The Mississippi River and Expansion of America

On her maiden voyage, the New Orleans was caught in a series of tremors known as the “New Madrid Earthquake,” probably the worst non-volcanic earth shock in American history. Nevertheless, she continued downriver on a nightmarish trip to become the first steamboat to travel the Mississippi, arriving in New Orleans on January 12, 1812. She was then placed in service between New Orleans and Natchez. Two years later she hit a stump and sank.

In December 1814, Captain Henry M. Shreve brought a cargo of supplies for General Andrew Jackson’s army from Pittsburgh to New Orleans in his side-wheeler, the Enterprise. He climaxed his trip by running the British batteries below New Orleans to deliver military supplies to Fort St. Philip.

Although steamboats were in service between New Orleans and Natchez, they had not yet traveled far upriver. Shreve met this challenge with his steamboat called the George Washington, built in 1816 at Wheeling, West Virginia. It had a flat, shallow hull and a high-pressure engine. In 1817, the George Washington made the round trip from Louisville, Kentucky to New Orleans and returned in 41 days.

The golden era of the paddle-wheeler had begun. In 1814 only 21 steamboats arrived in New Orleans, in 1819 there were 191; and in 1833 more than 1,200 steamboat cargoes were unloaded.

Mississippi River steamboat

Mississippi River steamboat

Some steamboats were operating on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, mostly between New Orleans and Louisville, Kentucky. In 1817 there were 14; in 1819, 31. But the appearance of the steamboat on the Mississippi River above the mouth of the Ohio was delayed for several years: In August of 1817, the Zebulon M. Pike made the trip up the river to St. Louis, Missouri. Three years later, the Western Engineer made a trip from St. Louis up the Missouri River and later a part of the way up the Mississippi above St. Louis. In April, 1823, the Virginia left St. Louis bound for scattered posts up the Mississippi. Twenty days and 683 miles later, the Virginia docked at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, the first steamboat to make this trip.

By 1830, the steamboat age had come to the upper Mississippi and by 1840, there was heavy river commerce between St. Louis and the head of navigation at St. Anthony’s Falls, near present-day St. Paul, Minnesota.

Not only could the steamboat haul freight, but it had comfortable accommodations for passengers. Even more important, it could travel upstream almost as easily as it traveled downstream. In the period preceding the Civil War, its decks carried cotton and other produce to market; it brought back the staples and the fineries available only from outside the region; brought visitors from afar, and furnished transportation to other sections of the country.

Though steamboat travel was hazardous and irregular in the early years, it furnished faster, more dependable, and more useful transportation than other forms of travel. Nevertheless, it left much to be desired during its early period of development.

Before the invention of the steamboat, a trip from Louisville to New Orleans often required four months. In 1820, the trip was made by steamboat in 20 days. By 1838, the same trip was being made in 6 days.

These boats were by no means small by Mississippi River standards. The Lee was 300 ft long and weighed 1,467 tons, while the Natchez was 301.5 ft long and weighed 1,547 tons. They were both longer than the Sprague, the largest paddle-wheel towboat ever built, and one had greater tonnage.

The packet boat brought a phenomenal increase in traffic. In 1834, there were 230 packets; by 1849, there were about 1,000, approximating a total of 250,000 tons. The packet continued to be the principal means of transportation in the Mississippi River Valley until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when commerce began to be diverted to the expanding railroads.

In 1820, Congress began addressing the navigational needs of the nation’s interior by authorizing a reconnaissance of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Fieldwork, begun in 1821, extended from Louisville, Kentucky to the mouth of the Ohio River and from St. Louis, Missouri to New Orleans on the Mississippi River. That same year, two Engineer officers, Brigadier General  Simon Barnard and Major Joseph G. Totten, were sent to make a thorough investigation of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Their report, submitted the following year, contained observations on the physical characteristics of the rivers and gave considerable attention to the formation and removal of snags. Legislation was enacted in 1824 directing the removal of these snags and other obstructions from the channels of the rivers.

Improvement of the mouth of the Mississippi River for seagoing navigation was first undertaken by Congress in 1837, with an appropriation made for an accurate survey of the passes and bars at the river’s mouth. This survey was conducted by Captain  A. Talcott, Corps of Engineers, and finished in 1838. He recommended a plan for deepening the bars by dredging, but a lack of necessary funds prevented substantial progress on this channel.

By 1850, the growing river commerce, together with increasing destruction caused by floods, was creating demand for Federal participation in navigation improvements and flood protection.

In 1850, the Secretary of War, conforming to an Act of Congress, directed Charles Ellet Jr., an engineer, to make surveys and reports on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers with a view to the preparation of adequate plans for flood prevention and navigation improvement. His report was most complete, and it exercised considerable influence on later improvements.

That same year, Congress appropriated $50,000 for the preparation of a topographic and hydrographic survey of the delta of the Mississippi River and for investigations to determine the most practicable plans for flood control and navigation improvements at the mouth of the river. But, it was not until 1861 that Captain A. A. Humphreys and Henry L. Abbott, of the Corps of Engineers, were able to complete their field investigations and submit their report. While their findings dealt primarily with flood control, it also  considered the navigation problem.

Meanwhile, the problem of keeping the river’s mouth open to oceangoing traffic was one of serious growing concern to the Nation and Congress appropriated $75,000 In 1852 for improving the channel at the mouth of the river.

Naval victory on the Mississippi River

Naval victory on the Mississippi River

Control of the Mississippi River was a strategic objective of both sides during the Civil War and a number of battles were fought on and near the waterway. In 1862 Union’s forces coming down the river successfully cleared Confederate defenses at Island Number 10 in present-day New Madrid, Missouri, as well as in Memphis, Tennessee. In the meantime, Naval forces coming upriver from the Gulf of Mexico captured New Orleans, Louisiana. The last Confederate stronghold on the mighty river was on the bluffs overlooking the river at Vicksburg, Mississippi. It too fell during the Union’s Vicksburg Campaign of December 1862 to July, 1863, which completed control of the lower Mississippi River. The Union victory ending the Siege of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863 was pivotal to the Union’s final victory of the Civil War.

It was not until 1867 that dredging operations were resumed at the mouth of the Mississippi River, but still the vexing problem of keeping the river’s mouth open to oceangoing traffic was not solved. No significant progress had been made by 1873 when Captain James B. Eads, a famous construction engineer, advocated a system of parallel jetties. He offered to open the mouth of the river by making a jetty-guaranteed channel 28 feet deep between Southwest Pass and the Gulf at his own risk. If he succeeded, his fee would be $10,000,000.

After much debate, in 1875 Eads was directed to begin his work, in South rather than Southwest Pass. He faced a difficult task, complicated by the existence of yellow fever and unfavorable financial arrangements; however, he pushed the project to completion. On July 8, 1879, a 30-foot channel was officially declared to exist at the mouth of the Mississippi.

1 thought on “The Mississippi River and Expansion of America”

  1. You sure have a lot of information here and a nice layout. I may use a few of your ideas. How long have you been collecting and posting this information? We just started a site on with a little different flavor. We want to concentrate on issues in history that are more or less warning signs of what may be coming. Sort of a take off from some of our past presidents who said, “an educated country is a free country.” … Dennis

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