Thursday, May 4, 2017

American Gods: The Great River

The National Wildlife Refuge at Ohio River Islands, WV.  Photo courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service
Read more about my American Gods project here.

The Ohio, whose name means “Great River” in the Seneca (Iroquois) language, is an amazing river. Thomas Jefferson called it “... the most beautiful river on earth. Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken..."  He is the 10th longest river in the United States, traveling almost 1000 miles from his headwaters here in Pittsburgh, past Wheeling WV, Cincinnati OH, and Louisville KY to Cairo, Illinois which figures prominently in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods book.  There, the Ohio spreads into a delta and spills into the mighty Mississippi.  Personally, I am most familiar with the upper Ohio, especially with it headwaters, which are about 10 miles due east of my home.

The Ohio's headwaters in Downtown Pittsburgh

In our limited human conception, we sometimes think rivers are eternal, but that is simply not true.  The Ohio is a very young river, only 100,000 years old.  Before the Illinois Ice Age, he simply did not exist in any way we would recognize as the same river.  The Ohio came into being when the ice pushed more northern rivers south.  Then, upper Ohio river actually flowed north, but he was still a small stream; a tributary of the then Mother River of our region, the Monongahela.  At that time, Mother Monongahela continued past Pittsburgh, along the course of the modern Ohio, toward the Ancestral Basin which would, in time, become Lake Erie.   The Ohio's headwaters, in these ancient days, were near Moundsville, WV (so called because it is the site of an ancient barrow) about 114 miles downstream from Pittsburgh.  From there, he flowed north to New Castle, and there joined the Monongahela.  Only after the world froze and melted again, in the Wisconsin Ice Age, did our Ohio take on his familiar form, running south from Pittsburgh inexorably to the Mississippi, taking the waters of the Mon and the Allegheny with him.

Current River Paths
Ice Age River Paths

The Ohio River and his Valley have an extraordinary rich 15,000 year history with humans. The area was likely settled by so-called "paleo-indians" first, and then by the archaic and woodland cultures.  Among the early inhabitants of the Ohio Valley were the culture we now call "Adena", who lived primarily in the western reaches of the Ohio Valley, around 1000-200 BCE. We don't know much about the Adena, but we do know that they built huge earthworks, including (probably) the Serpent Mound, whose word I spoke yesterday.

I know very little about the peoples who lived on the Ohio during the first part of the last millennium. In the mid 1600s, most Native peoples fled the area of the upper Ohio, trying to outrun European violence and disease. In the early 1700s, several tribes settled here, also fleeing European settlers. These include the Lenape or Delaware from the Philadelphia region, Wyandot or Huron from Ontario, Shawnee or Iroquois from the South, and Miami from Indiana.

On May 19, 1749, King George II granted the English-speaking Ohio Company a charter for much of what is now Ohio.  However, this land had already been settled by colonists from Pennsylvania and Virginia, many of whom were French-speaking.  This conflict led directly to the so-called "French and Indian War", which, in Europe, is called the "Seven Years War" but really could, reasonably, be called World War Zero; it was in many ways the first truly intercontinental war.

After much conflict, the Ohio became the southern border of what would later be called "the Northwest Territory". In several treaties, the river also served as a dividing line between British settlements in Kentucky and American Indian communities north of the river. By the early 1800s, these peoples' grandchildren were forcibly resettled on reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma, where many of their descendants still live.

In the early 1800s, the Ohio became a very important shipping lane for the Westward Expansion. Pirates roamed his waters, preying on both naive pioneers and industrial shippers alike. Tomorrow, I shall tell you of one such pirate, the legendary Mike Fink, a Pittsburgh-born "king of the river", of whom it was said that he could "drink a gallon of whisky and still shoot the tail off a pig at 90 paces".

Prior to the Civil War, the Ohio was the extension of the Mason Dixon line; the boundary between free Ohio and Indiana, and the slavers in Kentucky and West Virginia.  It was the only physical boundary (as opposed to the purely political Mason-Dixon line) separating free and slave states, and has taken on a simultaneously sinister and liberatory character in American myth that ties it closely to the Jordan.  

The Ohio is a slaver's river.  He was a major route for the transportation of captive slaves; "the river "in the phrase "sold down the river" is the Ohio.  It was a spoken by the enslaved people of Kentucky and West Virginia when they were shipped to cotton and sugar plantations in the New Orleans area, following the Louisiana purchase.    It was while traveling the Ohio that Abraham Lincoln first came into contact with an enslaved person, and it shook him greatly. Much later, in 1855, he wrote: "The sight was a continual torment for me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio".

And yet, the Ohio is a river of freedom.  Both Uncle Tom's Cabin and Beloved feature dramatic scenes of mothers escaping across it with their children, and the river plays an important role in Huck Finn and Jim's escape.  More people escaped slavery across the Ohio than by any other route in America.  Perhaps no other river in the world has freed so many.  In 1830, Josiah Hanson, thought by many to be the inspiration for Uncle Tom, escaped across the river near Grandview Indiana, and continued north to Canada, where he founded a settlement school for other refugees from the South. In his autobiography he writes, of a woman's escape across the river:

"Thus when her form flits wildly by, 
With bloodless cheek and fearless eye, 
Resolved to free her child or die,
We still our very breath--
Till, safely on the farther shore
She stands, the desperate journey o'er
So fraught with life and death."

circa 1918

It is not only it's history as the entry to the Promised Land that connected the Ohio with the Jordan.  It is also a sign of an important American Christian myth. In his propaganda tract "Jesus Christ the Same, Yesterday, Today and Forever", William Branham (who founded the "Healing Revival" movement), tells the following tale, set in August of 1933: "One day at the foot of Spring Street, in Jeffersonville, Indiana, after a two week's revival, I was baptizing 130 people. It was a hot August day and there were about three thousand people present. I was about to baptize the 17th person when all of a sudden I heard that still, little voice again and it said, "Look up." The sky was like brass on that hot August day. We had not had any rain for about three weeks. I heard the voice again, and then again the third time it said, "Look up."  I looked up and there came from the sky a big bright star which I had seen many times before but that I had not told you about...After a few seconds had passed, I screamed and many people looked up and saw the star just over me. Some fainted while others shouted and others ran away. Then the star returned back into the sky, and the place where it had left was about fifteen feet square, and this place kept moving and churning about or as though waves were rolling. There had formed in this place a little white cloud and the star was received up in this little cloud..."

Praise to you, Ohio, American Jordan, river of Liberation.