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To Whom Does The River Belong?

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you know an unemployed lawyer looking for work, here's a possible project: find out who owns the Mississippi River. It's a problem that has used up whole law firms for more than four hundred years.

An anonymous homemade poem in an old issue of The American Lumberman puts the question this way:

The river belongs to the nation,

The levee, they say, to the state;

The government runs navigation,

The commonwealth, though, pays the freight.

Now, here is the problem that's heavy—

Please, which is the right or the wrong?

When the water runs over the levee,

To whom does the river belong?

Hernando de Soto discovered the Lower Mississippi on May 8th, 1541 and claimed it for Spain. A hundred and fifty years later Marquette and Joliet found the Upper Mississippi and claimed it for France. LaSalle extended that claim to the whole river when he got there. By 1763, England owned the east half and Spain the West half, except for the mouth claimed by France.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought it all fair and square from Napoleon as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

That might have been the end of the matter had it not been for the Civil War when the Mississippi was split between the North and the South, preventing either side from doing much with the river.

The Mississippi was reunited again after the War, but its tangle of legal problems grew worse. Although the federal government technically controls the river, states felt they had a right to use the river as they saw fit. So did individual towns along the river, who depended on the river for drinking water and transportation. Steamboats claimed a right to the river and tried to keep the railroad and rafts men away. Commercial fishermen claim more right to use the river than tourists.

Until the river floods, and each group points the finger at the other groups, no one claims responsibility.

So, who owns the river? Wait. Is that the Mississippi I hear quietly giggling?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.