The Mississippi River is the largest river system in the United States, as well as all of North America, at more than 2,300 miles long. It is the fourth-longest river and the tenth most powerful river in the world. Originating at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, it flows slowly southwards until it ends about 95 miles below New Orleans, Louisiana where it begins to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. Along with its major tributary, the Missouri River, the river drains all or parts of 31 U.S. states stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the Canadian border on the north and includes most of the Great Plains.
No river has played a greater part in the development and expansion of America than the Mississippi. Since the first person viewed this mighty stream, it has been a vital factor in the physical and economic growth of the United States.
It has stood in the path of discoverers, challenging their ingenuity to cross it. It has fired the imaginations of explorers, luring them on to seek out its mysteries. And always it has stood in the minds of practical men as the key to westward expansion, an economic prize to be sought and held at all cost. As such, it has been fought over on the battlefield and used as a pawn in diplomatic exchanges.
From tiny Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, it twists and turns through the land of the Chippewa, 2,348 miles south through the heart of the United States. It sweeps past Minneapolis and St. Paul, growing larger as tributaries add their flows. It is joined by the Missouri River north of St. Louis and receives the waters of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. Here it becomes the Lower Mississippi, a river giant, unequaled among American waters. Flowing south, it touches romantic river towns — Memphis, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Almost a thousand river miles south of Cairo, Illinois, it pours its torrent into the Gulf of Mexico.
Christopher Columbus may have been the first European to view the Mississippi River. An “Admiral’s Map” in the Royal Library at Madrid, Spain, said to have been engraved in 1507, shows the mouth of the river, then called “The River of Palms.” Though this may have been the Mississippi River, it has never been confirmed.
In May 1541, Hernando De Soto was the first recorded European to view the Mississippi at a point near or just below present-day Memphis, Tennessee. He called it the Río del Espíritu Santo (“River of the Holy Spirit.”) After his death in 1542, his followers continued the explorations. The historian of the expedition, Garciliaso de la Vega, described the Mississippi as a flood of great severity and of prolonged duration. The flooded areas were described as extending for 20 leagues on each side of the river.
One hundred and twenty years later, Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet began exploring the river, traveling from its upper reaches to a point near present-day Arkansas City, Arkansas. Marquette traveled with a Sioux Indian named Ne Tongo and proposed calling it the River of the Immaculate Conception.
In 1682, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and Henri de Tonti descended the greater portion of its length to its mouth. and claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for France, calling it the Colbert River after Jean-Baptiste Colbert.
In March 1699, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville rediscovered the mouth of the Mississippi, following the death of La Salle. At a point near Old River, Louisiana, he received a letter from an Indian chief previously left there by LaSalle. A short time later, the French built the small fort of La Balise there to control passage.
Within a few years, French traders had settled along the Mississippi River and had penetrated the territory of the Natchez Indians. In 1705, the first cargo was floated down the river from the Indian country around the Wabash River in the present-day states of Indiana and Ohio. This was a load of 15,000 bear and deer hides brought downstream and out through Bayou Manchac, just below Baton Rouge, and Amite River, then through Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain to Biloxi, with final destination in France. This route is not now open, Bayou Manchac having been closed with construction of the Mississippi River levee system.
Fort Rosalie, the first permanent white settlement on the Mississippi River and now called Natchez, was built by the French in 1716. Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718, and four years later this city was made the capital of the region known as Louisiana. The rapid growth of New Orleans was due principally to its position near the mouth of the river. Navigation grew and developed with the settlement of the Lower Mississippi Valley.
Following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War, the Mississippi River became the border between the British and Spanish Empires. The Treaty of Paris in 1763. signed by Great Britain, France and Spain, with Portugal gave Great Britain rights to all land east of the Mississippi and Spain rights to land west of the river. The Treaty of Paris also stated: “The navigation of the river Mississippi, from its source to the ocean, shall forever remain free and open to the subjects of Great Britain and the citizens of the United States.”
Decades later, France reacquired “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. In 1815, the U.S. defeated Britain at the Battle of New Orleans, part of the War of 1812, securing American control of the river.
The canoes of the Indians soon proved inadequate for the needs of the settlers. The flat-boats and rafts which succeeded them were one-way craft only. Loaded at an upstream point, they were floated downriver and their cargoes were unloaded, then they were dismantled and sold for lumber. Built for one trip only, they were cheap and often poorly constructed, but carried large quantities of merchandise at a time when transportation was vital to the growing valley.
The keelboat was the first queen of the river trade. A two-way traveler, it was long and narrow with graceful lines, built to survive many trips. A keelboat could carry as much as 80 tons of freight. Floated downriver, it was “Cordelled” up the stream. This called for a crew of tough and hardy men, for cordelling was a process by which a crew on the bank towed the keelboat along against the current.
The invention of the steamboat in the early 19th century brought about a revolution in river commerce. The first steamboat to travel the Mississippi was the New Orleans. Built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1811 at the cost of $40,000, she was a side-wheeler 116 feet long and weighed 371 tons.