How did the name Mississippi come about?

Mississippi River

The Mississippi [ˌMɪsɪˈsɪpɪ] (English: Mississippi River) is a 3,778 kilometer long stream in the United States. It rises from Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and flows into the Gulf of Mexico around 160 kilometers south of New Orleans.

Its longest tributary, the Missouri, is significantly longer to its mouth, but significantly less watery than the Mississippi. The Missouri River and the lower reaches of the Mississippi form the Mississippi-Missouri with a length of 6051 kilometers, the fourth longest river system on earth.

The largest tributary of the Mississippi in terms of water volume, the Ohio River, clearly exceeds the main river at its mouth. At this point the Missouri and Illinois Rivers have already flowed into the main stream.

On its way the Mississippi crosses almost the entire state of the USA from north to south and flows through eight US states: Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and forms the border of Wisconsin and Iowa. At St. Louis it unites with the Missouri and the Meramec and at Cairo, Illinois, with the Ohio. Except for the area around the Great Lakes, the river drains the entire area between the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Appalachians in the east. The Mississippi Delta near New Orleans forms one of the largest estuaries in the world.


The name Mississippi probably comes from the language of the Algonquin Indians. It is made up of the words fair for big and sepe for water. The frequently encountered translation “father of the waters” is more of a poetic than literal translation. Another possible origin would be from the language of the Anishinabe Messipi for "big river". Colloquially, the Mississippi in the USA is often called "Old Man River", immortalized especially in the song Ol ’Man River from the 1927 musical Show Boat.


Catchment area and river system

The Mississippi drains most of the United States of America into the Gulf of Mexico, which lies between the foothills in the east (Appalachians) and in the west (Rocky Mountains). The Mississippi drainage basin is the fourth largest in the world. It covers 3,220,000 square kilometers and spans 31 states in the United States and two provinces of Canada. Due to the predominant location in the west wind belt, the western part lying in the lee of the high mountain ranges is predominantly semi-arid and the eastern part humid.

The main branch of the river system by name runs approximately in the middle in a southerly direction and rises west of Lake Superior in source streams that feed Lake Itasca, which is considered to be the source of the Mississippi. It reflects the hygric differences of the catchment area that the actual main branch of the Mississippi system (determined by the larger confluent waters) originates in the rain-rich Appalachian Mountains, while the longest branch of the river system originates in the Rocky Mountains. The main hydrological branch is formed by the flow path Allegheny River - Ohio - Mississippi. The longest flow path follows the line Red Rock River - Beaverhead River - Jefferson River - Missouri - Mississippi.

The main tributaries of the Mississippi

Left tributaries

  • St. Croix River
  • Black River
  • Wisconsin River
  • Rock river
  • Illinois River
  • Kaskaskia River
  • Ohio
  • Hatchie River
  • Yazoo River
  • Big Black River

Right tributaries

  • Minnesota River
  • Root River
  • Cannon River
  • Turkey River
  • Iowa River
  • Des Moines River
  • Skunk River
  • Salt River
  • Missouri
  • Saint Francis River
  • White River
  • Arkansas
  • Red River

Discharge data

At the confluence with the Missouri, the Mississippi carries a little more water at around 2900 m³ / s on average than its much longer tributary, which brings in around 2200 m³ / s. The Upper Mississippi then meets the Ohio with an average flow of around 5900 m³ / s, which carries more water at around 7950 m³ / s and hydrographically represents the main branch of the river system.

The data for the mouth of the Mississippi differ significantly, also because the arm of the river branches off around 500 km above the mouth Atchafalaya sometimes not included. Here, up to 30% of the mean discharge branches off from the main stream and shortly afterwards takes on the Red River, which with a water flow of 1590 m³ / s is only a tributary of the Atchafalaya, which is larger with a mean discharge of 4730 m³ / s, and thus also a Tributary of the Mississippi. The total value of around 18 400 m³ / s, which is mostly given, including the Atchafalaya with Red River, is hydrographically justified and characterizes the river system better than the flow of the main stream alone, for whose mouth area values ​​around 16 800 m³ / s are given. This puts the Mississippi in seventh place among the world's rivers that flow into the sea, but is also surpassed by three tributaries of the Amazon.

River sections

The Mississippi can generally be divided into its upper course (Upper Mississippi River), from its source to the confluence of the Ohio, and in its lower course (Lower Mississippi River), from the Ohio to its confluence with the Gulf of Mexico.

Upper Mississippi

The source of the Mississippi is at 47 ° 11 'north latitude and 95 ° 14' west longitude in the north of the US state of Minnesota in Itasca State Park. Lake Itasca collects several spring streams at a height of 450 meters above sea level, the largest of which drains the nearby Elk Lake, and discharges the Mississippi as a five meter wide stream. The source of the largest Lake Itasca tributary near Little Elk Lake a few kilometers south is considered to be the actual origin of the Mississippi.

Downriver, the Mississippi flows strongly meandering through the glacial lake district in northern Minnesota. It crosses numerous lakes, the largest being Lake Winnibigoshish. The Mississippi is navigable below the Coon Rapids Dam near Minneapolis. Until its completion in 1913, the river was navigable by ships as far as St. Cloud.

The Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis and a couple of smaller falls at Little Falls in Minnesota were the only natural waterfalls on the upper Mississippi River. Today, the upper course between Minneapolis and St. Louis is characterized by a sequence of 29 dam and lock structures, which were built up into the 1940s and with which shipping overcomes 123 meters of altitude. They were built to facilitate the transportation of bulk cargo from the northern United States to the Gulf of Mexico. The dams also make it possible to regulate the flow rate of the upper course and thus also to influence that of the lower course. Critics question the economic benefits of the structures and complain about their negative ecological effects. The dam and lock structures are maintained by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

The partially lake-like reservoirs now also serve tourist purposes. Along the Mississippi, in the border area of ​​the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, two protected areas have been designated to preserve the river and its surroundings as habitat, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and the Effigy Mounds National Monument. The nutrient-rich steep slopes on both banks are also a wine-growing area.

North of St. Louis, the Mississippi joins the Missouri to form a broad stream. As the largest tributary, which even surpasses the Mississippi in terms of water flow, the Ohio finally flows into Cairo. The main tributaries of the upper reaches are the Minnesota River, Iowa River, Des Moines River, Illinois River, Missouri, and Ohio.

Lower Mississippi

South of the confluence of the Ohio, the Mississippi enters an approximately 80 km wide inland bay. Due to the low relief energy and the small difference in altitude (96 m) from Cairo to the confluence with the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi forms wide meanders in its lower reaches. Due to the dynamic changes in the river bed over the centuries as well as measures to straighten the river, extensive floodplain landscapes have emerged on both river banks through separated oxbow lakes.

Since the borders of the US states in this region are based on a historical course of the river, the relocation of the river bed means that the Mississippi is no longer a continuous natural border between different states. In the state of Arkansas, for example, there are exclaves on the left bank, while parts of the right bank now belong to the states of Tennessee and Mississippi.

In the south of the state of Louisiana, the river flows into an extensive delta in the Gulf of Mexico. The longest estuary is the Atchafalaya River, which branches off around 500 km from the main mouth of the Mississippi and forms a delta itself. With the Old River Control Structure, the United States Army Corps of Engineers limits the amount of water that can flow from the main arm of the river into the Atchafalaya to around 30%, and in the event of a flood to almost 50%. Downstream from New Orleans, a finger-shaped, so-called bird's foot delta, which has five main arms, has formed over time due to the large amount of sediment from the river and the low tidal range of the Gulf of Mexico. With 28,600 km² it is one of the largest estuary deltas in the world. The amount of river cargo delivered in the Mississippi Delta is 1 to 1.5 million tons of sediment per day. The flat alluvial land created by regular flooding is very fertile. The supply of nutrient-rich fresh water and the salty ocean water that flows in when the tides change, result in high rates of primary production (algae, phytoplankton) and increasing proportions of organic soil material. The high biodiversity in the waters favors fishing. It produces around one million tons of fish per year, making it the most important ...