An Early History of the Mississippi

Map of the Mississippi River

Map of the Mississippi River | USGS

Throughout America’s history, rivers have been incredibly important to the individuals living here.  Whether it was the Native Americans, the early colonists, the explorers who traveled to the Pacific coast, or us today, everyone in the United States is reliant on rivers. 

We will examine the historical importance of a river that was essential to Native Americans and European settlers alike, has been instrumental in shaping the United States, and is now undoubtedly an American icon: the Mississippi.

At 2,340 miles, the Mississippi River is the second longest river in the United States, behind only the Missouri.  It flows through ten states—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana—before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.  Because it flows from the northern United States and the Great Lakes to the south, and connects to the west via the Missouri River, the Mighty Mississippi has been important for transportation, exploration, commerce, and water supply for centuries.

Native Americans have lived along the Mississippi River since at least the 4th millennium BC.  Up until Europeans discovered the river, many tribes resided along its shores, including the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Quapaw, Osage, Caddo, Natchez, and Tunica in the Lower Mississippi, and the Sioux, Sac and Fox, Ojibwe, Pottawatomie, Illini, Menominee, and Winnebago in the Upper Mississippi.  These tribes depended on the Mississippi River, as it provided them with a means of transportation, clean water to drink, and an abundance of food, including freshwater mussels and fishes.


Though the colonists who first settled on the Mississippi weren’t the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims of Thanksgiving lore, you can be sure that they were just as thankful for their river as the 1621 New Englanders were for their crops. 

The first European on record to have reached the Mississippi River was Hernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer who arrived at the river on May 8, 1541.  In the 17th century, Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, two explorers from France, followed suit, and traveled south down the river. 

After the Mississippi became known to Europeans, there was a race between countries to settle its shores, and this ultimately led to conflict.  Following the Seven Year War, which Britain won in 1763, the Mississippi marked the border between British territory, to the east, and Spanish territory, to the west.  By 1803, France had obtained the land west of the river, which they then sold to the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  Following the United States’ victory over Britain in the War of 1812, the highly coveted Mississippi River officially and permanently belonged to the Americans.

The Mighty Mississippi went on to be essential to the United States’ growth during the industrial revolution, a key strategic resource during the Civil War, and the primary source of drinking water for millions of Americans today.  It also supports a wide array of fish and wildlife, and is a major migratory flyway for many species of birds, showing that the Mississippi is important not only to humans, but to all sorts of life in America.

The Mississippi is clearly an indispensable natural resource for the United States, and American Rivers is doing its best to preserve this magnificent river for future generations.  It was named one of American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers® nine times since 1991, with the reasons for its listing ranging from oil spills to industrial discharge to outdated flood management.  By working with our partners and continuing to raise awareness, we will improve the health of the Mississippi and its communities for generations to come.