Mississippi River

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Mississippi River
Map of the Mississippi River
Map of the Mississippi River
Origin Lake Itasca
Mouth Gulf of Mexico
Basin Countries United States (98.5%)
Canada (1.5%)
Length 6,270 km (3,900 mi)
Source Elevation 450 m (1,476 ft)
Avg. Discharge Minneapolis ¹ : 210 m³/s (7,460 ft³/s)
Saint Louis ¹ : 5,150 m³/s (182,000 ft³/s )
Vicksburg ² : 17,050 m³/s (602,000 ft³/s)
Baton Rouge ³ : 12,740 m³/s (450,000 ft³/s)
Watershed Area 2,980,000 km² (1,151,000 mi²)

This page is about the river in the United States; there is also a Canadian Mississippi River (Ontario).

The Mississippi River, derived from the old Ojibwe word missi-sipi meaning 'big river' (gichi-ziibi in the modern language), is the second-longest river in the United States; the longest is the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi. Taken together, they form the largest river system in North America. If measured from the head of the Missouri, the length of the Missouri/Mississippi combination is approximately 6,270 km (3,900 miles) long.



The source of the Mississippi River on the edge of Lake Itasca
The source of the Mississippi River on the edge of Lake Itasca

With its source Lake Itasca at 1475 feet (450 m) above sea level in Itasca State Park in northern Minnesota, the river falls to 725 feet (220 m) just below Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. The Mississippi is joined by the Illinois River and the Missouri River near Saint Louis, and by the Ohio at Cairo, Illinois. The Arkansas River joins the Mississippi in the state of Arkansas. The Atchafalaya River in Louisiana is a major distributary of the Mississippi.

The Mississippi drains most of the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, except for the area drained by the Great Lakes. It runs through, or borders, ten states in the United States -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana -- before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico about 100 miles (160 km) downstream from New Orleans. Measurements of the length of the Mississippi from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico vary, but the EPA's number is 2,320 miles (3733 km). A raindrop falling in Lake Itasca would arrive at the Gulf of Mexico in about 90 days. [1]

Looking down on the Great River Road in Wisconsin, with Minnesota in the distance across the Mississippi River
Looking down on the Great River Road in Wisconsin, with Minnesota in the distance across the Mississippi River

The river is divided into the upper Mississippi, from its source south to the Ohio River, and the lower Mississippi, from the Ohio to its mouth near New Orleans. The upper Mississippi is further divided into three sections: the headwaters, from the source to Saint Anthony Falls; a series of man-made lakes between Minneapolis and St. Louis; and the middle Mississippi, a relatively free-flowing river downstream of the confluence with the Missouri River at St. Louis.

A series of 27 locks and dams on the upper Mississippi, most of which were built in the 1930s, is designed primarily to maintain a 9 foot (2.7 m) channel for commercial barge traffic. The lakes formed are also used for recreational boating and fishing. The dams make the river deeper and wider but do not stop it. No flood control is intended. During periods of high flow, the gates, some of which are submersible, are completely opened and the dams simply cease to function. Below St. Louis the Mississippi is relatively free-flowing, although it is constrained by numerous levees and directed by numerous wing dams.

Through a natural process known as deltaic switching the lower Mississippi River has shifted its final course to the ocean every thousand years or so. This occurs because the deposits of silt and sediment raise the river's level causing it to eventually find a steeper route to the Gulf of Mexico. The abandoned distributary diminishes in volume and forms what are known as bayous. This process has, over the past 5,000 years, caused the coastline of south Louisiana to advance gulfward from 15 to 50 miles.

(See: Mississippi River Delta)

Other changes in the course of the river have occurred because of earthquakes along the New Madrid Fault Zone, which lies near the cities of Memphis and St. Louis. Three earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, estimated at approximately 8 on the Richter Scale, were said to have temporarily reversed the course of the Mississippi. These earthquakes also created Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee from the altered landscape near the river. The faulting is related to an aulacogen (geologic term for a failed rift) that formed at the same time as the Gulf of Mexico.

Davenport, Iowa is the only city over 20,000 people bordering the Upper Mississippi that has no permanent floodwall or levee.


Mississippi Watershed
Mississippi Watershed

The Mississippi River has the third largest drainage basin in the world, exceeded in size only by the watersheds of the Amazon River and Congo River. It drains 41 percent of the 48 contiguous states of the United States. The basin covers more than 1,245,000 square miles (3,225,000 km²), including all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces.


The word Mississippi comes from the Ojibwe name for the river, "Messipi" (or Misi-ziibi), which means great river, or from the Algonquin Missi Sepe, "great river," literally, "father of waters." The Ojibwe called Lake Itasca, the source lake of the Mississippi River, Omashkoozo-zaaga'igan (Elk Lake) and the river flowing out of it as Omashkoozo-ziibi (Elk River). After flowing into Lake Bemidji, the Ojibwe called the river Bemijigamaa-ziibi (River from the Traversing Lake). After flowing into Cass Lake, the river again changes its name to Miskwaawaakokaa-ziibi (Red Cedar River), only to change its name again after flowing into Lake Winnibigoshish as Gichi-ziibi (Big River). The Ojibwe name Misi-ziibi applied only to the portion below the Crow Wing River, but the ever-changing names of the river seemed illogical to the English speakers, so after the expedition by Henry Schoolcraft, the longest stream above the juncture of the Crow Wing River and Gichi-ziibi was named "Mississippi River".

On May 8, 1541 Hernando de Soto became the first recorded white man to reach the Mississippi River, which he called "Rio de Espiritu Santo" (River of the Holy Spirit). French explorers Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette began exploring the Mississippi, which they knew by the Sioux name "Ne Tongo" (which, like the Ojibwe name, means big river), on May 17, 1673. In 1682, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle and Henri de Tonty claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for France, calling it Louisiana, for King Louis XIV. In 1718, New Orleans was established by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.

France lost all its territories on the mainland of North America as a result of the French and Indian War. The Treaty of Paris (1763) gave Great Britain rights to all land in the valley east of the Mississippi, and Spain rights to land west of the Mississippi. During the treaty negotiations, Britain ceeded the Floridas back to Spain, giving Spain control over the river south of the 32°30' line. In what is known as the Spanish Conspiracy, Spain had hopes of gaining greater control of Louisiana, and all of the west. These hopes were ended when Spain was pressured into signing Pinckney's Treaty in 1795. France re-acquired 'Louisiana' from Spain in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. The United States bought the territory from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

The river was noted for the number of bandits which called its islands and shores home, including John Murrell who was a well-known murderer, horse stealer and slave "re-trader". His notoriety was such that author Mark Twain devoted an entire chapter to him in his book Life on the Mississippi, and Murrell was rumored to have an island headquarters on the river at Island 37.

Twain's book also extensively covered the thrilling steamboat races which took place from 1830 to 1870 on the river before more modern boating methods replaced the steamer. It was published first in serial form in Harper's Weekly in seven parts in 1875 and was intended to chronicle the rapidly disappearing steamboat culture. The full version, including a passage from the unfinished Huckleberry Finn and works from other authors, was published by James R. Osgood & Co. in 1885. The first steamboat to travel the full length of the Mississippi from the Ohio River to the city of New Orleans, Louisiana was the New Orleans in December 1811. Its maiden voyage occurred during the series of New Madrid earthquakes in 1811-1812.

In 1815, America retained control over the Mississippi by scoring a decisive victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans, part of the War of 1812.

The River was also a decisive part of the American Civil War. The Union's Vicksburg Campaign called for Union control of the lower Mississippi River. The Union victory at the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863 was pivotal to the Union's final victory of the Civil War.

In 1900, Chicago built the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to link the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. The canal allowed Chicago to flush its waste down the Mississippi rather than having it pollute its own Lake Michigan waterfront. The canal also provided a shipping route between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

The sport of water skiing was invented on the river in a wide region between Minnesota and Wisconsin known as Lake Pepin. Ralph Samuelson of Lake City, Minnesota created and refined his skiing technique in late June and early July of 1922. He later performed the first water ski jump in 1925 and was pulled along at 80 miles per hour (128 km/h) by a Curtiss flying boat later that year.

In the spring of 1927 the river broke out of its banks in 145 places during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and inundated 27,000 square miles (70,000 km&sup2) to a depth of up to 30 feet (10 m).

The Great Flood of 1993 is considered the most devastating flood to occur in the U.S. in modern history.

In 2002 Martin Strel swam the entire length of the river.

Maintaining a navigation channel

The task of maintaining a navigation channel on the Mississippi is the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which began as early as 1829 removing snags, closing off secondary channels and excavating rocks and sandbars. In 1829 the Corps surveyed the two major obstacles on the upper Mississippi, the Des Moines Rapids and the Rock Island Rapids, where the river was shallow and the riverbed was rock. The Des Moines Rapids were about 11 miles (18 km) long and just above the mouth of the Des Moines River at Keokuk. The Rock Island Rapids were between Rock Island and Moline. Both rapids were considered virtually impassable.

The Lock & Dam at Dubuque, Iowa.
The Lock & Dam at Dubuque, Iowa.

The Corps recommended excavation of a 5 foot (1.5 m) channel at the Des Moines Rapids, but work didn't begin until after Lieutenant Robert E. Lee endorsed the project in 1837. The Corps later also began excavating the Rock Island Rapids. By 1866 it had become evident that excavation was impractical, and it was decided to build a canal around the Des Moines Rapids. The canal opened in 1877, but the Rock Island Rapids remained an obstacle.

In 1878, Congress authorized the Corps to establish a 4 ½ foot (1.4 m) channel, to be obtained by building wing dams which direct the river to a narrow channel causing it to cut a deeper channel, closing secondary channels, and by dredging. The 4 ½ (1.4 m) foot channel project was complete when the Moline Lock, which bypassed the Rock Island Rapids, opened in 1907.

To improve navigation between St. Paul and Prairie du Chien, the Corps constructed several dams on lakes in the headwaters area, including Lake Winnibigoshish and Lake Pokegama. The dams, which were built beginning in the 1880s, stored spring run-off, which was released during low water to help maintain channel depth.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal connecting the Illinois River with Lake Michigan was completed in 1900. This provided a link between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes and replaced the smaller Illinois and Michigan Canal (1848).

In 1907, Congress authorized a 6 foot (1.8 m) channel project on the Mississippi, which wasn't complete when it was abandoned in the late 1920s in favor of the 9 foot (2.7 m) channel project.

In 1913, construction was complete on a dam at Keokuk, Iowa, the first dam below St. Anthony Falls. Built by a private power company to generate electricity, the Keokuk dam was one of the largest hydro-electric plants in the world at the time. The dam also eliminated the Des Moines Rapids.

Lock and Dam No. 1, Minneapolis
Lock and Dam No. 1, Minneapolis

Lock and Dam No. 1 was completed in Minneapolis in 1917 and Lock and Dam No. 2 at Hastings, Minnesota, was completed in 1930.

Prior to the 1927 flood, the Corps' primary strategy was to close off as many side channels as possible to increase the flow in the main river. It was thought that the river's velocity would scour off bottom sediments, deepening the river, and decreasing the possibility of flooding. The 1927 flood proved this so wrong that communities threatened by the flood began to make their own levee breaks to relieve the tension of the rising river.

The Corps now actively creates floodways to divert periodic water surges into backwater channels and lakes. The main floodways are the Birds Point-New Madrid Floodway; the Morganza Floodway, which directs floodwaters down the Atchafalaya; and the Bonnet Carré Spillway which directs water to Lake Pontchartrain. The Old River Control structure also serve as a major floodgates that can be opened to prevent flooding. Some of the pre-1927 strategy is still in use today; the Corps actively cuts the necks of horseshoe bends, allowing the water to move faster, and thus lower flood heights.

The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1930 authorized the 9-foot (2.7 m) channel project, which called for a navigation channel 9 feet (2.7 m) deep and 400 feet (120 m) wide to accommodate multiple-barge tows. This was achieved by a series of locks and dams, and by dredging. Twenty-three new locks and dams were built on the upper Mississippi in the 1930s in addition to the three already in existence. Two new locks were built north of Lock and Dam No. 1 at Saint Anthony Falls in the 1960s, extending the head of navigation for commercial traffic several miles, but few barges go past the city of Saint Paul today.

The Mississippi River just north of St. Louis
The Mississippi River just north of St. Louis

Until the 1950s, there was no dam below Lock and Dam 26 at Alton, Illinois. Lock and Dam 27, which consists of a low-water dam and an 8.4 mile (14 km) long canal, was added in 1953 just below the confluence with the Missouri River, primarily to bypass a series of rock ledges at St. Louis, but also to protect the St. Louis city water intakes during times of low water.

Dam 26 at Alton, Illinois, which had structural problems, was replaced by the Mel Price Lock and Dam in 1990. The original Lock and Dam 26 was demolished.

Major cities along the river

Notable bridges

Popular culture


Due to its size and historical significance, the Mississippi probably has more nicknames than any other river. Among these are:

  • The Father of Waters
  • The Gathering of Waters
  • The Big Muddy (more commonly associated with the Missouri River)
  • Big River
  • Old Man River
  • The Great River
  • Body of a Nation
  • The Mighty Mississippi
  • El Grande (de Soto)
  • The Muddy Mississippi

Literature & Music

Many of the works of Mark Twain deal with or take place near the Mississippi River. One of his first major works, Life on the Mississippi, is in part a history of the river, in part a memoir of Twain's experiences on the river, and a collection of tales that either take place on or are associated with the river. Twain's most famous work, Huckleberry Finn, is largely a journey down the river. The novel works as an episodic meditation on American culture with the river as the central metaphor.

Herman Melville's novel The Confidence-Man portrayed a Canterbury Tales-style group of steamboat passengers whose interlocking stories are told as they travel up the Mississppi River. The novel is written both as cultural satire and a metaphysical treatise. Like Huckleberry Finn, it uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for the larger aspects of American and human identity that unify the otherwise disparate characters. The river's fluidity is reflected by the often shifting personalities and identities of Melville's "confidence man."

The stage and movie musical Show Boat's central musical piece is the Blues-influenced ballad Ol' Man River.

Ferde Grofe composed a set of movements based on the lands the river travels through in his Mississippi Suite.

The song 'When the Levee Breaks', made famous in the version performed by Led Zeppelin on the album Led Zep IV, was composed by Memphis Minnie McCoy in 1929 after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.


The Mississippi is probably the river meant in the phrase sold down the river, as a reference to slavery. Down the Mississippi was farther into the Deep South and plantation country.


¹ Median of the 7,305 daliy mean streamflows recorded by the USGS for the period 1978-1998.

² Median of the 7,305 daily mean streamflows recorded by the USGS for the period 1978-1998 at Vicksburg. The discharge is probably even higher further downstream at Natchez, but data for Natchez were not recorded. Further downstream from Natchez, approximately 25 percent of the water discharge of the Mississippi is diverted into the Atchafalaya River, and further discharge is lost as the river becomes a delta in Louisiana.

³ Median of the 1,826 daily mean streamflows recorded by the USGS for the period 1978-1983 at Baton Rouge.


  • James R. Penn (2001). Rivers of the World, ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1576070425
  • Richard A. Bartlett (1984). Rolling Rivers: An encyclopedia of America's rivers, R. R. Donnelley and Sons. ISBN 0070039100

See also

External links

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