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In the mid-16th century, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his men traveled across North America, including large swaths of what would become known centuries later as the Lower Mississippi River. Their pursuit was gold. What they found was wetlands covering millions of acres, and Indigenous people on high ground, living among elaborately constructed earthen mounds.

Those chiefdoms were no match for De Soto's pillaging crew. Nor, ultimately, the mercurial ways of a massive waterway that still today shows she is in charge. (De Soto was no match either. He succumbed to fever and met a watery grave.)

In his deeply researched book "The Great River: The Making & Unmaking of the Mississippi River," Boyce Upholt makes clear that a true accounting of the mighty river has all of the elements of a frontier novel: violence, death, greed, resilience and big dreams.

Zealous explorers, warring Native communities, backwater pirates and engineering visionaries are just a few of the characters.

Upholt is a good captain in the telling. Some readers, especially in Minnesota, could equate the Mississippi's beginnings — its story — with its headwaters at Lake Itasca. But Upholt vividly lays out the water's origin. What the Ojibwe named Misi-ziibi, or "Big River," goes back millions of years: Glaciers descending and retracting, creating "a tangle of channels, weaving between islands and sandbars, running wide and shallow and fast."

History says De Soto and his men discovered the river, which they first crossed in 1541. Still, Upholt broadens the definition of discovery, detailing the French, English and Indigenous encroachment and the ensuing volatile politics through the mid-17th century. A century later, waves of settlers were moving on the watershed even as newly assembled states negotiated with Spain.

Further on still, the story of expansion wasn't only people-powered. Upholt colorfully devotes ink to the impact of early steamboats that, coursing north, carried more settlers into the upper watershed than the gold rush drove prospectors out West.

The tales of relentless American expansion keep coming in "Great River," and some hit close to home. Like the push that drove a Sauk band, led by a warrior named Black Hawk, who was forced to flee U.S. troops in Illinois in the 1800s and settle in marshlands of Wisconsin near what today is the river town of Victory. Later captured there, Black Hawk had fought with the British in the War of 1812, hoping to keep white settlers from Sauk territory.

Against this bloody backdrop, Thomas Jefferson gets credit for launching a "corps" of engineers as part of the new military academy at West Point, N.Y. Trained in hydraulics, math and surveying, the engineers set out to improve federal properties — like waterways, which were seen in Washington as common property. Yet those initiatives, too, brought a frontier-like lawlessness in pursuit of the dollar — and at the expense of Black and Native communities.

The Great River
The Great River

Perhaps Upholt best sized up the "making and unmaking" of the Mississippi River while reflecting on his visit to disappearing earthworks in coastal Louisiana. It's a micro moment in Upholt's grand telling of the Mississippi's story: For all the water diversion and concrete meant to stabilize — to bring control — to the delta, the great river, truly, can't be brought to hand.

"The fight along the Mississippi River can't be against nature, because it is impossible to say what 'nature' is here," he writes. "It is always a fight among humans, people who can't agree what kind of world they want to build."

The Great River

By: Boyce Upholt.

Publisher: Norton, 352 pages, $29.99.