Every adult and school child knows about the Mississippi River. I can’t imagine there’s anyone who doesn’t remember learning how to spell the river’s name back in grade school. And everyone was taught it’s the longest river in North America and nearly the longest in the world.
But how big is it, really? And where on earth did it get its name?
We can thank the Native American tribes living along its banks for the name and the spelling that vexed so many children and quite a few adults, too. Some of its many names were “Mis-sipi,” “Namosi-sipu,” Michi-sipi,” “Kitchi-Zibi” and my all time favorite of “Mee-zee-see-bee.” If we’d stuck with that last one, a lot more kids might have gotten better grades on spelling tests! Even as things stand now, there are quite a few people thankful for Spellcheck which, I’m told, is Native American for “I don’t know how to spell it either.”
The Mississippi stems from Lake Itasca in Minnesota and meanders 2,348 miles to the Gulf of Mexico 100 miles outside New Orleans. Fed by more than 250 tributaries and with a drainage basin spanning 28 states, it is enormous. The American Queen Steamboat Company sails the major tributaries such as the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers and, of course, the Big Muddy itself. Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto dubbed it “The River of the Holy Ghost” in the 1500s and French explorer Sieur de La Salle traversed its entire length in the late 1600s and called it “The River of Immaculate Conception.”
That last one always makes me laugh. The idea of the Immaculate Conception is one of purity and as massive as the Mississippi River is and despite its crystal-clear Minnesota origins, it is, well, muddy. Among those living along its banks, it was known as being “too thin to plow and too thick to drink.” Each year, it carries nearly 150 metric tons of rich sediment right through the Heartland of America. That’s also one reason the land around the Mississippi River makes such fertile farmland.
While we all know that the river is (usually) held inside its banks thank to enormous levees, every once in a great while, Mother Nature gets her way. Back in 1993, the river bounded out of her banks along much of her length and, along with a number of her tributaries which decided to join the show, produced what is known as a “Hundred Year Flood.” More than 30,000 square miles were flooded and in some places, the Mighty Mississippi became considerably Mightier, stretching for miles from one flooded bank to the other.
One way to control the river and to make sure that steamboats like the American Queen can offer a Mississippi River cruise is through the construction of locks. While most of us think of locks as being something associated with canals such as the big one down in Panama, they are also found throughout many river systems, including the Mississippi. Most of the river’s locks and dams are located along the Upper Mississippi to maintain a minimum depth of nine feet for river navigation. That’s one of the reasons the American Queen’s maximum draft is only eight and a half feet. If not, we wouldn’t be able to offer Mississippi river cruises as far north as St. Paul, Minnesota.
Before I wrap this up, let me share one of my favorite statistics. The Mississippi runs through or along the borders of ten states from Minnesota to Louisiana. On the west side of the river are Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas while the west bank helps define Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. Now, those borders were set based on when the states entered the Union and the path of the river at the time. But the Mississippi is a fickle lady and has changed course countless times over the centuries. After all, that’s what rivers do. They aren’t static. A flood may open a new channel or erosion may cause the path to shift, eliminating a bend in the river.
As a result, things get a little complicated sometimes. Back in 1876, the Mississippi got it into her head to change course near the tiny town of Reverie, Tennessee. That didn’t turn out so well for the folks in Tipton County, Tennessee who found themselves attached to Arkansas but split from the rest of Tennessee by the new channel. But what goes around comes around as many years later, another channel shift left part of western Kentucky right next to Tennessee and separated from the rest of the Bluegrass State by the river.
The American Queen is an elegant lady but make no mistake, the Mississippi is a lady as well with a personality all her own. Learning how to spell her name is really only half the story.