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Strange Maps

478 - The Shotgun Tracts of the Lower Mississippi

Your average shotgun shack (1) is only as wide as the single room it spans, but as long as all the rooms it consecutively contains. If you’d be so inclined, and if your aim was straight enough, you could fire a shotgun through the entirety of the house and have the bullet exit through the back door without hitting anything. That story might say more about relaxed local attitudes towards the use of firearms in a domestic setting than about anything else.

For another theory holds that ’shotgun’ in this case is a folk-etymological derivative from to-gun, an African type of longhouse that made it to the South  (and especially New Orleans) by way of Haiti. Another origin story, explaining the popularity and peculiarity of the shotgun house, at least in New Orleans, is that it derived from a local tax on lot frontage. Such a tax, payable pro rata to the street-side width of a property, would have encouraged taxpayers to creative narrow-mindedness when building their house (2).

Whatever the story, and there are one or two more (3), it’s hard not to note the similarity between the shotgun shack and the riverside strips of land on this 1858 map - long, with narrow access to the river itself. Is it a coincidence that this map details the Mississippi’s frontage from Baton Rouge south to New Orleans, in the heart of shotgun shack country? What exactly, if any, is the link between that particular type of housing and these shotgun tracts on the banks of the Big Muddy?

Map of frontage along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to Lousiana in 1858.

Quite possibly: the area’s French colonial heritage. Compare with the seigniorial system, introduced in Canada in 1627. As the St Lawrence River was the highway of the new-founded colony of New France (present-day Quebec), it made sense for the authorities to treat her busy banks as highly valuable real estate. The riverbanks were divided into narrow strips of land, each called a seigneurie (4).  This frontage system survived the British takeover of Canada by at least a century; to this day, the so-called long lots determine much of riverine Quebec’s geography.

Similar considerations were at work on the banks of that other great river highway in that other French possession in North America, the Mississippi in Louisiana. Since the shape of these long lots is intimately linked to their value, and hence their taxability, it requires no great leap of the imagination to presume that such a frontage tax could be transposed from the banks of a busy river to the sides of a busy street.

All that’s just as may be. Any precise information on the origin of and the connection between shotgun tracts and shotgun shacks is most welcome. But, also, for the purpose of this blog, of secondary importance. The main attraction of this map is not the mystery of the tracts’ origins, but their combination into a thing of weird beauty.

The blithe meanderings of the Mississippi have produced more than one cartographic oddity (see also #178 on the Kentucky Bend, and #208 on ancient Mississippi courses). Her snakey contortions do the trick here too, combining as they do with the straight and narrow lots to yield a fan-like effect. This interplay between bendy river and straight lots is enhanced by the gorgeous colouring of those lots: pink and light blue for the handful of cotton plantations, far outnumbered by the orange-yellow and faded green for the sugar plantations.

The Mississippi’s curves add to the delicious degree of variation in the shape and size of the lots, some more trapezoid than rectangular, a few extremely long where many are short and stubby. Quite a number seem impossibly narrow slivers of land, no doubt the result of many subdivisions of earlier, wider lots. Many lots contain the names of their contemporary owners and of the names of the estates themselves. The multitude of French, Spanish and English names presents a potted history of Louisiana’s past.

All of which makes for a strange, fascinating map shaped, entirely coincidentally no doubt, in the long and narrow fashion of the shotgun tracts it depicts.

Many thanks to Hugo for sending in this map, found here on the website of artist, designer and urban planner Candy Chang. Original context of the map is here at the archives of genealogy resources website USGenWeb.

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(1) A type of dwelling popular in the Deep South of the US, even before Elvis Presley was born in one.

(2) Similar taxes based on aspects of home-ownership (also creatively circumvented) include: a tax on windows (resulting in many windows being bricked up), a tax on bricks (causing an increase in the average size of bricks, and a return to timber), a tax on roofs (some of which were dismantled and the house left to ruin), and a tax on patterned wallpaper (which was thereafter bought plain, and hand-stencilled). A tax on curtains in the Netherlands, oft quoted to explain the relative infrequency of curtains in Dutch homes, is an urban myth. The Dutch dislike of drapery is probably better explained by a national trait with roots in the Calvinist religion: the desire to show that one’s household is not above scrutiny, and has nothing to hide - a rather showy way of being modest.

(3) The oblong interior of a shotgun shack allows for better ventilation in warm weather. The material from which they were built consisted of discarded crates of shotgun-shell. They answered the need for cheap housing at time before the automobile allowed workers to live outside of overcrowded city centres.

(4) after its seigneur, or landlord.

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