Western Life

The Mississippi River

One of the world’s most important commercial waterways, the Mississippi River is the second longest river in North America. It passes through, or borders, the states of Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The word ‘Mississippi’ originates from the French misi-ziibi, meaning Great River. The river’s source can be found at Lake Itasca, from which it flows 2350 miles through the center of the United States to the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout the history of the United States, the Mississippi River has played a key role in the survival of its people, as well as the expansion of the nation.

For centuries, Native Americans hunted along the banks of the river, and its tributaries. Most of the tribes were hunter-gatherers, but several of them settled beside the river and created agricultural societies. Living along the banks was ideal, as the river contained many different species of fish,  and the surrounding moisture increased the area’s fertility. The arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, disrupted the way of life for many Native Americans. Explorers used the river as a guide to venture further inland, learning a significant amount about the Mississippi Basin. The Mississippi River became the border between New Spain, New France and the early United States.

When the Europeans arrived, France claimed the area around the Mississippi Basin, and the lower river became the property of Spain. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from the French government, doubling the size of the Untied States. This transaction secured the river as part of United States territory, which now extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and Canada to New Orleans. The purchase also resulted in the increase in importance of the river, which became a means of travelling towards the west, fast forwarding the political and economic expansion of the era. After the steamboat was invented, the river went through a time of unprecedented prosperity and multiple towns began to spring up along its banks.

During the Civil War, the river’s control played a major role in the strategy of both sides. After a large part was seized by Union forces, this dealt a heavy blow to the Confederacy, and helped to seal Union victory. Although river traffic had decreased during the war, it became prevalent again almost immediately after. As westward expansion continued, the Mississippi River and its tributaries formed major pathways for the nation’s growth. As technology increased, the construction of railroads decreased the use of waterways throughout the country. This meant that the trade along the river practically died out until WWI, when other transport lines had become congested. Currently, the Mississippi River continues to play an important role to the nation, housing a large number of catfish farms, which produce the majority of the farm-raised catfish in the United States.

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