- The Mobile River by John S. Sledge
John S. Sledge’s The Mobile River is a meticulously written history of one of the South’s less-studied rivers. Scarcely forty-five miles in length, the Mobile River has received little scholarly attention before now, its story eclipsed by the culturally mighty Mississippi River. Sledge counters this inattention by weaving a narrative in which the history of the Mobile is both colorful and significant. The book begins with an ecological review that gives meaning to the river’s underlying geology. Within its relatively short expanse, the Mobile River trends from upland hardwoods to swamp and then to coastal harbor. The basin’s geology is extraordinarily diverse, and the rapid shift in that geology profoundly influenced the course of settlement along the Mobile—acutely shaping, for instance, the fate of French settlers at Fort Louis de La Mobile. After introducing readers to the ecological identity of this river, Sledge moves into a more substantial history of human occupation. This section begins with indigenous populations and then follows the efforts of Spanish, French, British, American, and Confederate populations as they sought prosperity and stability. Sledge ends the book with a thematic discussion of work, pleasure, peril, and cultural diversity along the Mobile.
In the course of exploring this river, Sledge writes with a clear, undeniable purpose: to complete the first comprehensive history of the Mobile River, [End Page 660] its bay, and its basin. And he succeeds at doing just that. This text is an exhaustive study of the Mobile River. Indeed, the abundance of details at times verges on overwhelming. Given the sheer scope of the undertaking it is not surprising that Sledge privileges some persons and periods over others. He depicts the French colonial period in scrupulous detail, for example, but moves through the twentieth century with relative rapidity. Still, the text is thoroughly documented, engagingly written, and generally balanced in its treatment of the region’s history. The generous incorporation of regional stories culled from primary sources adds to the book’s value.
Of the book’s many strengths I particularly appreciate Sledge’s inclusion and analysis of maps. Many historians do not incorporate cartographic resources (except, perhaps, for passing mention of well-known pieces), but The Mobile River plainly reveals the value of analyzing historical maps. The maps in this text provide crucial information on depth soundings, vegetative zones, urban development, and geographical features, as well as local improvements and land grants. In just one example, Sledge studies David Taitt’s 1771 “‘plan of part of the rivers Tombecbe, Alabama, Tensa, Perdido & Scambia’” (p. 59). This map is a beautiful piece that offers visual insight into the local geology of the area and clearly reveals “an area in flux, home to Indians, French, and British making their lives on the ghostly imprints of earlier cultures—‘Old Mobile,’ ‘Old Indian Fields’” (p. 59).
The book’s weaknesses are few and relatively minor. Most notably for readers unfamiliar with the regional geography, the book offers an overwhelming number of references to rivers, streams, and inlets within the basin, often incorporating historic and current names. This weakness could be resolved by including a map of the area that is less ornamental and more plainly informative. Overall, Sledge’s book is thoroughly researched and methodically documented yet still engaging. Moreover, Sledge clearly feels a particular passion for the Mobile River. He infuses his text with stories, ideas, and people that reflect his longing both to know the history of the Mobile and to make known that history. One could say that The Mobile River is born from a topophilic connection to the region, and this connection to the landscape makes for very good reading.