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Mississippi RiverBritannica Elementary Article

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  • The Mississippi and Ohio rivers come together at Cairo, Illinois.
The Mississippi and the rivers that flow into it form North America's largest river system. Native Americans gave the Mississippi its name, which means “Father of Waters” in Algonquian languages. The writings of Mark Twain have made the river a part of American legend.

Physical features

The Mississippi River has distinct sections. The headwaters of the river run from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to Saint Paul. From there the Mississippi runs past high bluffs to its meeting with the muddy Missouri River near Saint Louis, Missouri. The middle Mississippi, made brown by the Missouri, meets the mighty Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. From there, the lower Mississippi flows southward and enters the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Mississippi River alone is only 2,350 miles (3,780 kilometers) long. However, if the lower and middle Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Missouri's tributary the Red Rock are considered together, they form the world's fourth longest river at 3,710 miles (5,971 kilometers). The Red River and the Arkansas River are other important tributaries of the Mississippi.

The Mississippi flows south from cold continental Minnesota to humid subtropical Louisiana. In the spring, the water level rises. This is caused by rains along the river and its tributaries and by melting snows in the mountains. The basin does soak up some of the water. But when the soil cannot hold any more, water rushes down the tributaries to the Mississippi. Damaging floods can then occur.


Plants and animals

Millions of ducks and geese use the river system as a guide for their spring and autumn migrations, sheltering and feeding in backwaters and swampy areas nearby. The path they follow has been named the Mississippi flyway. Bald eagles gather by the river in winter, looking for fish to eat.

Several types of fish are found in the river. They include catfish, walleyes, suckers, carp, and garfish. The alligator takes its scientific name, Alligator mississippiensis, from the river but is now seldom found on its banks.



The Mississippi River has a long history of trade. The coming of the steamboat early in the 19th century made it much easier to travel and transport goods upstream. The result was an economic boom in the region. The city of New Orleans became one of the busiest of ports.

The development of railroads later in the 19th century, and of paved highways in the 20th century, lessened the river's importance. However, the river remains the cheapest way to transport heavy goods in bulk.

Today the Mississippi River is one of the busiest commercial water routes in the world. Oil, coal, iron, steel, chemicals, sand, gravel, and sulfur are transported on barges that are lashed together and pushed by powerful towboats. Grain from Midwestern farms travels downriver for export around the world.



Native Americans used the river as a highway and grew food on its fertile bottomlands. Before the arrival of Europeans, the mound-building Mississippian people ruled a great prehistoric culture from a center near present-day Saint Louis. The first European to explore the river was the Spaniard Hernando de Soto, who entered from the Gulf of Mexico in 1541.

Following early French exploration by Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, the explorer La Salle traveled down the river in 1682 and claimed the entire river basin for France. The Mississippi became a key link between France's Gulf of Mexico settlements and its colonies in what is now Canada.

In 1803 the United States purchased a vast area of land from the French that included the Mississippi River. The Louisiana Purchase put the United States in complete control over the river and its tributaries. In 1805–06, a U.S. Army officer named Zebulon M. Pike explored the upper Mississippi to within 80 miles (128 kilometers) of the river's source. Finally in 1832, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft found the river's source and named it Lake Itasca.


Environmental issues

Waste from factories, farms, and cities has created pollution in the river, causing problems with the water supply in cities along the river. Also causing concern are the works of engineering that regulate the river's flow for purposes of controlling floods and maintaining channels for boats. These systems include 29 dams along the upper Mississippi between Saint Paul and Saint Louis. There is also a large system of levees—earth barriers—along the lower Mississippi. Some people blame these systems for disturbing the river's balance.