Skip to Content

All About the Mississippi River

There are few, if any, rivers in the United States that are as famous or have as much historical significance as the mighty Mississippi River. The “Mississip,” as it’s sometimes called, is the second-longest river in North America after only the Missouri River. However, when you add in all of its branches and tributaries, it becomes the longest river in the country.

If you’re wondering why the Mississippi River is so significant and what made it as famous as it is, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the Mississippi River!

A map with the Mississippi River.

History of the Mississippi River

Historically speaking, the Mississippi River is the most important river in North America. Because of how long it is and the various states it runs through, it has always been a great source of exploration and transportation. The earliest uses of the river also included fishing, and it became a hot spot for Native American settlements.

Because of how widespread the river is, it also became a popular trade route in the early AD. Much of the land around the river basin was packed with wildlife and ecology, which further increased its popularity and usefulness.

Early History

The earliest known use of the Mississippi River started in 1000 BC, but it’s likely that settlements were started much earlier. However, traces of pottery, tools, and bones can be traced to 1000 BC, which is why this timeframe gets credit for the earliest known settlement.

It wasn’t until the early hundreds of AD that the Mississippi River began being used as a trade route and a popular means of transportation. Because it runs from the Gulf of Mexico to Minnesota, you can go through the entire midwestern United States. Add in the fact that there are dozens of branches and tributaries connecting to the Mississip, and you can go anywhere in the country.

Recent History

The Mississippi River remained a place of life and worked for Native Americans until the early 1500s. The first European to explore the river was Alonso Alvarez de Pineda in 1519. After him, a slew of other European explorers followed, including Hernando de Soto and Louis Jolliet.

The Mississippi River initially served as the borderline between the portion of America controlled by Britain and that controlled by Spain. However, following American independence in 1776, both parties eventually moved out of the country. It wasn’t until the War of 1812 that the United States officially took control of the entire Mississippi River.

Ever since, this incredible river has been of ecological, geological, research, transportation, exploration, and historical significance. It’s one of the most treasured things in North America and an important part of our country.

Dimensions of the Mississippi River

As previously stated, the Mississippi River is the longest river in North America, with only the Missouri River close in contention. It flows from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Itasca in north-central Minnesota. Along the way, it collects water from dozens of rivers and tributaries, including the Great Lakes, the Ohio River, and the Missouri River.

Length

In total length, the Mississippi River measures 2,350 miles long, making it the twentieth-longest river in the world. However, because the Missouri River branches off the Mississippi when you add the two together, they make for the fourth-longest river in the world.

In terms of the total discharge, the Mississippi alone is the thirteenth-largest river in the world. In the United States, only the Hudson Bay has a higher discharge than the Mississip. It flows through or touches at least ten different states and has tributaries that flow through 32 parts of Canada.

Width

The width of the Mississippi River is what sets it apart from many other rivers in the world. The narrowest part of the river is at its northern source in Lake Itasca, where it’s between 20 and 30 feet wide. At its widest point, however, the Mississippi is 11 miles wide. The overall average width isn’t known, but most parts are wide enough for multiple steamboats.

Depth

The average depth of the Mississippi is between 15 and 25 feet, but it’s difficult to say exactly because there are so many different parts of the river. At its shallowest point, it is as little as two or three feet deep. At its deepest point, however, in New Orleans, it gets as deep as 200 feet.

The Mississippi River seen from above.

Watershed Size

Aside from river length, the watershed size is a great way to judge how large a river is. The Mississippi, for example, has a watershed size of 1.2 million miles, which includes the river itself plus any branches or tributaries that stem off of it. This makes it the fourth-largest river system in the world.

Volume

In terms of volume, the Mississippi River ranks fifteenth in the world. It drains between 16,000 and 17,000 cubic meters of water into the Gulf of Mexico every second and another several thousand cubic meters into Lake Itasca.

Different Sections of the Mississippi River

In most cases, the Mississippi gets divided into three sections: upper, middle, and lower, according to which part of the United States it’s located.

Upper

The upper portion of the river stretches just over 1,000 miles from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to Saint Louis, Missouri. It flows through and beside major cities such as Saint Paul, Minneapolis, Saint Cloud, Bemidji, and many more.

The upper portion of the river was used mainly for transportation, fishing, and work. It was used by steamboats and logging vessels to transport wood and people between various cities and across the Great Lakes. The upper portion consists of 43 dams to regulate the river’s flow, and there are over a dozen major rivers that branch off of it.

Middle

The middle portion of the Mississippi River flows mainly from east to west and stretches from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Ohio River. This portion of the river is mainly unregulated in that there aren’t many dams along the way to control the flow and speed. The middle portion is roughly 190 miles long, and there’s a drastic drop in sea level as the river progresses.

Lower

The southern half of the Mississippi River consists of the lower portion. This stretches from where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi to where it terminates into the Gulf of Mexico. At 1,000 miles long, the lower portion is slightly shorter than the upper portion but is the most famous stretch on the river.

Most of the early civilizations and exploration of the Mississippi were done on the lower portion. It runs through major cities such as New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Memphis, Vicksburg, and many more.

The Mississippi River

Physical Features of the Mississippi River

The terrain and territory that surround the Mississippi River are diverse and second to none. You’ll see everything from the icy terrain of Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains in the midwest and sandy beaches in Louisiana. Most of the drainage points along the river go to the Great Plains and Interior Lowlands.

There’s a big difference between the upper portion of the Mississippi River and the lower portion. Up north, the waters are fairly clean and clear and great for fishing and swimming. In the southern portion, however, the river is much browner, murkier, and dirtier. This happens because dirt and sediment from surrounding mountains get washed into the river the further south you go.

What further dirties the waters is the fact that most of the rivers in the Alleghany Mountain Range drain into the Mississippi. While some of these rivers are fairly clean, many of them are filled with dirt and corrosion.

Cultural Geography

A big part of why the Mississippi River is so important is because it touches or runs through 10 different states:

  • Minnesota
  • Wisconsin
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Tennessee
  • Mississippi
  • Iowa
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Louisiana

For many of these states, the river serves as the boundary or borderline between the various states.

Animal Life

Fish

Fishing and hunting have always been a big part of the Mississippi River for both commercial and recreational purposes. Commercial fishing was more popular in the northern portion of the river, where it flows through major lakes such as Lake Peppin.

Overall, you can find around 375 different types of fish in the Mississippi. This makes it the most diverse river in the world outside of the Yangtze in terms of different types of fish. Because of how wide and many deep portions of the river are, there are some true monsters lurking in its depths.

Other Animals

In addition to fish, there are a number of different types of reptiles you can find in the river. These include alligators, snakes, amphibians, turtles, and many others. The banks of the Mississippi River are also a hotspot for birders because over half of the birds in North America that migrate from north to south and back again do so along the Mississippi River basin.

All in all, there are more than 40 different types of mammals, 145 different reptiles and amphibians, nearly 40 species of mussels, and hundreds of fish and bird species in and around the Mississippi River. This makes it one of the most ecologically significant features in North America.

Life and Culture on the Mississippi

Since the Mississippi River was discovered, it’s been a source of cities and settlements. Early accounts dictate that famous Native American tribes, including the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chippewa, Sioux, and many others, had settlements and cities along the river. Nowadays, major hubs such as Baton Rouge, the Twin Cities, and Memphis have their roots along the river bank.

Adding to the fame and lore of the Mississippi is the fact that it was a source of inspiration for many writers and poets. Some of Mark Twain’s most famous works, stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, take place on the Mississippi River. Other authors, including William Faulkner, grew up near the Mississippi River, and it served as the inspiration for many of his most treasured works.

Movies

One of the most notable playwrights of the mid-1950s, Tennessee Williams, grew up in St. Louis along the Mississippi. He used the river and surrounding setting for many of his most famous movies, including A Streetcar Named Desire.

Music

While the Mississip has served as inspiration for movies, books, and poems, it’s probably best known for being a river of music. Famous musicians such as Louis Armstrong and King Oliver grew up on the river. Genres such as jazz largely originated in cities along the river bank, with Memphis being the main one.

A big reason that the Mississippi River is significant when it comes to music is that it was a major source of slave transportation in the 16, 17, and 1800s. As such, African American influence became extremely significant in places like New Orleans and Memphis. As a result, different genres and cultures started blending together and turned the southern portion of the Mississippi River into one of song and music.

A sign that says "Mississippi River" in front of a bridge.

Economic Significance of the Mississippi River

To this day, the Mississippi River is a major source of trade and commerce. While it’s not as popular as it once was for transportation purposes, there is still a shipping lane reserved by the US Army Corps of Engineers for moving goods up and down the river from Louisiana to Minnesota.

The Mississippi is major for both land and water commerce. Fishing in the northern portion of the river was huge, as was logging and hydroelectricity, but each of these industries has taken a hit. In the southern portions, agriculture in the river basin is the big money-maker. 90% of the nation’s grain and soybean exports originate in the Mississippi River basin.

Additionally, a vast majority of the hogs, livestock, and other food animals come from the Mississippi basin. It’s estimated that over 500 million tons of goods and foods are shipped via the river every year.

In the further-most southern portion of the river near the Gulf of Mexico, oil, petroleum, iron, steel, and fossil fuels are the major export. As such, the Mississippi River and river basin are a huge part of our national economy and will most likely always be.

Wrapping Up the Mississippi River

As you can see, the Mississippi River is one of the most significant and famous rivers in North America. It serves as a national landmark, a historical treasure, and an economic boom. While the river has undergone many changes through the years, its importance and awe-inspired beauty have remained the same. Next, keep reading about other great places to visit in Minnesota!