The Mississippi River

Skyline Aerial of Memphis Tennessee on the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is the longest river in North America. Flowing entirely within the United States, it drains (when accounting for its major tributaries) an area of approximately 3.1 million square kilometers, which is roughly one-eighth of the size of the North American continent. The river rises in Lake Itasca in Minnesota before flowing southwards towards the continental interior, collecting the waters of the Ohio and Missouri rivers along the way, and ultimately draining into the Gulf of Mexico through a vast delta lying southeast of the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. The total distance covered by the Mississippi River from its source to the Gulf is estimated to be around 3,766 kilometers.

Historical Role

1874 Poster showing the construction of the St. Louis bridge in different phases

Before the settlement of the region by European colonials and Americans, the Mississippi River played an important role in the lives of the aboriginal peoples of America. These natives depended on this river for transport and fishing, and the Native Americans also developed an extensive agricultural system based along the Mississippi.

However, as the Europeans started immigrating ever deeper into the continent, they started exploring the river and plundered the southern tribes. In the late 17th century, the French explorer La Salle realized the immense potential of the huge drainage system, and claimed the entire river basin for his native France. Soon thereafter, the Mississippi increasingly came to serve as a vital link between the French settlements in the Gulf of Mexico and those well to the north in Canada. The Spaniards were also not ready to let go of this treasured real estate, and asserted their own claims of dominance over the region.

Displacing both the French and the Spaniards, the newly formed United States soon became the torch bearer of Mississippi exploration. In 1811, the first steamboat, the New Orleans, appeared on the river. Soon thereafter, commercial traffic started operating on the river, allowing transport of people, goods, and armories up, down, and across the river. The river increasingly became a valuable asset to the people of the country, as it continues to be to this very day.

Modern Significance

The Mississippi River is one of the greatest natural resources of the United States. It has been essential to the growth and development of the country since the Industrial Revolution.

Water Source

The river is the key source of drinking water for millions of Americans today, with a recent study estimating that close to 15 million people rely on the river for their water intake and sanitation needs in just the upper half of its basin alone. More than 50 major American cities are dependent on this river for their water supply. The huge agribusiness industry that has developed in the Mississippi’s basin generates 92% of the nation's agricultural exports.


The river and its tributaries are a rich source of fish and other aquatic organisms which serve as a source of food and commerce for America, with thousands of Americans being either directly or indirectly involved in the fishing and fisheries industry based on this river's ecosystems. In fact, 25% of America’s seafood is derived from the fisheries of the Mississippi Delta.


The river also serves as a crucial navigation route to carry out trade between the heartland of America and the rest of the world. 60% of the grain exported from U.S. is shipped along the Mississippi to the area in and around the major port city of New Orleans, Louisiana.


Two adult alligators swimming in green swamp in Moss Point, Mississippi

The Mississippi River Delta provides one of the most productive wetland ecosystems in all of North America. The deposition of rich sediments, and the mingling of brackish waters of the Gulf of Mexico and freshwater from the river at the Mississippi delta region allows a large variety of plant and animal life to flourish there. Forests, marshes, swamps, estuaries, and islands have formed all along the banks and delta of the river, supporting the growth of a diverse range of species upon them.


More than 400 species of birds inhabit the Mississippi's delta, including a number of migratory species that count among them millions of individual ducks and geese. The hardwood forests and swamps in the upper reaches of the delta host such birds as the rusty blackbird, wading birds, and songbirds. The salt marshes and islands of the delta supports birds like clapper tails, seaside sparrows, brown pelican, herons, egrets, gulls, and terns. Mammals found along the Mississippi delta include black bears, minks, beavers, armadillos, coyotes, bobcats, and feral hogs.

Aquatic Life

The Mississippi River Delta is also very rich in aquatic life, with some important seafood species, like shrimp, blue crabs, and craw-fish, as well as other edible species, such as the paddle-fish and alligator gar, being found therein. American alligators, Mississippi Diamondback River Terrapins, snakes, and sea turtles also inhabit the Mississippi Delta. At times, Bottle-nose dolphins and sperm whales are also spotted in the estuaries and deep offshore waters adjoining the river.

Threats and Disputes

Human intervention has led to an extensive modification of the natural flow of the Mississippi River. Locks, dams, and barrages constructed on the river have impacted the natural flow of the river, with the ultimate result being that large tracts of its floodplains receive low amounts of water, in turn diminishing the biodiversity in those areas. As the water flow to the Gulf of Mexico has been altered by the artificial obstructions now found along the Mississippi, large tracts of coastal estuaries are starved of sediment, creating an increasingly "dead zone" bordering the Gulf. The decrease in the number of protective marshes and wetlands in the coastal areas render the cities at the mouth of the delta extremely vulnerable to catastrophic natural disasters. The Mississippi River also appears to be the most polluted river in the US, with an estimated 125 million pounds of toxic waste being released into the river in the year 2010 alone.


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