The Mississippi River – Fun Facts
The Mississippi River is one of the world’s major river systems in size, habitat diversity and biological productivity. It is the third longest river in North America, flowing 2,350 miles from its source at Lake Itasca through the center of the continental United States to the Gulf of Mexico.
When compared to other world rivers, the Mississippi-Missouri River combination ranks fourth in length (3,710 miles/5,970km) following the Nile (4,160 miles/6,693km), the Amazon (4,000 miles/6,436km), and the Yangtze Rivers (3,964 miles/6,378km). The reported length of a river may increase or decrease as deposition or erosion occurs at its delta, or as meanders are created or cutoff. As a result, different lengths may be reported depending upon the year or measurement method.
For reasons mentioned above there are competing claims as to the Mississippi’s length. The staff of Itasca State Park at the Mississippi’s headwaters say the river is 2,552 miles long. The US Geologic Survey has published a number of 2,300 miles, the EPA says it is 2,320 miles long, and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area suggests the river’s length is 2,350 miles.
At Lake Itasca, the river is between 20 and 30 feet wide, the narrowest stretch for its entire length. The widest part of the Mississippi can be found at Lake Winnibigoshish near Bena, MN, where it is wider than 11 miles. The widest navigable part of the Mississippi is Lake Pepin, where it is approximately 2 miles wide.
At the headwaters of the Mississippi, the average surface speed of the water is near 1.2 miles per hour – roughly one-third as fast as people walk. At New Orleans the river flows 3 miles per hour on average.
Mississippi River Watershed
The Mississippi River has the world’s fourth largest drainage basin in the world, extending from the Allegheny Mountains in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west.
The basin covers more than 1,245,000 sq mi (3,220,000 km2), including all or parts of 32 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. The drainage basin empties into the Gulf of Mexico, part of the Atlantic Ocean. The total catchment of the Mississippi River covers nearly 40% of the landmass of the continental United States.
At Lake Itasca, the average flow rate is 6 cubic feet per second. At Upper St. Anthony Falls, the northern most Lock and Dam, the average flow rate is 12,000 cubic feet per second or 89,869 gallons per second. At New Orleans, the average flow rate / discharge is 600,000 cubic feet per second.
Overall, the Mississippi River discharges at an annual average rate of between 200 and 700 thousand cubic feet per second (7,000–20,000 m3/s). Although it is the 5th largest river in the world by volume, this flow is a mere fraction of the output of the Amazon, which moves nearly 7 million cubic feet per second (200,000 m3/s) during wet seasons. On average, the Mississippi has only 8% the flow of the Amazon River.
Fresh river water flowing from the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico does not mix into the salt water immediately. Images from NASA’s MODIS satellite show a large plume of fresh water, which appears as a dark ribbon against the lighter-blue surrounding waters. These images demonstrate that the plume did not mix with the surrounding sea water immediately. Instead, it stayed intact as it flowed through the Gulf of Mexico, into the Straits of Florida, and entered the Gulf Stream. The Mississippi River water rounded the tip of Florida and traveled up the southeast coast to the latitude of Georgia before finally mixing in so thoroughly with the ocean that it could no longer be detected by MODIS.
Prior to 1900, the Mississippi River transported an estimated 400 million metric tons of sediment per year from the interior of the United States to coastal Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. During the last two decades, this number was only 145 million metric tons per year. The reduction in sediment transported down the Mississippi River is the result of engineering modification of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers and their tributaries by dams, meander cutoffs, river-training structures, and bank revetments and soil erosion control programs in the areas drained by them.
Communities up and down the river use the Mississippi to obtain freshwater and to discharge their industrial and municipal waste. We don’t have good figures on water use for the whole Mississippi River Basin, but we have some clues. A January 2000 study published by the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee states that close to 15 million people rely on the Mississippi River or its tributaries in just the upper half of the basin (from Cairo, IL to Minneapolis, MN). A frequently cited figure of 18 million people using the Mississippi River Watershed for water supply comes from a 1982 study by the Upper Mississippi River Basin Committee. The Environmental Protection Agency simply says that more than 50 cities rely on the Mississippi for daily water supply.
Agriculture has been the dominant land use for nearly 200 years in the Mississippi basin, and has altered the hydrologic cycle and energy budget of the region. The agricultural products and the huge agribusiness industry that has developed in the basin produce 92% of the nation’s agricultural exports, 78% of the world’s exports in feed grains and soybeans, and most of the livestock and hogs produced nationally. Sixty percent of all grain exported from the US is shipped on the Mississippi River through the Port of New Orleans and the Port of South Louisiana.
In measure of tonnage, the largest port district in the world is located along the Mississippi River delta in Louisiana. The Port of South Louisiana is one of the largest volume ports in the United States. Representing 500 million tons of shipped goods per year (according to the Port of New Orleans), the Mississippi River barge port system is significant to national trade.
Shipping at the lower end of the Mississippi is focused on petroleum and petroleum products, iron and steel, grain, rubber, paper, wood, coffee, coal, chemicals, and edible oils.
The Mississippi River and its floodplain are home to a diverse population of living things:
At least 260 species of fish, 25% of all fish species in North America;
Forty percent of the nation’s migratory waterfowl use the river corridor during their Spring and Fall migration;
Sixty percent of all North American birds (326 species) use the Mississippi River Basin as their migratory flyway;
From Cairo, IL upstream to Lake Itasca there are 38 documented species of mussel. On the Lower Mississippi, there may be as many as 60 separate species of mussel;
The Upper Mississippi is host to more than 50 mammal species;
At least 145 species of amphibians and reptiles inhabit the Upper Mississippi River environs.
The Mississippi River – Human History
The area of the Mississippi River basin was first settled by hunting and gathering Native American peoples and is considered one the few independent centers of plant domestication in human history. Evidence of early cultivation of sunflower, a goosefoot, a marsh elder and an indigenous squash dates to the 4th millennium BCE. The lifestyle gradually became more settled after around 1000 BCE during what is now called the Woodland period, with increasing evidence of shelter construction, pottery, weaving and other practices. A network of trade routes referred to as the Hopewell interaction sphere was active along the waterways between about 200 and 500 CE, spreading common cultural practices over the entire area between the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.
A period of more isolated communities followed, and agriculture introduced from Mesoamerica based on the Three Sisters (maize, beans and squash) gradually came to dominate. After around 800 CE there arose an advanced agricultural society today referred to as the Mississippian culture, with evidence of highly stratified complex chiefdoms and large population centers.
The most prominent of these, now called Cahokia, was occupied between about 600 and 1400 CE and at its peak numbered between 8,000 and 40,000 inhabitants, larger than London, England of that time. At the time of first contact with Europeans, Cahokia and many other Mississippian cities had dispersed, and archaeological finds attest to increased social stress.
Modern American Indian nations inhabiting the Mississippi basin include Cheyenne, Sioux, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Fox, Kickapoo, Tamaroa, Moingwena, Quapaw and Chickasaw.
The word Mississippi itself comes from Messipi, the French rendering of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe or Algonquin) name for the river, Misi-ziibi (Great River). The Ojibwe called Lake Itasca Omashkoozo-zaaga’igan (Elk Lake) and the river flowing out of it Omashkoozo-ziibi (Elk River).
After flowing into Lake Bemidji, the Ojibwe called the river Bemijigamaag-ziibi (River from the Traversing Lake). After flowing into Cass Lake, the name of the river changes to Gaa-miskwaawaakokaag-ziibi (Red Cedar River) and then out of Lake Winnibigoshish as Wiinibiigoozhish-ziibi (Miserable Wretched Dirty Water River), Gichi-ziibi (Big River) after the confluence with the Leech Lake River, then finally as Misi-ziibi (Great River) after the confluence with the Crow Wing River. After the expeditions by Giacomo Beltrami and Henry Schoolcraft, the longest stream above the juncture of the Crow Wing River and Gichi-ziibi was named “Mississippi River”.
The Mississippi River Band of Chippewa Indians, known as the Gichi-ziibiwininiwag, are named after the stretch of the Mississippi River known as the Gichi-ziibi. The Cheyenne, one of the earliest inhabitants of the upper Mississippi River, called it the Máʼxe-éʼometaaʼe (Big Greasy River) in the Cheyenne language. The Arapaho name for the river is Beesniicíe. The Pawnee name is Kickaátit.
When Louis Jolliet explored the Mississippi Valley in the 17th century, natives guided him to a quicker way to return to French Canada via the Illinois River. When he found the Chicago Portage, he remarked that a canal of “only half a league” (less than 2 miles (3.2 km), 3 km) would join the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. In 1848, the continental divide separating the waters of the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley was breached by the Illinois and Michigan canal via the Chicago River.
On May 8, 1541, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto became the first recorded European to reach the Mississippi River, which he called Río del Espíritu Santo (“River of the Holy Spirit”), in the area of what is now Mississippi. In Spanish, the river is called Río Mississippi.
French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette began exploring the Mississippi in the 17th century. Marquette traveled with a Sioux Indian who named it Ne Tongo (“Big river” in Sioux language) in 1673. Marquette proposed calling it the River of the Immaculate Conception. This both accelerated the development, and forever changed the ecology of the Mississippi Valley and the Great Lakes.
In 1682, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Henri de Tonti claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for France, calling the river Colbert River after Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the region La Louisiane, for King Louis XIV. On March 2, 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville rediscovered the mouth of the Mississippi, following the death of La Salle. The French built the small fort of La Balise there to control passage.
In 1718, about 100 miles (160 km) upriver, New Orleans was established along the river crescent by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, with construction patterned after the 1711 resettlement on Mobile Bay of Mobile, the capital of French Louisiana at the time.
Following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War from 1756 and 1763, the Mississippi became the border between the British and Spanish Empires. The first Treaty of Paris (1763) gave Great Britain rights to all land east of the Mississippi and Spain rights to land west of the Mississippi. Spain also ceded Florida to Britain to regain Cuba, which the British occupied during the war. Britain then divided the territory into East and West Florida. Article 8 of the second Treaty of Paris (1783) states:
The navigation of the river Mississippi, from its source to the ocean, shall forever remain free and open to the subjects of Great Britain and the citizens of the United States.
With this treaty, which ended the American Revolutionary War, Britain also ceded West Florida back to Spain to regain the Bahamas, which Spain had occupied during the war. In 1800, under duress from Napoleon of France, Spain ceded an undefined portion of West Florida to France. When France then sold the Louisiana Territory to the US in 1803, a dispute arose again between Spain and the U.S. on which parts of West Florida exactly had Spain ceded to France, which would in turn decide which parts of West Florida were now U.S. property versus Spanish property. These aspirations ended when Spain was pressured into signing Pinckney’s Treaty in 1795.
France reacquired ‘Louisiana’ from Spain in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. The United States then bought the territory from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1815, the U.S. defeated Britain at the Battle of New Orleans, part of the War of 1812, securing American control of the river.
The colonization of the area was barely slowed by the three earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, estimated at approximately 8 on the Richter magnitude scale, that were centered near New Madrid, Missouri.
The Steamboat Era
The first steamboat to travel the full length of the Lower Mississippi from the Ohio River to New Orleans was the New Orleans in December 1811. Its maiden voyage occurred during the series of New Madrid earthquakes in 1811–12. Steamboat transport remained a viable industry, both in terms of passengers and freight until the end of the first decade of the 20th century.
Among the several Mississippi River system steamboat companies was the noted Anchor Line, which, from 1859 to 1898, operated a luxurious fleet of steamers between St. Louis and New Orleans.
Mark Twain’s book, Life on the Mississippi, covered the steamboat commerce which took place from 1830 to 1870 on the river before more modern ships replaced the steamer. The book was published first in serial form in Harper’s Weekly in seven parts in 1875. The full version, including a passage from the unfinished Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and works from other authors, was published by James R. Osgood & Company in 1885.
Control of the river was a strategic objective of both sides in the American Civil War. In 1862 Union forces coming down the river successfully cleared Confederate defenses at Island Number 10 and Memphis, Tennessee, while Naval forces coming upriver from the Gulf of Mexico captured New Orleans, Louisiana. The remaining major Confederate stronghold was on the heights overlooking the river at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the Union’s Vicksburg Campaign (December 1862 to July, 1863), and the fall of Port Hudson, completed control of the lower Mississippi River. The Union victory ending the Siege of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 was pivotal to the Union’s final victory of the Civil War.