Major Tributaries Of The Mississippi River

An aerial view of the mighty Mississippi River.

Mississippi River is among the largest river systems in the world in terms of size, biological productivity, and habitat diversity. The river has been the center of American commerce, history, literature, and agriculture for many years. The length of the river from its source in the north-western part of Minnesota at Lake Itasca to its mouth found in the Gulf of Mexico covers a distance of 2,348 miles. Mississippi River is the second-longest in the US after Missouri river, which covers a distance of 2,466 miles. The Mississippi River drains an area of about 1.2 million square miles covering approximately 40% of the US land area, making it the fifth-largest drainage basin in the world. Currently, the Mississippi river supports a more substantial portion of the upper Midwest economy. The Barges and their tows found in the upper Mississippi move about 175 million tons of cargo every year. It is estimated that the river transports about 60% of the grain shipment in the US, about 22% of oil and gas, and 20% of coal shipments in the US. Some of the major tributaries of the Mississippi River include the following.

Arkansas River

The Arkansas River is among the main tributaries of the Mississippi River that flows from west to east. The river originates in Colorado and empties its waters into the Mississippi River. It stretches for 1,469 miles flowing through the states Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. It is the 6th longest river in the country, the 2nd longest tributary of the Mississippi River, and the 45th longest globally. The mouth of the Arkansas River is located at Napoleon in Arkansas and has a drainage basin of about 170,000 square miles. The river has a discharge volume of 40,000 cubic feet per second coming in third place after Ohio and Missouri rivers regarding mean discharge volume.

The Arkansas River can be divided into three distinct parts along its course. The first section is from its headwaters, which begin near Leadville in Colorado. The river in this section has deep and fast flowing waters through the Rockies and has narrow valleys. Along this portion, the river supports whitewater rafting, particularly at Royal Gorge Brown’s Canyon, and granite in Colorado. The second part of the river starts at the Canon city in Colorado, where the river valley widens and flattens significantly. This is evident at the pueblo in Colorado, where the river enters the Great Plains. In this section, the river is characterized by shallow, wide banks, and seasonal flooding that is seen in the river in Colorado, Kansas, and part of Oklahoma. Some of the tributaries joining the Arkansas River in this section include Salt Fork and Cimarron Rivers. The third section of the river is along the eastern part of Oklahoma when the river widens further until it joins the Mississippi River.

Illinois River

Illinois River is one of the major tributaries of the Mississippi River that runs for about 273 miles in the state of Illinois. The river starts at the confluence of the Des Plaines and Kankakee rivers in the eastern part of Grundy County, Illinois, about 10 miles to the southwest of Joliet. Illinois River flows westward across the northern part of the state and passes through Morris and Ottawa, where Fox River and Mazon River join the Illinois River. Other rivers that join the Illinois River include Vermilion River, Mackinaw, Spoon River, Sangamon River, and La Moine River. The Illinois River joins the Mississippi River about 95 miles northwest of downtown Saint Louis and approximately 20 miles upstream from the confluence of the Missouri River and the Mississippi River.

Missouri River

The Missouri River is North America’s longest river that originates from the Rocky Mountains in the southwest of Montana and flows towards the southeast, covering a distance of 2,466 miles. The river flows through six states before emptying its waters into the Mississippi River near Saint Louis in Missouri. Missouri drains an area of 500,000 square miles that includes ten states in the US and two provinces in Canada. Although the Missouri River is a tributary of the Mississippi River, it is relatively longer than the Mississippi.

Ohio River

The Ohio River is one of the main tributaries of the Mississippi River, and it starts at the confluence of the Monongahela River and Allegheny River in Pennsylvania. The river flows for 981 miles after crisscrossing six states, which include West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, before emptying its waters into the Mississippi River at Cairo in Illinois. The Ohio River hosts about 150 species of fish, which include trout, salmon, and catfish, among others. The river has an average depth of about 24 feet, and the whole course of the river is navigable, allowing barges that transport an average of 230 million tons of shipment annually. There are 49 power-generating plants and 20 dams along the Ohio River.

The Red River

The Red River is among the main tributaries of the Mississippi River originating from the Rocky Mountains. The central part of the river is located in Texas and flows through several other states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, covering a distance of 1,290 miles. Some of the tributaries of the Red River include Sulfur River, Little River, Little Wichita River, Kiamichi River, Washita River, Peace River, and Salt Fork Red River, among others. The southern bank of the Red River was part of the border between Mexico and the US following the Adams-Onis treaty that was signed in 1819 and was valid until 1821 when Texas was annexed. The watershed of the Red River is 65,590 square miles, and its river basin is relatively flat. The basin is also a fertile agricultural region having few big cities. The Red River’s drainage basin is arid with little precipitation.

Significance Of The Mississippi River

The Mississippi River, together with its tributaries, is used mainly to transport manufactured and agricultural goods to different parts of the country. The Mississippi River and Missouri river systems are the two largest in the country, transporting more than 450 million short tons of cargo every year. Tugboats that push large barges are the common type of transport. It is estimated that the Mississippi River accounts for about 92% of the agricultural exports in the US and 78% of the soybeans and feed grains. The Mississippi River is also home to some of the country’s largest ports, like the port of New Orleans and Port of Louisiana. The two ports handle more than 500 million tons every year.


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