Letters & Essays

Pirate City

Rich Cohen

Long before the foundations of New Orleans were laid, the river existed as a legend and a rumor. It was the monster to the west, just beyond the next hill, stand of trees, prairie, horizon. It was the mother of all waters, the torrent that flowed out of the garden to touch the desolate earth. It flowed through the Indian imagination as it flows through the American mind, through music and literature, carrying the shipwreck and the bloated body of the fool who went missing after a party on the levee. The river starts as a stream in Minnesota and picks up volume as it heads south, meandering through the country– “It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world,” Mark Twain writes in Life on the Mississippi, “since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five”–before shattering into a network of bayous, swamps, and estuaries below New Orleans. This is the delta, and it’s a mess. For generations, sailors could not find a reliable channel to follow into the river, as the mouth of the Mississippi constantly silted up with debris from the north. “The river annually empties four hundred and six million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico,” writes Twain. “This mud, solidified, would make a mass a mile square and two hundred and forty-one feet high.” Simply put, the country is vomiting its innards into the Gulf.

The mouth of the Mississippi appeared on Spanish maps years before it had been seen by a white man. I’m thinking of a particular map: Tabula Terra Nova, drawn in the early 1500s. This is one of the first renderings of the world as it would come to be known: two hemispheres–Occident, Orient, America is a shapeless mass, the Tropic of Capricorn cleaving the New World in two. Due west of Ethiopia, adrift in Oceanus Occidentalis, the southern hemisphere is crowded with the names of settlements. But a generation after Columbus, North America is punctuated by few landmarks, the river among them. It emerges from beyond the left border of the map and branches as it touches the sea. It was drawn before the voyages of Ponce de Leon, meaning it had not been seen by the mapmaker, or by anyone who might have spoken to the mapmaker.

The Mississippi was navigated by white men in 1519. So here’s the first tall ship, with it sails and steel-plated men, cruising the archipelago of grass islands. The ship was captained by Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, famous in Seville, an explorer who returned home with miraculous tales of the New World. He traveled twenty miles up the Mississippi that first trip. He said he had seen a city on a hill beside the river, and in that city little men, pygmies, covered in golden ornament. Pineda, killed by Indians on a later voyage, left behind the first accurate map of America’s Gulf Coast–a scrawl, like something written on a cocktail napkin after the second drink.

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