Episode 40: The Mississippi River

Welcome to Slow American English, the podcast for learners of American English. I’m your host, Karren Tolliver.

This is episode number 40: The Mississippi River

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For this episode, I recommend listening to the United States Regions episode of the podcast. Also, you can visit www.patreon.com/slowamericanenglish for a FREE downloadable map of the Mississippi River river basin. The map is helpful when considering the information in this podcast.

The Mississippi River


The Mississippi River is the second longest river in the United States, but it’s the most well known. From its headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota, water flows about 2,300 miles south all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. It flows through or next to 10 states. The river is narrowest at Lake Itasca, only about 20 or 30 feet wide. It is widest, about 11 miles, at its confluence with the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois.

Smaller rivers and streams that flow into a river are called tributaries. All of the tributaries together are known as its watershed or river basin. The Mississippi River’s watershed is the third largest in the world. It covers about 1.2 million square miles, which is about 40% of the continental United States. Water from all or part of 31 states plus two provinces in Canada drains into it. The eastern boundary of the watershed is the Allegheny Mountains; the western border is the Rocky Mountains.

The Mississippi is a slow-moving river and it is very muddy. It flows about 1.5 miles per hour (mph) on the surface as it leaves Lake Itasca. Even at the Gulf of Mexico, the water flows only about 3 mph, a little slower than most people walk. It takes about three months for water leaving Lake Itasca to reach the Gulf.

The muddy Mississippi River deposits all the sand and silt that it carries over its great distance into the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, Louisiana. Over time, this sand and silt has built up into low-lying land. This land is called the Mississippi Delta.


Oral histories of Native American tribes and some archaeological evidence show that Native Americans lived near the Mississippi River as long as 12,000 years ago. Unfortunately, there is no existing written history about the lives of these people, so it is difficult to know much detail.

Then, in the 1500s, Europeans began exploring the river. The first one, Hernando De Soto from Spain, led an expedition from the Gulf of Mexico northward up the river from the delta. His plan was to plunder the tribes living there. His group encountered floods and hostile Native American attacks. De Soto was killed in an attack near the present-day city of Memphis, Tennessee, and his body was left in the river.

Next came the French expedition of Marquette and Jolliet in 1673. They came from Canada southward. A few years later a French explorer named La Salle traveled all the way from the north to the delta. He claimed the entire Mississippi River basin for France, even though Native Americans were living there long before he arrived.

In the 1700s, Spain took control of the lower Mississippi south of Cairo, IL. Eventually, France regained control of the river then sold it to the young United States as part of a land-transfer deal called the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. For many years the Mississippi River was considered the western border of the United States.

Because the river is so shallow, boats with flat bottoms were used to carry goods in the early days. These boats had no engines and were propelled by people using small paddles, sails or long poles. In the early 1800s, steam-powered riverboats with wheel-shaped paddles were used to travel both ways. These paddle wheelers could operate in shallow water and were like floating hotels with restaurants, bars and casinos. The Mississippi riverboat gambler is a common stereotype. Today tourists can still ride on a historical paddle wheeler on the Mississippi.

Because of its shallowness, the river floods often and the channel changes. Therefore, modern flood-protection was engineered to control it, especially on the lower Mississippi. These controls include locks, dams, spillways and levees, which still exist today. Some of the dams help generate electricity, and the river’s channel is dug out regularly to allow ships to carry goods up and down the river. However, these controls have changed the environment drastically, and many groups are fighting now to remove them and let the river become its natural self again. This would greatly affect those living near the river because the unpredictable floods would return.

American Culture

The Mississippi River, especially the lower part, was a popular topic in blues, jazz, gospel, folk and country music. Even today, songwriters mention the river in their lyrics.

In addition, the river has been the subject or setting of much American literature. For example, Langston Hughes, an African-American poet, wrote a famous poem in 1921 called “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” which features the Mississippi. Tennessee Williams wrote plays and poems involving life on the river. William Faulkner is a famous author whose work reflects life near the river, too.

Probably the most famous author to write about the Mississippi River was Mark Twain. One of his books is even titled Life on the Mississippi. It contains stories about his experience as a steamboat pilot and what the river was like in the late 1800s from St. Louis, Missouri, to New Orleans.

There are many more examples of literature that is based on, mentions or features the Mississippi River. Just do an online search and you’ll see what I mean.

Language Notes

Certain Native American tribes near St. Louis, Missouri, called the river misi sipi, which literally means ‘big water’ or ‘father of water’. From this Native-American name we get ‘Mississippi’. The idea of the river as father continues in American English: the river is known as “Old Man River” in literature, songs and informal conversation.

In addition, the Mississippi River is so big and is such an important river to North America and US history that it is often called the Mighty Mississippi.

Lastly, remember that Mississippi is not only the name of a river, it is also the name of a state. Mississippi state lies to the east of Louisiana and has the Mississippi River as most of the border between them.