Close Window

~Lower Mississippi River Dispatch No. 825~
~~~~~~~ Saturday, Mar 6, 2021 ~~~~~~~~

Clarksdale, MS ~ Helena, AR ~ Memphis, TN ~ Vicksburg, MS
~~~Scored Bluff Bank River~~~

2nd Chickasaw Bluff

Thanks to image research (and some very helpful and fantastic reader input) I have some interesting perspectives of the 4th Chickasaw Bluff I can share with everyone today:

Karl Bodmer, 1815, Fort Adams on the Mississippi

Harold Fisk, 1944, Ancient Courses, Mississippi River Meander Belt, Plate #22, Sheet #5

The Fisk Map (and Google Earth) was helpful in creating the below pencil sketch image, depicting how the river might have looked from the perspective of an eagle flying above the 4th Chickasaw Bluff several thousand years ago:

Eagle-Eye View: John Ruskey, 2021, 18x24 pencil, looking downstream from 4th Chickasaw Bluff into the Mississippi Delta -- over what is today McKellar Lake, President's Island, Nonconnah Creek, Chuckalissa, Dismal Point, Josie Harry, Horn Lake, the faint line of Crowley's Ridge seen in upper right

Orienting the 4th Chickasaw Bluff in relation to modern day Memphis:

Virginia McLean
, board member and powerhouse behind the Memphis-based Friends for our Waterfront, shared a very helpful description orienting the 4th Chickasaw Bluff in relation to modern day Memphis:

Wrote Virginia: "What a wonderful project! I have some historical maps that may help and will pull together and send. When I think about the 4th bluff, I see it running/ sort of bordered by 2 bodies of water - on the N. by the Wolf and on the s. by Nonconnah Creek, both which have since been altered and land dammed to create peninsulas and harbors, ie. Mud Island/Wolf River Harbor and to the south President’s Island/McKellar Lake. From the best I can tell, the Pyramid sits about at the point where the Wolf flowed into the River back in 1819 when Memphis was mapped. Later the Corps channelized Wolf River Harbor creating the straight section as it today enters the Mississippi. There were 2 cities, too; Memphis to the N. and South Memphis to the S. with the connecting point being Union.

Illuminating primary source passages, and thoughts, and geologic history:

Brad Lieb, phD, Archeologist for the Chickasaw Nation, shared some very helpful primary source descrioptions:

Dr. Lieb reported that the Chickasaws called the river there the Sakti Lhafa’ Okhina’, which is translates something like “Scored Bluff Bank River” referencing the erosional rills that marked the face of the Fourth Bluff which was/is essentially an erosional feature.

Samuel Cole Williams, included in his book, Beginnings of West Tennessee, a reference to a journal entry from 1791 in which Colonel John Pope of Virginia recorded one of the earliest descriptions of West Tennessee’s Chickasaw Bluff:

[From us modern day paddlers: This is not a far-fetched description! We've witnessed this rainbow of muddy colors from our canoes as we paddle below the 2nd Chickasaw Bluff near Randolph. The bluff here looks like Utah meets the Mississippi River! (On the other hand the 1st Chickasaw Bluff at Fort Pillow is more monotone, all greys and yellows.]

Brad shared some additional illuminating passages and thoughts:

In this French journal from 1739-40 there is a little description of it, but not much.

There were large patches of bare loess, subject to landslides and mass wasting events, and due to the special properties of loess, near vertical in places but generally the bluff was just slanted. There was a large talus slope deposit at its base, subject to reworking by high water of the river. There was some vegetation here and there on it, small trees and grasses. The French were able to ascend it by “7 cedar wood ramps” – some sort of stair or causeway. In the 1790s a wooden stair was described. Obviously this was not at the steepest or highest part of the bluff.

The colors of clay mentioned in the account below must relate to veins of clay within the loess deposit. There were geologic times when the ocean would rise back up and the MS valley deposition would change, such as during the Oligocene. There are veins of gravel and even shells in the Loess Bluffs at places, as well as marine blue and gray clays. The wind-blown Aeolian origin of the Loess Bluffs is generally correct, but it was a little more complicated than that. Some gray/white clay layers have been related to major volcanic eruptions in the west which settled here and ended up forming deposits known as “tufa” or “tuff” that later weathered to some extent back into clay.

Watercolor Paintings:
Karl Bodmer

In 2002 :"Big Muddy" Mike Clark and I visited the Joslyn Museum in Omaha, as we descended the entire Missouri River in the duogut Water Ram and Turtle - River Bender Canoes. The glowing, effervescent watercolors of the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, are collected and displayed there (at the Joslyn Museum). I am sharing below a few I found looking through my copy of Karl Bodmer's America, a selection of his amazing ouvre d'art. As far as I've been able to ascertain, Bodmer didn't make or leave behind any paintings specific to the Chickasaw Bluffs, but he did of other bluffs of similar geologic history along the river, such as this one at Natchez.

View over the Bluff at Natchez, MS

The Iron Bluffs at Columbus, KY

The bluffs at Fort Adams

Close up view of Fort Adams Bluffs

The Chickasaws' Place-World: The Mississippi River in Chickasaw History and Geography

Writer Boyce Upholt shared this account of the Chickasaw origin story, by Chickasaw elder Reverend Jesse Humes, which orients the known world in relation to the 4th Chickasaw Bluff, the Mississippi River and the Milky Way creating the boundaries above, and below:

Chickasaw elder Reverend Jesse Humes recited a fairly standard account of how his people came to reside in their northern Mississippi homelands. “This Chickasaw story of The Beginning goes like this,” he began. In the primordial past, Chickasaw ancestors “lived somewhere in the West.” Under duress “they sought guidance from Ubabeneli, The Creator of all things,” who “made sacred” a long pole to direct them to “a new home where they could find peace and happiness.” Each night when the proto-Chickasaws camped, their leaders placed the pole up- right in the ground. Invariably the next morning, “the long pole was closely inspected and found to be leaning toward the east,” indicating the direction the people should travel. This scene repeated itself many times until “one day, just as the sun was setting,” the people “came upon a scene beyond their imagination. It was a great river the likes of which they had never seen before, and the unexpected sight overwhelmed them.”8 They had come to the Mississippi River, or, as eighteenth-century Chickasaws called it, Sakti Lhafa’ Okhina’, in reference to the 9 serrated cliffs of the Chickasaw Bluffs. Humes continued his story, noting that the long pole still “leaned toward the east,” but the people “knew that ‘home’ was somewhere on the other side of the wide, wide river before them.” Soon afterward “the sacred long pole stood straight as an arrow,” signaling that “at last they had found their new homeland and that their long journey was at an end.”

The Chickasaws' Place-World: The Mississippi River in Chickasaw History and Geography, 2018, pp. 1-28 (Article) Published by University of Nebraska Press

Modern Day photos of the other Chickasaw Bluffs:

The other Chickasaw Bluffs are best seen from from a canoe, unspoiled and intact as surviving wild places along the Lower Miss:

2nd Chickasaw Bluff (photo: John Ruskey)

1st Chickasaw Bluff (photo: John Ruskey)

2nd Chickasaw Bluff (photo: John Ruskey)

2nd Chickasaw Bluff (photo: John Ruskey)

Harold Fisk, 1944, Ancient Courses, Mississippi River Meander Belt, Plate #22, Sheet #5

This eye-catching map, drawn by Harold Fisk — a geologist and cartographer working for the US Army Corps of Engineers — is one of several which trace the ever-shifting banks of the Mississippi River from southern Illinois to southern Louisiana. Created to illustrate a rather dry government report on “the nature and origin of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River”, these cartographic marvels give even the untrained a very good sense of what the report calls the “stages in the development” and the present “behavior” of the river system. To put it in plainer English: Fisk dreamed up a captivating, colorful, visually succinct way of representing the Mississippi’s fluctuations through both space and time. (US Army Corps of Engineers)

Other Maps:

1818 John Melish map, Tennessee State Library and Archives

Henry M. Lusher, 1835, Lands in Mississippi

From Boston Rare Maps: "This very rare, detailed map is definitive for the original 1835 survey of the Chickasaw Cession, which included all of Mississippi north of a diagonal line that ran from the Mississippi River at Moon Lake southeast to the confluence of the Chuquatonchee and Tombigbee rivers. It is the definitive map for Northern Mississippi at the beginning of American settlement.

In 1830 the group of Native Americans collectively referred to as the Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee, and Seminole) were living as autonomous nations in the American Deep South. The Chickasaw were the smallest and the fiercest of the five tribes, occupying northern Mississippi and small portions of the adjoining states of Alabama and Tennessee. For much of their history they were at war with the neighboring Choctaws to the South.

The Removal Act of 1830 authorized the United States government to extinguish all Native American titles in the Southern states. In 1831, the Choctaws became the first of the Five Nations to cede their lands and immediately began the journey to the Indian Territory known as the “Trail of Tears.” By an agreement signed at Pontotoc in 1832, the Chickasaws ceded their lands to the United States government, but they remained in Mississippi until 1837, when they too departed for the West. Under the Pontotoc agreement John Bell was appointed Surveyor General for the Chickasaw lands, and a land office was established at Pontotoc. The surveys were conducted in 1833-34, and this map was produced by Henry Lusher in the following year under Bell’s direction.

Much of the land ceded by the Chickasaws was purchased by Bell himself working in partnership with southern investors, as well as by the Boston and Mississippi Cotton Land Company and other joint-stock companies based in New England and New York. This New England connection provides a likely explanation for the otherwise puzzling fact of the map’s production by Pendleton’s Lithography of Boston. The map was likely published with the intention of marketing the Chickasaw lands to these northern syndicates.

The map depicts the northern half of Mississippi and immediately adjacent portions of Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas. Superimposed on the topography is the familiar grid of 6-mile townships and 1-mile sections imposed by the General Land Office, the agency responsible for surveying Federal lands in preparation for sale and eventual settlement. The Chickasaw-Choctaw boundary, established in 1830 by an unratified treaty between the Chickasaw and the United States, is shown running from the Mississippi River southeast to Noosacheah Creek. Below the title are the printed signatures of John Bell, the GLO surveyor in charge of the ceded lands, and Chickasaw agent Benjamin Reynolds.

The Chickasaw Cession is shown divided into the recently surveyed townships and sections. The topographical detail is remarkable. Numerous creeks and rivers are located and named, many with their old Indian names. Just to the west of the Tombigbee an extensive region of “Prairie” is colored light green. The alluvial bottomlands along the Mississippi in the Delta are colored dark green, evidently to point out to prospective settlers their particular richness and desirability. A network of Indian trails runs across the region. Of these, the most significant was the “long trail,” which extended from modern-day Mobile north through Pontotoc and the Chickasaw Council House and on to Chickasaw Bluffs near present-day Memphis (The Council House itself appears to be shown on the map, just west of the word “Pontotoc.”) The famed “Natchez Trace” is not named but is shown extending from northwest Alabama and across Mississippi as far as the Yazoo.

There are also early signs of American settlement, including three ferries located on the Tallahatchie River. Pontotoc, the site of the Land Office, is identified, as is a neighboring settlement called “Pearson’s.” A number of early counties in the neighboring Choctaw Cession are named, as well as a few scattered towns, including Grenada. The region to the east of the Tombigbee (Monroe and Lowndes counties), which had been ceded to the US Government in 1816, already shows signs of considerable development, including ferries, a cotton gin, and the towns of Columbus, Athens and Hamilton.

The map is very rare. I have located eight impressions at American institutions and know of only one other to have appeared on the market, sold by this firm to the Library of Congress some years ago.

Anne Kelley Hoyt, Bibliography of the Chickasaw, #673. OCLC #11325021, giving examples at the Arkansas History Commission, the Newberry Library and the Boston Public Library. Another resides at the Library of Congress, The Mississippi Department of Archives and History holds two impressions, the University of Alabama another, and a tattered copy is held in the Robert Whyte Papers at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Not in Rumsey.

Analysis was facilitated by a discussion of Lusher’s map in James Henry Malone, The Chickasaw Nation: A Short Sketch of a Noble People: Souvenir of Memphis, pp. 125-127. General background on Chickasaw history was borrowed from Greg O’Brien, “Chickasaws: The Unconquerable People,” at Mississippi History Now, an on-line publication of the Mississippi Historical Society. Very helpful background on the cession and subsequent land sales was obtained from “General History of Hernando and Desoto County,” on the web site of the Friends of Springhill, based in Hernando, Desoto County, Mississippi (


I have been working with some friends on a super cool project

PS: that you could help us with! Do you know of any primary sources
regarding the following? K
eep reading -- and imagining -- below!

(Ancient Mouth of the Wolf River)

we are visualizing the the 4th Chickasaw Bluff before the arrival of homo sapiens

who might have first arrived (and then thrived) in giant dugout canoes

But let's leave behind all humans, in all our many eras, and retreat back

to the days when there was nothing by blowing dust below the stars

collecting in piles along the eastern edge of the Mississippi River
in a 1,000 mile long swath from the Pawnee Hills (today's southern Illinois)
to the edge the pleistocene shield (today's Baton Rouge)
dust scoured by the laurentide ice cap that covered North America
the largest dust field outside of China's Yellow Plateau
(A similar process along the Yangtze River)

great waters pouring out of the melting glaciers, the mile thick ice cap

the heavens glowed magnificently above the muddy waters
the entire earth could have been considered a deep, vast "dark sky"
because no one was lighting their lamps, burning forests, or refining oil

grasses, shrubs and trees followed the piles of dust

and the amphibians followed the plants

the birds arrived

the fish also

the mammals

the megafauna

this project will culminate in a triptych

imagining the 4th Chickasaw Bluff

centered around the ancient mouth of the Wolf River

near the depression where Beale Street now descends to the harbor

and the bluffs rise to either side, but most prominently to the south

the high ground of the Looshatchie rising (faintly seen)
beyond the Wolf River floodplain

And the 3rd Chickasaw Bluff even more faintly beyond
(today's Meeman Shelby State Park)

where downtown Memphis now rises in straight steel
and concrete lines with glass windows and steel bridges

The same bluff "ridge" that Chuck Berry sings about:

"her home is on the southside

high upon a ridge
just a hlaf a mile
from the Mississippi Bridge"

One view of the triptych will view the river flowing downstream
into the Mississippi Delta over President's Island and past Chuckalissa

One view will look upstream over Loosahatchie Bar, the Hen & Chicks,
and the 3rd Chickasaw Bluff the last line of trees over the Wolf River bottoms

The centerpiece will be the ancient mouth
of the Wolf River meandering around the 4th Chickasaw Bluff
(This could be the Yazoo River at Vicksburg!)

Only the reflective patterns and motions of the muddy river will be the same

The flowing forever flowing

forever flowing through it all...

All writing, sketches and watercolor paintings (c) 2021 John Ruskey
Please share, but please give credit.

Special thanks to Jim & Sharon Bailey

Can you help us?
Do you know of any primary sources
describing -- or depicting -- the ancient bluffs?
Please reply to this email! Thank you!


The Lower Mississippi River Dispatch "Voice of the Lower Mississippi River" is published by the Quapaw Canoe Company, 22 years of high quality access to the wild wonder of the big river in human powered vessels. Photos and writing by John Ruskey, Mark River and others. Please write for re-publishing. Feel free to share with friends or family, but also credit appropriately. Go to and click on "Quapaw Dispatch" for viewing back issues of the LMRD.


Unsubscribe: If you feel you have received this newsletter in error, please go to bottom of page and hit "Click to Unsubscribe"


The Lower Mississippi River Dispatch

is brought to you courtesy of

The Quapaw Canoe Company


Our Projects:

Rivergator: 1Million words describing the Lower Mississippi River, overseen by the LMRF:


Wild Miles: 71% of the Lower Miss is wild according to river rats. Will it stay that way?


Our Friends:

Lower Mississippi River Foundation is dedicated to promoting stewardship of the Lower and Middle Mississippi River through deep engagement.


1Mississippi River Citizen Program: River Citizens are people who want to clean up and protect America’s greatest River. Whether in armchairs or wading boots, River Citizens protect the River by speaking up on its behalf and caring for it in simple ways that make a big difference. Together, we can protect the River for future generations. Take the first step today and sign up for free as a River Citizen at 1Mississippi, can the River count on you?"


The Walter Anderson Museum of Art inspires discovery, imagination, and community-building on the Gulf Coast and beyond through programs, exhibitions, and outreach; and embodies Walter Anderson’s vision for societies in harmony with their environments. "Our mission is to empower lifelong curiosity and connection to the natural world through the art of Walter Anderson and kindred artists."


LEAN: the Louisiana Environmental Action Network: Before LEAN was founded in 1986, polluters ran roughshod over Louisiana’s unique environment and way of life. Since then LEAN has fought to safeguard not just Louisiana’s scenic beauty, wildlife and culture but more importantly those underserved citizens that don’t have a voice. Help LEAN serve the needs of Louisiana's communities.


The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. The Center accomplishes this mission by delivering cutting-edge education and research to millions of people every year. Enjoy your world. Leave No Trace.


Coahoma Collective catalyzes arts-driven, community-inclusive revitalization in downtown Clarksdale


Big Muddy Adventures: adventures on the Missouri, Mississippi, Meramec and Illinois -- covering the Grand Central Station of America's rivers from home base St. Louis.