The Mississippi River

At 2,320 miles in length, the Mississippi River is the 2nd-longest on the North American continent, as well as the chief river of its 2nd-largest drainage system, after the Hudson Bay drainage basin. Covering nearly 1.25 million square miles, it also has the world’s 4th-largest watershed, which drains all or parts of 32 U.S. States and 2 Canadian Provinces located between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains. From its traditional source, Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, it flows mostly south to the Mississippi River Delta before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The river either borders or passes through the states of: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The name “Mississippi” comes from the French rendering (Misi zipi) of the Ojibwe/Algonquin name (Misi-ziibi), meaning “Great River”.

Throughout the 18th century, the Mississippi served as the primary western boundary of the United States. It has also generally been divided into three sections: the Upper Mississippi (from its headwaters in northern Minnesota to its confluence with the Missouri River); the Middle Mississippi (flowing downriver from the Missouri to the Ohio River); and the Lower Mississippi (flowing from the Ohio to the Gulf of Mexico). During the height of the “manifest destiny” ideology of the 19th century, the Mississippi and several of its western tributaries (such as the Missouri), served as pathways for the western expansion of the United States. Steamboats were also widely used to ship agricultural and industrial goods. During the American Civil War, the river’s capture by Union forces marked a turning point towards northern victory, due to its strategic importance to the southern Confederate war effort. Later, with the growth of cities and the use of larger ships and barges (which eventually replaced the steamboats), the beginning of the 20th century witnessed the construction of massive engineering works, such as levees, locks, and dams.

The Mississippi River can be measured in several ways:

  • When measured from its traditional source at Lake Itasca, the river has a length of 2,320 miles.
  • When measured from its longest stream source (i.e. the most distant source from the sea) at Brower’s Spring in Montana (the source of the Missouri River), it has a length of 3,710 miles, making it the 4th-longest river in the world, after the Nile, the Amazon, and the Yangtze
  • When measured by the largest stream source (i.e. by volume), the Allegheny River (historically, the upper Ohio River) in Pennsylvania would be considered to be the river’s source.

In March 1876, the Mississippi suddenly changed course near the settlement of Reverie in Tennessee, leaving a small part of Tipton County attached to Arkansas, separated from the rest of the state by a new river channel But since this event was not due to incremental erosion and deposition, the state line still follows the old channel.

  • Viewed: Lake Itasca, Twin Cities, Lake Pepin, St. Louis, New Orleans

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