Life Along the Mississippi: History, Culture, and Ecology

From North to South: The Migratory Route Along the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is the most impressive and the longest river in North America and, together with its major tributaries, drains nearly one-eighth of the continent, or about 1.2 million square miles.

The whole length of the Mississippi River is located inside American territory. A total of 2,340 miles (3,766 km) separate its source in Lake Itasca in Minnesota and its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico through a vast delta southeast of New Orleans.

The river begins its journey by flowing almost due south toward the continental interior, collecting the waters of its primary tributaries, the Missouri River and the Ohio River. Thirty-one states in the United States and two provinces in Canada are drained in whole or in part by the Mississippi and its tributaries.

When the Missouri-Jefferson (Red Rock) system is added to the Mississippi downstream of the Missouri-Mississippi confluence, the combined length of the two rivers is 3,710 miles (5,971 km), making the Mississippi the fourth-longest river in the world.

However, the Mississippi proper is comfortably exceeded in length by 19 other rivers. With a flow of around 600,000 cubic feet (17,000 cubic meters) per second, the Mississippi River is the biggest in North America and the ninth largest in the world.

Mississippi's View
Mississippi’s View

The Mississippi River is one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world as the central river artery of a highly industrialized nation, and it has been subjected to an amazing extent of human control and modification as the unruly neighbor of some of the continent’s richest farmland. Furthermore, the river’s distinctive contribution to American history and literature has woven it like an outstanding thread through the folklore and nationwide consciousness of North America.

There are four separate reaches, or parts, of the Mississippi River that may be identified based on physical features. From its beginnings in its namesake state of Mississippi to its beginnings as a navigable waterway in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Mississippi is a clean, fresh stream that flows through low farmland filled with lakes and marshes.

St. Paul to the Missouri River’s mouth in St. Louis, Missouri, is the upper Mississippi reach’s extent. This section of the river, fed by springs in Minnesota and Wisconsin and streams in Illinois and Iowa, has the appearance that earned it the name “Father of Waters” (meaning misi, “big”; sipi, “water”) from the Algonquian-speaking Indians who first encountered it.

From its confluence with the Missouri River, the middle Mississippi flows south for another 200 miles (320 kilometers), eventually emptying into the Ohio. The Missouri, which is usually cloudy to muddy and full of flotsam and jetsam, makes the Mississippi River dramatically during floods and provides additional momentum.


The lower Mississippi reaches its full splendor as it merges with the Ohio River near Cairo, Illinois. The Mississippi River doubles in size below the confluence with Ohio because Ohio is bigger than the Mississippi above it. The lower Mississippi is a dark, sluggish river, often 1.5 miles from bank to bank, that descends with deceptive silence toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Geographers have long used the lower Mississippi as an exemplar of a meandering alluvial river because of the way its channel winds and curves extravagantly across the floodplain, creating oxbow lakes, cutoffs, and wetlands.

One of the most recognizable features of a transoceanic journey is still the sunlight sparkling on the water’s twisting ribbon. The lower stretch of the Mississippi River, which is now mainly contained by a complex system of embankments (levees), dams, and spillways, was once the gilded, sometimes hazardous path for the famous Mississippi steamboats, those “chateaus on paddle wheels” that so captured the public’s imagination.

The History of the Mississippi River

The Choctaw, Chickasaw, Quapaw, Osage, Natchez, Caddo, and Tunica of the Lower Mississippi and the Sioux, Sac and Fox, Ojibwe, Pottawatomie, Menominee, and Winnebago of the Upper Mississippi have all called the river their home since at least the 4th millennium BCE. Freshwater mussels and trout were only two of the many edible riverside treats that were readily available.

European immigrants were also drawn to the Mississippi River because of its wealth of natural resources. The Spanish adventurer Hernando de Soto discovered the river in 1541, and later, the French explorers Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette journeyed south down the river in the 17th century.

Almost immediately, war and growth resulted from competing nations’ efforts to colonize the river’s banks. Before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the countries of Britain, Spain, and France all claimed territory along the Mississippi. After defeating Britain in the War of 1812, the United States gained full and permanent control of the Mississippi River.

The History of the Mississippi River
The History of the Mississippi River

Throughout the industrial revolution and beyond, the river was crucial to the development of the country, and it was subsequently channeled and harnessed to improve navigation and lessen flood damage.

After the catastrophic flood of 1927, the federal government began funding levees, dredging, and diking projects. More than two thousand miles of the Mississippi watershed have been leveed, cutting off the river from its natural floodplain in an attempt to tame the river.

Damage to habitat and the loss of a wide variety of fish and species that have relied on the Mississippi River for centuries have resulted from the draining and isolation of the mosaic of backwaters, WETLANDS, and sloughs that previously fanned out seasonally throughout floodplain ecosystems. More than 300 potential species of rare, vulnerable, or endangered plants and animals are found in the basin, making it a vital area for their survival.

Flora and fauna in Mississippi River

The natural vegetation of the Mississippi Valley is the result of temperature and soil, not the river itself, yet the ecological significance of the river’s wetlands and backwaters cannot be denied. From the Minnesota wild rice marshes to the coastal wetlands of the Mississippi Delta, the river is laced with areas of flourishing plant-animal interactions.

Flora and fauna in Mississippi River
Flora and fauna in Mississippi River

Waterfowl frequently settle there because of the rich vegetation, relative solitude, and abundant food sources (sedges, pondweeds, and millets). The Mississippi Flyway is a fitting term for the enormous aerial highway that stretches from the delta to the farthest summer breeding sites in northern Canada, following the course of these birds as they migrate up and down the river with the seasons.

Around eight million waterfowl, including ducks, geese, and swans, spend the colder months of the year in the flyway’s southern section, and many more birds use the route to get to South America.

Canada geese and smaller snow geese, swarms of mallards and teal, black ducks, widgeon, pintails, ring-necked ducks, and coots are all examples of birds that use the flyway to migrate.

Fishing is a popular recreational activity in Minnesota and Wisconsin, thanks in large part to the abundance of walleyes, suckers, carp, and garfish, as well as several species of catfish (some of which grow to quite large sizes and are fished commercially by residents along the middle and lower river).

Shrimp and crab fisheries in the brackish waters are dwindling as a result, and alligators are now few and found only in the most remote backwaters.

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