The Mississippi river, crossing or touching a total of ten US states on its journey of 3734 kilometers, holds a very special place in American culture and history. As the main river of the largest riparian system of the USA, the Mississippi and its tributaries are the catchment area for the water from 31 US states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains. The river has its source at Itasca State Park in Minnesota and discharges into the Gulf of Mexico near Baton Rouge in Louisiana. The Mississippi is used as a recreation area in countless spots. It is also, particularly near its mouth, the lifeline of one of the most important agrarian areas of the country.
The Mississippi played an important role for the expansion of the country after the arrival of the colonists. Initially regarded as being the ultimate frontier of the inhabitable area behind which there was assumed to be only impenetrable wilderness, it later served as a line of orientation for the pioneers and became one of the most significant transportation routes. Before that, the areas alongside the river were home to several native peoples who had already maintained a network of trade routes here. Their earliest traces date back to the 4th millenium BC, to the beginning of the Bronze Age. In 1541, the explorer Hernando de Soto was the first European to discover the river. He referred to it as the „river of the Holy Ghost“, but this one should not remain the last name for the mighty stream. French explorer Jacques Marquette, coming to the region in 1673, called it the „river of immaculate conception“, a Sioux native accompanying him simply said it was the „Big River“. Only a few years later, in 1682, the French laid claim on the entire river valley and executed the next re-dedication. The French Finance Minister was the namesake for the new name Colbert River. After the Seven Years War, the river became the separation line between the British colonies east of it and the Spanish ones west of it in 1763. Fonally, in 1815 the Mississippi river became American for the first time, when the USA defeated Great Britain in the Battle of New Orleans and by that assumed control of the river. After that, settlement of both river banks accelerated significantly.
It was this era that Mark Twain described in his famous tales of Huckleberry Finn. Twain had been born in the a small hamlet called Florida in the state of Missouri, which is uninhabited today. The village is not located on the Mississippi, but at the confluence if three arms of the Salt River, a tributary. The family then moved to Hannibal, Missouri. The town, which has some 18,000 residents today, plays a role in several of Twain’s works.
The Mississippi river is an important factor for many of the states along its banks. For example, it marks the statelines or parts of it in a number of locations. It was also a chief reason for many towns growing at its banks, many of which blossomed quickly and gained significance thanks to the river’s function as a transportation route between North and South. With Minneapolis, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, there are several large cities of national significance on the Mississippi, in addition to numerous other big and mid-sized cities.
The river is generally subdivided into three sections. The section Upper Mississippi comprises course from Lake Itasca to where it flows together woth the Missouri River near St. Louis. In this upper section, the river significantly drops in altitude thanks to passing through more than 40 dams and locks. While the lake the river derives from lies at an altitude of 450 meters above sea level, the waters in Missouri are at 209 meters. In the uppermost area, the Mississippi river is often split into several arms, forming islands and lakes. It is also frequently used to generate electricity up here. This changes in the Middle Mississippi section that stretches all the way to the Ohio River near Cairo in Illinois. Here, the river presents itself as a fairly quietly flowing stream without many tributaries worth mentioning. South of it, the Lower Mississippi segment begins, reaching all the way to where the river flows into the Gulf of Mexico. In this lower section, several tributaries flow in, causing the river to become wider than one mile (1.6 kilometers) in some places. Due to the constant depositing of sediments, the Mississippi has in the course of time clogged its own path, so that several changes occured to the course of the rivers, particularly in the lower segments. Approximately every one thousand years, the course of the water changes and then the abandoned former river sections become what is called “bayous”. Those are popular tourist attractions, in particular in Louisiana and thus form in many regards a great finish to an interesting journey along the Mississippi river.