Introduction to The Mississippi River

The Mississippi RiverThe Mississippi River is the second longest river in the United States. Only the Missouri River is longer.

Mississippi River, the chief river of North America and one of the largest in the world. Its length is 2,348 miles (3,779 km). It is often called Old Man River and the Father of Waters. The name Mississippi comes from two Indian words that mean “great river” or “great water.”

The Mississippi begins at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Its mouth, in Louisiana, consists of many distributaries, or branches, that fan out over a vast delta. Chief among the branches are the Main, North, Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and Grand passes.

In its course to the sea, the Mississippi touches or flows through 10 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Hundreds of sand bars and islands dot the river.

The Mississippi is a slow-moving stream; it drops only about two-thirds of a foot per mile (about 13 centimeters per kilometer). Normally the river flows at a rate of 2 to 3 miles per hour (3.2 to 4.8 km/h) during low water, 6 to 9 miles per hour (9.7 to 14.5 km/h) during high. Despite its sluggishness, the Mississippi carries an enormous volume of water—about 785,000 million cubic yards (600,000,000,000 m 3)a year. Only a few of the world's great rivers have such a tremendous flow. In the water are silt and other material eroded from the basin. Each year the Mississippi deposits an estimated 360,000,000 to 450,000,000 metric tons of debris in the gulf, an average of 290 to 360 metric tons from each square mile (110 to 140 metric tons from each square kilometer) in the basin.

The valley and the river divide into two parts: the Upper Mississippi, above the mouth of the Ohio River, and the Lower Mississippi, below it. In both sections the valley is flat, wide, and occasionally lined by bluffs. The Lower Valley is extremely broad, up to 200 miles (320 km) in width. Geologically, it is delta land, for the entire surface of the land was formed by Mississippi sediments. Across it loop giant meanders and oxbow lakes.

Basin and Tributaries

Water from 31 states and 2 Canadian provinces drains into the Mississippi. Its basin, shaped roughly like a triangle, stretches from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains and tapers southward to the delta. The basin's area is about 1,244,000 square miles (3,222,000 km 2), or about 40 per cent of the area of the 48 contiguous states.

Thousands of rivers and streams flow into the Mississippi to form its drainage system. The Missouri River is by far the longest tributary—only 33 miles (53 km) shorter than the Mississippi itself. The Mississippi-Missouri-Red Rock, with a length of 3,741 miles (6,021 km), ranks among the world's largest river systems. The Ohio River, at its mouth near Cairo, Illinois, delivers a flow as large as the combined Missouri-Mississippi.

Other tributaries in the north include the Minnesota and St. Croix rivers in Minnesota, the Chippewa and Wisconsin rivers in Wisconsin, the Rock and Illinois rivers in Illinois, and the Iowa and Des Moines rivers in Iowa. Major tributaries in the south include the White and Arkansas rivers in Arkansas and the Yazoo River in Mississippi.

Importance of the River

The Mississippi forms the backbone for a vast system of inland waterways. Connected to it are the Illinois Waterway, the navigable Missouri and Ohio rivers, and the Intracoastal Waterway. It forms most of a waterway linking the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway with the Gulf of Mexico. The river's 9-to 35-foot (2.7- to 10.7-m) minimum channel allows ocean vessels to reach Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and giant barges to travel as far as Minneapolis and St. Paul. Dredging is required to maintain the channel throughout the river's course. Above its junction with the Missouri, the river is made navigable by 26 locks and dams. Such facilities are unnecessary below St. Louis.

Cities along the banks, including such large ones as New Orleans, St. Louis, St. Paul, and Minneapolis, draw water from the river for home and industrial use. Hydroelectric power is produced in several localities, but the amount is relatively small since the amount of fall is so slight. The chief installations are at Keokuk, Iowa, and Minneapolis. The river is also extensively used for recreation.

The Mississippi brings many benefits to its valley, but it also brings destructive floods, especially in spring and winter. Since 1928 the number and severity of floods have been reduced by a large-scale federal flood-control program that includes dredging and straightening the channel and the building of levees, spillways, and reservoirs. Despite this flood-control program, torrential rains in 1993 resulted in massive floods throughout most of the upper Mississippi Valley, causing billions of dollars' worth of damage.


Hernando de Soto is credited with the European discovery of the Mississippi in 1541, even though other Spanish explorers had probably reached it before him. In 1673 Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet traveled down the river from the point where it is joined by the Wisconsin River to its junction with the Arkansas. The task of following the river to the gulf was accomplished by Sieur de La Salle and his party in 1682.

The Louisiana Purchase, 1803, brought a large part of the Mississippi's basin under the control of the United States. Opening of this vast new land and development of the steamboat (first used on the Mississippi in 1811) brought a rapid growth of trade. Some trading towns, particularly St. Louis, grew into large cities. The steamboat trade reached a peak about the time of the Civil War and thereafter was gradually taken over by the railways. Civil War battles fought on or near the river include those at New Orleans, Chickasaw Bluffs, Vicksburg, Memphis, and New Madrid.