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Discovery of the Mississippi River

written by: Patricia Gable • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 7/12/2012

We didn't have news cameras back in the 1500's so do we really know who first saw and sailed on the mighty Mississippi River? Why were men risking their lives to explore this magnificent yet treacherous land?

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    Wouldn’t it have been great if we had 24-hour news reports back in the days before the United States became a country? Then we would know who discovered certain landmarks and how it all happened! I’m sure all the struggles and excitement that early people went through would make a great video game. As it stands now, when thinking about the Mississippi River, we know that the Indians were here before any Europeans. Our focus today will be the Indians and the Europeans who all had a part in the story of who discovered the Mississippi River.

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    Greed and Murder!

    The Mississippi River is 2,348 miles long and, believe it or not, it is not the longest river in the United States! The Missouri River is the longest. However, The Mississippi River’s drainage basin is the third largest in the world! No wonder so many tribes had room to live along the river.

    Records indicate that some of the original Indian tribes that settled in different parts of the Mississippi included Winnebago, Ojibwa, Fox, Sauk, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cheyenne, Sioux, Alabama and Kickapoo. Some Indians called it Messipe: “The Father of Running Waters". Other names used were translated as: “Big Greasy River", “Great River" and “Miserable Wretched Dirty Water". The thing about the Indians, compared to the European explorers, was that the Indians did not feel that they could lay claim to the river or the lands surrounding it. They used the resources that they needed and felt it all belonged to the Earth.

    The first recorded European to see the Mississippi River was a Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto in 1541. His large exploration party included hundreds of men and several ships. They landed on the west coast of Florida. The intent was to search for gold and other treasures. At first they traveled north through present-day Georgia and the Carolinas and Tennessee. They didn’t find gold but found Indians who had pearls. De Soto was not such a nice guy. He kidnapped Indian guides to help his people find their way. They then headed south to meet up with the ships which were waiting close to what is today known as Moblie, Alabama. On the way they were attacked by Indians which left both sides pretty banged-up. DeSoto’s group lost all their treasures so they had to head north and west in search of more. Greed really led them into this treacherous way of life. Along the way there were many attacks by the Indians. Finally, May 21, 1541, the exploration party came upon the Mississippi River and crossed it just south of what is now Memphis, Tennessee. DeSoto died of fever less than a year later and reports say he was buried in the Mississippi.

    In 1673 Louis Jolliet, a French-Canadian (born in North America) trader and explorer, and Frenchman Jacques Marquette, a Catholic missionary, were the first recorded Europeans to travel the course of the river. The men had heard of a great river and thought that it might lead them to the Pacific Ocean and then it would be easier to trade with Asia. The missionary learned the Indian languages and would try to convert the Indians to Christianity along the way. Along the way they saw some Spanish goods, which meant that men from other countries were around. They had also heard bad stories about the Indian tribes that they might encounter as they traveled south. For those reasons, they did not complete the journey to the Gulf of Mexico but turned around at the mouth of the Arkansas River where it meets the Mississippi.

    So who finally traveled from the beginning of the Mississippi River to the end as it dumps into the Gulf of Mexico? That man’s name was Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de LaSalle. He was the first European on record to travel the entire length of the river. He claimed the territory for France, which meant that France would now own over half of what is now the United States. He named the territory Louisiana after King Louis the XIV of France. La Salle dreamed that he would be the leader this huge territory. The trip took from February 1682 until April of 1682. La Salle returned to France to convince the king that he should lead the new territory. The king agreed because he wanted to beat Spain in the amount of property they each controlled. When LaSalle returned to North America he faced many challenges: swarms of mosquitoes, attacking Indians and confusion over where they really were. Finally the crew hated LaSalle so much that they killed him.