Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Paul F. Paskoff


Man's efforts to control flooding on the Mississippi began about 280 years ago, but the first 130 years has been neglected in scholarly literature. In spite of abundant primary sources, most histories of flood control on the Mississippi revolve around hydraulic engineering and the contributions of state and federal levee bureaucracies---factors which had almost no impact on the creation of the levee system. Engineers did install the first levee at New Orleans and levees on their own plantations in the 1720s, but the extension of the levee line thereafter was almost entirely the work of private land developers supervised at the local level, first by commandants, then by parish and county governments. The soil of the floodplain accumulated over centuries as sediment deposited by overflows. Its fertility laid the basis for plantation agriculture, with the Mississippi as a means of transport, but overflows destroyed farmers' improvements. Native American "hunting farmers" who moved in concert with overflows were able to coexist with flooding, but did not conceive of land as property. When European kings began to convert swampland into property by means of grants, the prevention of flooding through levees was made a condition of title. Persons who wanted swampland as property built levees to acquire it. People who did not value land, or lacked the means to levee it, moved on and did not become part of the levee-building community. Since levees must be continuous to be effective, developers of the riverside had to submit to regimentation, coercion, and continuous oversight. Liberty was tempered by the demands of the environment. The records of the era 1720 to 1845 tell a story of levee history quite different from that of the engineers' and post-bellum levee bureaucracies. Sources which reveal the levees' origins are various: letters of commandants, parish police jury and county board of police minutes, state levee laws for local bodies, newspaper accounts of floods, travel journals, tax and census records, and private papers. They tell of a vibrant community of land developers who domesticated the swamps with levees in the interest of survival and prosperity.