valley has resulted in the production of a diverse range of sophisticated geomorphological maps and surveys. This investigation aims to reveal the technically and culturally developing influences that influence these maps in articulating their auspicious representations of the Mississippi and its surroundings. Through a study of the historical and cartographic contexts of several early maps of America, three U.S. Army Corps of Engineer surveys and a recent investigation by landscape architects, this dissertation unravels some of the causes, intentions and effects of these maps.

This dissertation explores the vibrant and highly compelling history of the mapping of the Mississippi and its alluvial valley. In looking back at the maps of the Mississippi as they changed over time, it becomes evident that these maps are not the transparent and objective representations of the environment they are commonly received to be. Instead they become a highly opaque medium, manipulating and reshaping representations according to their particular ends. These observations in fact expose the nature of all maps as “neither depictions nor representations but mental constructs,” a complex milieu of graphic semiotics that are selected and organized to make visible their enabling narratives.

Chapter 01 – DISCOVERY

The Mississippi and its tributaries have not stopped changing in their course since the first streams of water began to flow through America into the Gulf of Mexico. This vast and shifting environment has been continually subject to a myriad of influences that affect its physical form. Increasingly over time these characteristics have become tightly bound and equally affected by its adjacent socio-economic contexts, many of which are expressed and provoked through the chronology of maps that this dissertation explores.
This collection of maps has been accumulated from a wide variety of online and archive sources. The remote nature of this investigation from the Mississippi relied on its unravelling through a staggered and somewhat unexpected discovery of mappings. Several recent investigative surveys produced by the U.S. Army are well documented on their respective websites but the most historic iteration from 1861 was discovered through reading the physical archived report and maps. The collections of independent maps was the result of prolonged online research, initially accumulating maps predominantly due to their aesthetic and cartographic influence. Only after a large proportion of the maps were accumulated did several connections between their seemingly isolated productions become apparent. This piecemeal collection induced the critical analysis that this dissertation sets out. Through the observation of the mapping’s contextual influences several of the maps’ cartographic techniques are exposed in their operational capacities. When compared with other maps in the collection, the distorting capacity of their respective cartographic constructions are revealed. Through the analysis of these historic and cartographic contexts, these maps exhibit many of the ways in which they have the ability to construct new realities, becoming persuasive tools of the wider social, political and economic milieu.

1673 – ‘The Discovery of New Lands in New France’, Louis Jolliet

1718 – ‘Map of Louisiana and the Courses of the Mississippi’, Guillaume De L’Isle

Chapter 02 – SCIENCE

The present subsurface geology of the Mississippi is the result of millions of years in geo-tectonic activity. Within geological time, the Mississippi river is a comparatively recent development of the North American Coastal Plain. A resemblance to its current physical arrangement only materialised “during the final cycle of world wide glaciation” , between 26,500 and 19,000 years ago. As the North American ice cap grew, the existing, northerly flowing streams of the Central Lowlands of the United States, began to pool at the head of the ice sheet. The pooled waters of the various streams merged and were diverted southward along the lowest part of the interior highlands into what is now called the Mississippi Structural Trough. The subsequent Pleistocene oscillations in the glacial retreat and global sea levels subjected the Mississippi to its own local fluctuations between states of flow and flood, erosion and deposition. In combination with an upward continental expansion, the Mississippi slowly became entrenched within a deep terraced valley system that formed as it continually cut and flooded the landscape. These conditions initiated the accumulation of alluvial deposits, over which, the master and tributary channels of the Mississippi have meandered in a series of long and complicated shifting positions for the last 19,000 years.

1861 – ‘Plate I. ‘Mouths of the Mississippi, Depths of the Gulf’, Humphreys, A. A., and Henry L. Abbot.

1861 – ‘Plate 2. ‘Map of the Alluvial Region of the Mississippi’, Humphreys, A. A., and Henry L. Abbot.

1861 – ‘Plate 3. ‘Plans of Important Localities.’, Humphreys, A. A., and Henry L. Abbot.

1861 – ‘Plate 10. ‘Cross Sections of the Mississippi and its Branches’, Humphreys, A. A., and Henry L. Abbot.

1861 – ‘Plate 16. ‘Discharge at Columbus’, Humphreys, A. A., and Henry L. Abbot.

1861 – ‘Plate 22. ‘Cross Sectional Profiles of the Delta Passes’, Humphreys, A. A., and Henry L. Abbot.

Chapter 03 – GEOLOGY

Within more recent history, this dramatic protean nature of the Mississippi has been contrary to a human imperative for uniformity and consistency. As precursors to the physical constraint of the Mississippi into its present course, numerous repeated mappings and investigations have endeavoured to bring a certain degree of predictability to the Mississippi’s courses and flood plains. In 1861 an extensive Mississippi survey was carried out under an Act of the United States congress. Its aim was to carry out, “such investigations as might lead to determine the most practical plan for securing [the Mississippi Alluvial region] from inundation.” Since the 1861 survey the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) have intently monitored and documented the Mississippi and its alluvial valley, with an objective to better understand it, and consequently defend the surrounding region.
In 1944 Harold Fisk was commissioned to conduct a complete and comprehensive geological investigation of the Lower Mississippi River. Fisk’s geological monograph became “the authoritative” reference on the surrounding paleogeological environment, with its extensive mappings and research still considered a “geological classic” today. Although Fisk’s thorough investigation influenced many tactical and physical interventions of hydrological control, it also instigated debates about some concepts he presented.

1944 – ‘Plate 1. ‘Physiographic Map of the Central Gulf Coastal Plain’, Harold Fisk.

1944 – ‘Plate 2-2. ‘Development of Alluvial Surface’, Harold Fisk.

1944 – ‘Plate 15-3. ‘Stream Courses’, Harold Fisk.

1944 – ‘Plate 22-6. ‘Ancient Courses of the Mississippi Meander Belt’, Harold Fisk.

1944 – ‘Plate 22-7. ‘Ancient Courses of the Mississippi Meander Belt’, Harold Fisk.

Chapter 04 – TECHNOLOGY

In 1994 Roger Saucier compiled a new summary in order to synthesise new geological knowledge of the region and reflect the advances of the previous fifty years. This summary is the most comprehensive and contemporary overview of the geomorphology of the Lower Mississippi Valley since Fisk’s 1944 investigation. Its research not only takes into account modern data sets but also a representational shift towards broader and differentiated audience.
The nature and informational complexity of the investigations into the Mississippi’s Alluvial Valley have resulted in the production of a diverse range of sophisticated geomorphological maps and surveys. Although all of these maps “facilitate a spatial understanding of […] concepts, […] processes, [and] events in the human world” they are also highly representative of the codes under which they are culturally and historically constructed.

1994 – ‘Cover Page. ‘Suballuvial Surface’, Roger Saucier.

1994 – ‘Plate 6. ‘Quaternary Deposits’, Roger Saucier.

1994 – ‘Plate 7. ‘Quaternary Deposits’, Roger Saucier.

1994 – ‘Plate 27. ‘Configuration of Suballuvial Surface’, Roger Saucier.

Chapter 05 – SHIFT

Following the drastic Mississippi floods during the summer of 1993, Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha sought to reinterpret this “landscape of conflict” and “re-engage the Mississippi” through a different model of analysis and representation. Their techniques combine surveys, maps, myths and histories in a fusion of layered representations that guide their investigations with the intention to perceive the landscape as a, ”shifting, living, [and] material phenomenon.” Mathur and da Cunha’s visual representations are an attempt to map, and also reflect the dynamic nature of the river itself, in a sometimes dramatic contravention to the orthodox and static mapping practices of the existing geological maps.

2001 – ‘Depositing Depth’, Mathur, Anuradha, and Dilip Da. Cunha.

2001 – ‘Depositing Depth’, Mathur, Anuradha, and Dilip Da. Cunha.

2001 – ‘Flooding Soil’, Mathur, Anuradha, and Dilip Da. Cunha.

This selection of maps prominently connects to several aspects surrounding the representation and construction of environments. Their capacity to reformulate the environment is increasingly applied to express ideas that enable change in ways that typical architectural plans cannot, articulating previously concealed intersections between both the built and the natural environments. Where the architect’s technical drawings maintain resolute depictions, communicating fixed conditions and instructions unto an end, the practice of mapping enables the unfolding of multiple possibilities, a generative vehicle traversing the possibilities of “a thousand geographies.”
This dissertation seeks to unravel some of the realities that this chronology of maps conveys, exploring their fabrication and communication of information. These mappings are observed visually but this essay intends to present a reading as a series of interweaving and developing stories, in a re-enactment for “new or previously unobserved realities.” It will focus on the graphic representations of the Mississippi surveys, extracting their conventions, codified meanings, and resulting spatial reconfigurations.

Introduction excerpt from ‘Between Maps & the Mississippi’. Click HERE to download the full dissertation, © 2014 Michael Perkins, All rights reserved.