Located in the heart of North America is one of the most important rivers.
It isn’t the longest river in the world and it doesn’t carry the highest volume of water. However, its location makes it one of the most valuable rivers on Earth
It has been the subject of songs, the location of military battles, and is one of the most important economic transportation corridors on the planet.
Learn more about the Mississippi River and what makes it so different than any other river in the world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I previously did an episode on the longest river in the world, the Nile. Since then I’ve set out doing episodes on many of the great rivers in the world.
Each major river has its own personality which is determined by its geography. I considered which river to focus on next and I considered the Amazon, of course, the Yangtze, the Congo, the Danube, the Ganges, and the Indus.
All of these rivers will be subjects of future episodes, but I decided to focus on the Mississippi next simply because of how different it is from the others.
The Mississippi is the fourth-longest river in the world when measured from its traditional source in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, behind the Amazon, Nile, and Yangtze.
In terms of total water discharge, it is only the 13th largest river in the world.
So what makes the Mississippi so different? It has to do with the entire Mississippi drainage basin.
The Mississippi drainage basin is the fourth largest in the world behind the Amazon, Nile, and Congo.
The Amazon basin is enormous and it carries an enormous amount of water, but most of the basin is rainforest with a very low population density.
The Nile flows through enormous tracts of desert. There are literally no tributaries throughout all of Egypt, and rapids near the Egyptian-Sudanese border make navigation beyond these rapids impossible.
Likewise, the Congo basin consists mostly of rainforests like the Amazon, and like the Nile, there are rapids that make the river difficult to navigate.
The Mississippi River basin has none of these problems. Its location doesn’t go through rainforests with poor soil, but rather through some of the most productive farmland in the world.
Before I go into the economics of the Mississippi, I’d like to start from the beginning about how the river formed and its history.
The word Mississippi comes from the Ojibwe term for the river Misi-ziibi, which translated simply means “Great River”.
The most recent evidence contends that the Mississippi River began flowing approximately 70 million years ago. The river at this time was much smaller than it currently is. It grew over time as more tributaries began to flow into it.
In particular, the Missouri River appeared to have connected to it about 2 million years ago. There was a time several million years ago when the Mississippi had a water volume that was on a par with what the Amazon is today.
The thing which really made the modern Mississippi was the most recent ice age. About 50,000 years ago there was a massive inland sea that drained through the Mississippi and created large floodplains.
The river became the equivalent of a superhighway for the native people of the region. The Mississippi region is believed to be one of the locations in the world where agriculture and plant domestication was discovered independently.
There arose a people known as the Mississippian Culture which existed from around the year 800 to 1600. The Mississippian culture didn’t just exist along the Mississippi river but also in many of its tributaries.
They are known for their large permanent settlements, which made them stand apart from other aboriginal peoples in what is today the Central United States.
Cahokia probably had a population of about 40,000 people at its peak about 1,000 years ago. It was the largest settlement north of Mexico until Philadelphia passed it in population in 1780.
The mounds of Cahokia can still be visited today. It is located in Southern Illinois overlooking the Mississippis River just across the river from Saint Louis.
There were a large number of native tribes which lived in the Mississippi River basin including the Crow, Dakota, Comanche, Blackfoot, Lakota, Pawnee, Omaha, Cheyenne, Sioux, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Fox, Kickapoo, Quapaw, and Chickasaw….and that list is far from exhaustive.
The first European who reached the Mississippi River was the Spanish Explorer Hernando de Soto. He reached the river around the modern-day state of Mississippi.
While the Spanish were exploring the south, the French were exploring the north. The Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette and the explorer Louis Jolliet explored the river by arriving at the Great Lakes.
Jolliet made an astonishing discovery. The Mississippi River basis was only a 2-mile or 3-kilometer portage from the Chicago River which flowed into Lake Michigan.
This meant that the entire Great Lakes Basin which flowed into the Atlantic via the Saint Lawrence River only required the creation of a short canal to connect it to the entire Mississippi River Basin which flowed out to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Illinois and Michigan Canal was opened in 1848. If you ever wondered why Chicago is located where it is, this is why.
The Mississippi River became the border between the British and Spanish Empires as per the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which ended the Seven Years War. Britain was ceded all land to the east and Spain was given all land to the west.
When the United States won its independence, the Treaty of Paris of 1783 stipulated free navigation on the river. It 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”.
It is here I should probably mention the most important and strategic city on the river. The city that sits near the mouth of the river at it enters the sea: New Orleans.
New Orleans was founded in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company. While founded by the French, and culturally a French city, it was given to Spain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris.
While New Orleans is located in a highly strategic location on the river, it is also located in an absolutely horrible location due to the fact that the city is sinking. I’ll leave that for another episode, however.
Napoleon arranged for the Lousiana Territory, which was most of the land west of the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, to be given to French. It remained in Spanish control until three weeks before France turned it around and sold it to the United States in 1803.
With the Louisiana Purchase, the entirety of the Mississippi River and its basin was now part of the United States. The purchase ended up being one of the best deals in history as the Mississippi became vital for the expansion of the country and the growth of the economy.
The reason why the Mississippi was so important is that almost all of the middle of the United States, and all of the prime farmland, had access to the Mississippi River via tributaries which made transportation easy and cheap. Almost none of the tributaries had rapids or waterfalls which prevented barges from traveling down the river.
This is why the Mississippi stands in contrast to so many of the major rivers in the world.
This transportation network assisted in the dramatic growth of the United States and its economy in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It also made the river extremely strategic.
In the War of 1812 between the Americans and the British, the British tried to take control of New Orleans, which would give them control of all the international trade on the river. The American forces defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, two weeks after the war ended, because word hadn’t gotten to the forces there.
During the American Civil War, the river once again became a strategic imperative. The Union instigated Operation Anaconda which would basically control all the water around the Confederacy, including the Mississippi.
The Western Theater of the Civil War was primarily based on getting control of the Mississippi. The Union took early control of New Orleans and then worked their way south through a series of battles and naval conflicts including the Siege of Vickburg.
Starting in the 1830s, trade along the Mississippi increased dramatically with the introduction of steamboats. Steamboats operated on the river until the first decade of the 20th century and they were instrumental for the transport of goods and passengers, especially between Saint Louis and New Orleans.
Here I should note that the river is very different depending on its location. Saint Louis is where the Missouri River meets the Mississippi, making it a historically extremely important location.
The Missouri River before Saint Louis is actually longer than the Mississippi is above Saint Louis.
The river from Saint Louis to New Orleans is very wide and meanders. It really becomes the superhighway that I spoke of before.
Above Saint Louis, the river is significant but gets smaller as you go further north.
The next notable confluence is where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi. The town here in Cairo, Illinois, and is spelled like Cairo, the capital of Egypt.
If you were to travel back to the early or mid 19th century, most people would have bet that the biggest city in Illinois would probably have become Cairo, for the same reason Saint Louis became so big. The Ohio River is even more economically important than the Missouri River, yet Cairo never amounted to much. Today it only has a population of 1,700 people despite its strategic location.
The northernmost point you can navigate up the river is Minneapolis. This is because the last waterfall on the Mississippi is Saint Anthony Falls.
This is why Minneapolis is located where it is. Grain from the upper midwest would come to Minneapolis for milling, and then barges would be loaded below the falls for transportation further south.
One of the biggest disasters in the history of the Mississippi River occurred with the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
The flood covered 27,000 square miles or 70,000 square kilometers of southern states, primarily in the Mississippi Delta. 500 people died and 600,000 people were displaced. 200,000 of those people were African Americans.
This displacement led to what became known as the Great Migration, which was the migration of rural black people in the south to urban areas in the north.
The Great Flood is referenced in many blues songs from the era including When the Level Breaks by Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy, which was later covered and popularized by Led Zeppelin.
This Great Flood led to a series of engineering projects along the river to control future flooding.
When the river gets to the delta in Louisiana, it tends to meander constantly. Enormous amounts of silt are deposited in this area and it is able to absorb enormous amounts of water which is really important when the area is hit by hurricanes.
In 1950, the United States Government realized that the main channel of the Mississippi was shifting. It was going to divert to the stepper Atchafalaya River, which is a distributary of the Mississippi. A distributary by the way is a river that forks off the main river, as opposed to a tributary that flows into a river.
The Atchafalaya was carrying 30% of the total water outflow of the Mississippi and it was expected to increase to over 50%.
This began a huge engineering project to keep the Mississippi on its current channel which flows past New Orleans. This has resulted in an abnormal amount of silt flowing out into the Gulf of Mexico, known as the Mississippi River Sediment Plume.
Today, the plume keeps extending out into the Gulf of Mexico by 91 meters or 300 feet each year.
What the plume gains, is being lost by the rest of the coast of Louisiana which is being deprived of the silt that it normally receives from the river.
Today the Mississippi River is still a vital transportation route. Over 500 million tons of goods come through just the Port of New Orleans each year. Millions more tons of bulk goods including grain, petroleum, iron, gravel are transported between ports within the river basin system.
The river today is estimated to be responsible for over $400 billion dollars in annual economic activity.
Personal travel along the river has also made a comeback. There are now river cruises along the Mississippi just like there are in Europe. A complete trip from Saint Paul, Minnesota to New Orleans will take about three weeks.
The Mississippi River is not just one of the biggest rivers in the world, but probably also the most economically important. It has severed as the basis for civilizations and its important will continue for centuries to come.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Sunny Sequim, over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write,
Best podcast ever!
Thank you for doing this podcast. I finished listening to all episodes within a few months of your two-year anniversary day. Learned so much.
Curious about how your approach has been on researching a topic in such a short time that you are able to have a daily show?
Hope you will consider doing an episode on Taiwan, where I grew up.
Thanks, Lihui! The way I approach episodes is that I keep a running list of show ideas which now has over 750 ideas on it. Each idea is something that I already know something about. It is something that I’ve read about or experienced firsthand through the course of my travels.
So before I even start writing or researching the show, I have a rough idea of what I’m going to say. For many episodes, it is more a matter of trying to figure out what I’m not going to say. For example, I could talk about the Mississippi River for hours. The trick is trying to condense it down to about 10 minutes.
As for Taiwan, I’ve been there twice and I really enjoyed my time in Taipei. I have a couple of Taiwan related episodes on the list. One is about Sun Yat-Sen, which is not explicitly Taiwan related, but certainly deals with its modern formation. Another is about the native people of the island who it is believed were the origin of the Micronesian and Polynesian migration into the Pacific.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.