MISSISSIPPI RIVER. One of the major rivers of North America, the Mississippi River has been a focal point in American history, commerce, agriculture, literature, and environmental awareness. The length of the Mississippi River from its source in Lake Itasca in northwestern Minnesota to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico flows 2,348 miles; it is the second longest river in the United States behind the Missouri (2,466 miles). The Mississippi River system drains the agricultural plains between the Appalachian Mountains to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west. This drainage basin (approximately 1,234,700 square miles) covers about 40 percent of the United States and ranks as the fifth largest in the world.
Mississippi River's Course
The Mississippi River actually begins as a small stream flowing from Lake Itasca, Minnesota. The river initially flows north and then east as the means of connecting several lakes in northern Minnesota. The river begins to flow southward near Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and is joined with the Minnesota River between the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The muddy waters of the Missouri River flow into the clear waters of the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis, Missouri. At this point, the Mississippi
becomes brown and muddy for the rest of the journey south.
At Cairo, Illinois, the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi, doubling its volume and creating the point that divides the Upper Mississippi from the Lower Mississippi. The Lower Mississippi Valley is a wide and fertile region. In this area, the river meanders its way south and over time has continuously changed its course, leaving behind numerous oxbow lakes as remnants of its past. As it flows in this southern region, the Mississippi deposits rich silt along its banks. In many areas, the silt builds up to create natural levees. South of Memphis, Tennessee, the Arkansas River junctions with the Mississippi River. Near Fort Adams, Mississippi, the Red River joins with the Mississippi, diverting with it about a quarter of the flow of the Mississippi into the Atchafalaya River.
As the Mississippi River nears the Gulf of Mexico it creates a large delta with its silt. The Mississippi River delta covers approximately 13,000 square miles. South of the city of New Orleans, the Mississippi creates several channels, known as distributaries, which then flow separately into the Gulf of Mexico. The most prominent of these are known as the North Pass, South Pass, Southwest Pass, and Main Pass. Annually, the Mississippi River discharges about 133 cubic miles of water (approximately 640,000 cubic feet per second).
The Mississippi River played an important role in the lives of many Native Americans who lived in the Upper Mississippi Valley, such as the Santee Dakota, the Illinois, the Kickapoo, and the Ojibwe, as well as those tribes in the southern valley, such as the Chicksaw, the Choctaw, the Tunica, and the Natchez. The name "Mississippi," meaning "great river" or "gathering of water," is attributed to the Ojibwe (Chippewa).
The first known European to travel on the Mississippi River was the Spaniard Hernando de Soto, who crossed the river near present-day Memphis in May 1541. Over a century later, in 1673, the French explorers Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette entered the Mississippi River from the Wisconsin River and traveled by canoe downriver to a point near the mouth of the Arkansas River. Less than a decade later, another Frenchman, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, explored the Mississippi River from the Illinois River to the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle declared on 9 April 1682 that the Mississippi Valley belonged to France, and he named the region Louisiana. It was not until 1718 that the French were actually established at New Orleans. They maintained control over the lower Mississippi until the end of the French and Indian War (1754–1763). In 1762 and 1763, the French made cessions that established the Mississippi River as an international boundary with Spanish territory to the west and British territory to the east.
During the American Revolution (1775–1783), the river served as the supply line for George Rogers Clark, allowing him to maintain control of the Illinois country. The Peace of Paris of 1783 outlined the new country of the United States as extending to the Mississippi River between Spanish Florida and the Canadian border. Additionally, the United States was entitled to free navigation of the Mississippi River. Spain, though not party to the treaty, controlled the mouth of the Mississippi and, through high duties, maintained actual power over the river and, in essence, over the entire Mississippi Valley. Not until Pinckney's Treaty with Spain in 1795 was the river truly free to American navigation. This freedom was short-lived, however, for when Spain ceded Louisiana back to France in 1800, the French again closed the Mississippi to American river traffic. Finally, the Louisiana Purchase (1803) made the Mississippi an American river, and it rapidly became a major route of trade and commerce for the entire Mississippi Valley.
Western settlers and traders traversed the Mississippi in flatboats (on which farmers floated their produce downstream to market) and keelboats (which could be pushed upstream with great effort). Certainly the most significant change in river transportation on the Mississippi came in 1811 when the steamboat New Orleans made its legendary trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. This event opened the Mississippi River to two-way traffic, essentially doubling the carrying capacity of the river. By 1860, more than 1,000 steamboats were actively engaged in transport along the Mississippi River system, and the cities of Cincinnati (Ohio), Louisville, (Kentucky), St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans became important cities in the movement west.
During the Civil War (1861–1865) both the Union and the Confederacy recognized the importance of the Mississippi River, and the fight over its control was a major part of the war. A decisive victory for the Union came with the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi (1863), which essentially gave the Union full possession of the river, reopening the trade routes down the Mississippi from the Ohio Valley and splitting the Confederacy.
Following the war, life on the Mississippi did not return to the golden years so richly described in Mark Twain's writings. The faster and more convenient railroads replaced much of the commercial traffic on the Mississippi. In 1879, the U.S. Congress established the Mississippi River Commission as a means of maintaining and improving the river as a commercial waterway. In the years that followed, the commission deepened and widened several channels along the river, making it more navigable for larger boats and barges. These changes promoted increased transport on the Mississippi, particularly of heavy and bulky freight.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Mississippi River carried more than half of the freight transported on American inland water. Nearly 460 million short tons of freight were transported on the Mississippi River each year. Most of this freight was carried on large barges pushed by tugboats. The upper Mississippi traffic was predominantly composed of agricultural products such as wheat, corn, and soybeans. Coal and steel freight traveled down the Ohio River and onto the lower Mississippi River. At Baton Rouge, Louisiana, petroleum, petrochemical products, and aluminum joined the freight being moved south. It is at this point that the depth of the Mississippi River increases, allowing for larger ships to traverse upriver to this point.
People living along the Mississippi River are well aware of the flooding potential of the river. During de Soto's exploration of the Mississippi, he noted much flooding. Evidence from Native American Mississippi Valley settlement locations (on higher land) and the creation of mounds on which they placed their dwellings indicate Native American awareness of and adaptation to flooding of the Mississippi. Significant flooding of the Mississippi Valley in 1927 prompted national discussion of flood control along the Mississippi. Other severe flooding events occurred in 1937, 1965, 1973, 1982, and 1993. The severe flooding in 1993 is considered to be the most devastating in recorded U.S. history. It affected the upper and middle Mississippi Valley from late June until mid-August 1993 with record levels on the Mississippi River and most of its tributaries from Minnesota to Missouri. At St. Louis, the river remained above flood stage for over two months and crested at 49.6 feet (19 feet above flood stage). Industry and transportation along the Mississippi were virtually at a standstill during the summer months of 1993. In all, over 1,000 of the 1,300 levees in the Mississippi River system failed, over 70,000 people were displaced, nearly 50,000 homes were either destroyed or damaged, 12,000 square miles of agricultural land was unable to be farmed, and 52 people died. Fortunately, larger cities along the Mississippi remained protected by floodwalls. The cost of the flood was enormous. Most estimates of total flood damage run to nearly $20 billion. Flood events are certain to remain a part of life along the Mississippi River.
Humans have influenced the flow of the Mississippi and the quality of its water. Historically, the river and its tributaries meandered across the floodplain, and erosion, sedimentation, and flooding were natural processes. During the twentieth century, however, humans interrupted these processes. In the 1930s, twenty-nine navigation dams were built between St. Louis and Minneapolis. These dams impound the water to improve navigation. One cost of damming, however, is increased retention of sediment in the river. Flood-control levees have been built in order to manage the seasonal flooding. Much of the Mississippi floodplain has been converted to agriculture. This change has two serious consequences for the Mississippi River. First, the loss of prairie wetlands and floodplain forest decreases the biodiversity of the region. Second, conversion of land to agriculture often leads to increased run off of fertilizers and pesticides. The presence of high rates of nitrogen and phosphorus can be directly attributed to farming practices in the Mississippi Valley. At the end of the twentieth century, many experts suggested that agricultural pollution in the Mississippi River was directly responsible for the creation of the "dead zone," an area in the Gulf of Mexico where there is little aquatic life due to abnormally low levels of oxygen.
Industrial pollution is also a concern along the Mississippi River. Industries have contributed significant amounts of oil, aluminum, lead, and other industrial wastes such as sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and benzene to the flow of the Mississippi. A study in 2000 estimated that 58 million pounds of toxic discharge travels down the Mississippi annually. At the turn of the twenty-first century, much of the river remained unswimmable and unfishable, despite the fact that it serves as the primary source of drinking water for 18 million people. Growing awareness of environmental processes and increased concern for the state of the Mississippi River system that began during the last decade of the twentieth century may prove to have a positive influence in the life of the great river.
Badt, Karin. The Mississippi Flood of 1993. Chicago: Children's Press, 1994.
Geus, Theodor. The Mississippi. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.
Haites, Erik, James Mak, and Gary Walton. Western River Transportation: The Era of Early Internal Development, 1810–1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
Lauber, Patricia. Flood: Wrestling with the Mississippi. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1996.
The Mississippi River and its basin are vital components of America's natural environment. In addition, they have had a vital shaping influence upon the history of North American Indians, exploration, military campaigns, pioneering and settlement, politics, folk and high culture, civil rights, and economic development.
The Mississippi River drains the North American continent from its headwaters in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the Gulf of Mexico. Home to diverse and distinctive species of flora and fauna, it was first civilized between 500 ad and 1500 ad by agrarian, mound-building Mississippian Indians. Beginning in 1541, European explorers, traders, and adventurers traversed the Mississippi Valley in the service of Spain; France; Britain; and later, the United States. Before losing the Upper Mississippi Valley and Canada to Britain in 1763, France briefly delivered its claims to the Louisiana Territory to Spain. France regained Louisiana in 1802, only to sell it to the Americans in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase ended an eighteen-year dispute, at last opening the rich port city of New Orleans to American rivermen and seaman.
From the Revolution onward, the Mississippi River witnessed a microcosm of American history. Revolutionary militia general George Rogers Clark fought at Kaskaskia, in Illinois country, in 1778; Lewis and Clark wintered on the Mississippi in 1803–1804 on their way to explore Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase; Andrew Jackson defeated the British at New Orleans in 1815; the Missouri Compromise debate of 1819–1821 over the status of slavery west of the river polarized America into proslavery and antislavery forces; Chief Black Hawk's 1832 defeat in Illinois, followed by the forced march of the Cherokees across the frozen Lower Mississippi, marked the extirpation of America's woodland Indians; Mormon prophet Joseph Smith was murdered at Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844; Ulysses S. Grant turned the tide of the Civil War at Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863; and American life was forever marked by the eras of Mississippi Valley slavery, the Jim Crow laws there, and the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.
The economic history of the Mississippi River is one of technological innovation, beginning with Indian canoes and frontier keelboats and flatboats, moving into the steamboat age, and culminating in the twentieth-century development of diesel-powered towboat and barge commerce along the mighty river's banks. The first Mississippi rivermen were Indians, paddling their sleek, wooden canoes and crude "bullboats" up and down its waters. Immediately following the American Revolution, keelboatmen steered sleek, prowed, sixty-foot-long craft swiftly downstream and then worked very hard to inch cargoes of coffee, sugar, and other trade goods upstream. The introduction in 1811 of steamboats on the western rivers, however, quickly ran the keelboats out of business.
Interestingly, the crude, inexpensive nonsteam flatboat (introduced in the late 1700s) endured well past the advent of steam power and the Civil War. Flatboats were flat-bottomed, box-shaped craft averaging fifty feet in length and twelve feet in width. Flatboats carried pork, corn, furs, hardy fruits and vegetables, and whiskey downstream only. Having sold their loads and boats (as scrap lumber), flatboatmen walked home along the dangerous Natchez Trace route or, after 1811, purchased deck passage aboard northbound steamers.
The keelboat and flatboat workers did not always conform to the rough, tough "alligator horse" image portrayed in folktales and published stories about Mississippi River heroes like Davy Crockett (1786–1836) and Big Mike Fink (1770?–1823), the "king of the river." Many early boatmen were coarse and violent frontiersmen, but as time progressed a boating workforce emerged, characterized by more civilized family men and young farm boys. The average nonsteam riverman was a white Ohio and Mississippi Valley male of English or Celtic ancestry, averaging twenty-eight years of age. Antebellum and postbellum lumber raft crews—navigating large log assemblages down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers—fit most of this description except that this group included more Scandinavian American raftsmen.
The workaday Mississippi steamboat was a small (approximately three-hundred-ton) craft exhibiting little gilt or fancy trappings. As with flatboat and keelboat commerce, peak steamboat shipping time was during high water; the high waters of late fall and early spring greatly reduced the chances of running aground. At those times, the Mississippi was dotted with steamers, crewed by both white and African American boatmen and carrying pork, whiskey, lead, tobacco, cotton, and ticketed passengers. By the 1850s, however, the railroads had proved the steamboat's economic undoing. The steamers were ultimately succeeded in 1903 by screw-propellered, steam- and, later, diesel-powered "towboats" pushing fleets of lashed river barges up and downstream.
In the realm of American culture and arts, the Mississippi River valley has proved seminal to the work of authors ranging from Mark Twain (1835–1910) to William Faulkner (1897–1962). Its environment, wildlife, and working folk have been painted by George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879), John James Audubon (1785–1851), and Karl Bodmer (1809–1893). And every indigenous form of American music—gospel, blues, country, jazz, and rock and roll—was born along the banks of, and aboard, the boats plying this great river.
Twain, once a steamboat pilot, referred to the Mississippi River valley as "the heart of America." In all aspects of American culture, the Mississippi River and its people reflect the core of the American experience.
Allen, Michael. Western Rivermen, 1763–1861: Ohio and Mississippi Boatmen and the Myth of the Alligator Horse. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990.
Baldwin, Leland D. The Keelboat Age on Western Waters. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1941.
Haites, Eric F., James Mak, and Gary M. Walton. Western River Transportation: The Era of Early Internal Development, 1810–1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
Saxon, Lyle. Father Mississippi. New York: Century, 1927.
Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi. Boston: Osgood, 1883. Reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
The Mississippi River is a principal United States river. It originates in central Minnesota and flows southeast and then south, eventually reaching Louisiana where it pours into the Gulf of Mexico. States lying west of the Mississippi are Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas, Louisiana, and Minnesota; to the east are Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The river is 2,340 miles (3,765 kilometers) long. With the Missouri River, the Mississippi forms the world's third-longest river system. It is navigable by ocean-going vessels from the Gulf to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. North of that location, it is navigable by barges and towboats as far as Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The mighty Mississippi was first sighted by explorers in 1540–41 when Spaniard Hernando de Soto (1500?–42) ventured through the southern region. In 1672–73 the Mississippi's upper reaches were seen by French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet (1645–1700) and French missionary Jacques Marquette(1637–75). In 1682 French explorer Sieur de La Salle (1643–87) investigated the lower part and claimed the entire region for France, naming it Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV (1638–1715).
After 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, (1754–63), the river became the boundary between British possessions to the east and Spanish possessions to the west, and the river itself was ceded to Spain. Disputes between Spain and the United States over the waterway were settled in the Pinckney Treaty (1795). With the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the river passed into American control.
In 1811 the steamboat era began on the Mississippi River. Traffic along the Mississippi sped the development of the nation by providing access to the interior territories. St. Louis, Missouri; Memphis, Tennessee; and New Orleans, Louisiana, all flourished as a result of riverboat traffic. In the imagination of most U.S. citizens, the romance of the Mississippi as a steamboat waterway is probably best captured by Missouri-born writer Mark Twain (1835–1910) in his novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884).