written by: Bruno Kos
• edited by: Noreen Gunnell
• updated: 1/31/2013
Students will marvel at how Mississippi River facts are intertwined with U.S. history. The river is more than just a body of water. These facts reveal how this body of water helped shape the development of a nation and its people.
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How It Got Its Name
A close scrutiny of Mississippi River facts will reveal how this North American body of water got its name. Credit for naming the Mississippi goes to the Native Americans, specifically the Anishinabe, also known as the Ojibwe Indians. These early settlers at the basin of the Mississippi called it "Mee-zee-see-bee" or "Messipi," meaning big river or father of waters.
This name stuck despite the river being named Rio del Espiritu Santo (River of the Holy Spirit) by Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer who went into the history books as the first European to set foot in the Mississippi River in 1541. Other early Europeans who explored the Mississippi include Frenchmen Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, who traveled in the river’s frontiers during the 17th century.
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An Immense River System
Approximately 2,320 miles in length, the Mississippi River system has the distinction of being the largest in North America. This river counts as the fourth longest in the world. Its system, which includes the Missouri River as its major tributary, runs through all or portions of thirty-one states in the U.S. Its boundaries from the Rocky Mountains in the west extend eastward to the Appalachian Mountains and northward to the U.S.-Canadian border, covering nearly all of the Great Plains.
The broad reach of the Mississippi River and its fertile basis created an immense impact on U.S. agriculture, commerce and industry. Agricultural ventures have been the primary users of the Mississippi basin for almost two centuries. It has been estimated that this basin accounts for ninety-two percent of U.S. exports of agricultural products, including hogs and livestock.
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Broad Economic Impact
Seventy-eight percent of U.S exports of soybeans and feed grains to the world market come from the Mississippi basin. In terms of shipping, sixty percent of U.S. grain exports pass through the river and eventually to the ports of South Louisiana and New Orleans. Significant shipments of petroleum, oil products, chemicals, edible oils, coal, coffee, paper, wood, rubber, iron and steel are also coursed through the Mississippi.
Mississippi vessel traffic is efficiently maintained mainly through the efforts of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Smooth movement of goods up and down the river is enhanced through a nine-foot shipping channel. This runs from Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A forty-five foot channel facilitates access of ocean-going ships to upstream ports as far as Baton Rouge. This channel, also maintained by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, leads to the Head of Passes which cuts through New Orleans en route to Baton Rouge.
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Nature lovers in search of Mississippi River facts will be pleased to note that its basin and floodplain harbor a diversity of living creatures. The river itself is home to 260 fish species. This figure accounts for twenty-five percent of all North American fish species. The Mississippi’s corridor is utilized by forty percent of U.S. migratory waterfowls during their migration in spring and fall. Fifty mammal species, likewise, make the Mississippi River their home.