Rivers of the World the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers

About the Mississppi River system including the Missouri and the Ohio, history, length, and tributaries of the United States' biggest river.

RIVERS

MISSISSIPPI-MISSOURI SYSTEM

The Mississippi River is North America's largest river, and its tributary the Missouri is the longest. From north Minnesota's Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi journeys roughly 2,350 mi. The Missouri River, from its western Montana source to its confluence with the Mississippi, runs 2,714 mi. Together they form a valley stretching from the Rockies in the West to the Appalachians in the East, and drain a basin of over 1 million sq. mi., which amounts to about one eighth of the North American continent.

The Mississippi is called the "father of waters" and "Old Man River." It cleaves southward through the American heartland, dividing the eastern and western U.S. Its reservoir in Minnesota lies at an elevation of 1,463 ft., but the Mississippi drops quickly and begins settling into a floodplain as it leaves the state. It fattens to a width of 3,500 ft. by the time it gets to St. Louis, Mo., and swells another 1,000 ft. at Cairo, Ill. From Cape Girardeau, Mo., to the Gulf of Mexico, a distance of 600 mi., the Mississippi snakes all over its oxbow-scarred floodplain and takes 1,700 mi. of twists and turns to make the trip. The changes brought by each flood make an exact measurement of the river's length impossible.

The Ohio River from the east contributes about 58% of the Mississippi's flow below their confluence at Cairo; the upper Mississippi, fed by winter snow and summer rain, contributes 23%; and the Missouri from the semiarid West adds the final 19%. The southern Mississippi alluvial valley is remarkably fertile and supports an agricultural economy.

The Mississippi delta begins in central Louisiana, about 200 mi. from the gulf. Below New Orleans, the river divides into three distinct, navigable passages that form a crow's-foot.

The Mississippi longest tributary, the "Big Muddy" Missouri River, drains a 529,350-sq.-mi. basin. It begins 4,000 ft. up, at the confluence of three rivers in Montana, drops quickly over a series of falls, then swings south. Its numerous hydroelectric complexes supply the Midwest with electricity and control dozens of artificial lakes.

The Mississippi valley was formed by the rushing waters of ancient melting glaciers. Indians, known as the Mound Builders because of the large burial mounds they constructed, lived along the river before they disappeared several centuries ago. Spanish explorers noted the huge delta as early as 1524, and 17 years later Hernando de Soto became the first white man to gaze upon the river itself, near present-day Memphis. The river was lost thereafter for 150 years, till Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette explored it in 1673. Nine years later, La Salle navigated the entire river from Lake Itasca in the north to the gulf. In 1812 the steamboat introduced an era of growth and commerce, so well chronicled by the river's own son, Mark Twain.

Joliet and Marquette were impressed with the Missouri's massive outflow in 1673, but it wasn't explored for over 100 years. The Indians called it Pekitanoui, but the white men named it the Missouri, derived possibly from a Sioux word meaning muddy water. In 1804-1806, Lewis and Clark ascended the Missouri and gave its tributaries English names.

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