Mississippi River and New Orleans

steam boats in Mississippi river
Steam boats in Mississippi river

North America’s most important river, contested by four nations and many native tribes, has played an essential role in U.S. history. Flowing 2,301 miles from northern Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico below New Orleans, the Mississippi was a key American Civil War arena.

Until 1865, Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, was the boundary between freedom and slavery. Reshaped over hundreds of years by settlers, engineers, and business interests, the Father of Waters has been and remains an important commercial artery and an ecological battlefield.

The Mississippi even has its own bard—Mark Twain (penname of Samuel L. Clemens) who grew up on the river’s banks, plied its waters, and wrote two books in which the Mississippi is the central character. His 1883 Life on the Mississippi is a nonfictional account; 1884’s Huckleberry Finn uses a fictional journey down the mighty north-south river to explore slavery and freedom in pre–Civil War America.

By 1750 France was the major player in the Mississippi basin, obtaining furs from local Indian tribes and establishing military fortifications and trading posts along the upper Mississippi. New Orleans, founded in 1718, became the major port and capital of France’s sprawling Louisiana colony.

The Seven Years’/French and Indian Wars demolished France’s imperial dreams for the Mississippi and the New World generally. In 1755 thousands of French colonists know as Acadians were deported by British victors from Nova Scotia to Louisiana delta lands.

Later known as Cajuns, they found a living fishing, trapping, and farming along the lower Mississippi. A deal with Spain before the war’s end in 1763 allowed France to maintain its fur trade. Spain, at least nominally, held all lands west of the Mississippi and the vital port of New Orleans from 1762 to 1800.

Access to the Mississippi was an issue that aggravated relations between Britain and its North American colonies. The treaty ending the American Revolution promised river rights to the new United States, yet French and British fur traders and their Indian allies continued to dominate the region.

In 1802 President Thomas Jefferson learned that Spain had secretly sold Louisiana back to French emperor Napoleon I. A worried Jefferson asked to buy New Orleans. Napoleon instead agreed to sell his entire holding for about 18 dollars per square mile. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition and concurrent explorations along the Mississippi by U.S. Army lieutenant Zebulon Pike in 1805 began to reveal just what the United States had acquired. The Mississippi remained a wild frontier.

Soon after killing Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel, former vice president Aaron Burr rode a keelboat down to New Orleans, which he hoped would become the seat of his own American empire. Burr was warmly welcomed by New Orleans’s French population but his plans were undone by a coconspirator.

In 1815, two weeks after a treaty ended the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, assisted by French pirate and slave trader Jean Lafitte, won a major victory over British forces at New Orleans, permanently securing this port for the United States.

By this time, the Mississippi had become a busy waterway for travel and commerce of every kind. Although navigable for its entire length, the river was treacherous, especially in seasons of drought and flood.

Many different kinds of vessels were tried on the river—canoes, rafts, pirogues, pole boats, and keelboats, to name a few. In 1811 the steamboat New Orleans, engineered by Robert Fulton, took four months to travel from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Within a decade, boats could reliably sail upstream.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, established in 1802, played (and continues to play) a major role on the Mississippi and its watershed. In 1824 Congress authorized the Corps to manage and improve the river’s navigability and safety.

Locks and dams were installed; later, levees to prevent flooding were constructed almost continuously from New Orleans to Dubuque, Iowa. Other projects that began in the 19th century but did not reach their zenith until the 20th included dredging, channelization, and construction of auxiliary canals.

Before railroads in the 1850s began to cut into Mississippi shipping, lead ore, lumber, and agricultural products, mostly heading to St. Louis or New Orleans for processing or transshipment, kept “river rats” busy until winter ice buildups curtailed travel. Galena, Illinois, became an important metropolis, supplying 90 percent of the nation’s lead ore.

Logging in Minnesota and Wisconsin, spurred by an almost insatiable need for lumber, especially on the treeless Great Plains, filled the Mississippi with huge logs heading to sawmills. Logging increased erosion and soil loss; logs snagged underwater became a major threat to river shipping.

The Mississippi’s north-south trade suffered a huge setback when war broke out in 1861. It was apparent to Union leaders that controlling the Mississippi could cripple the Confederacy, making cotton shipments to Europe almost impossible.

The “River War” of 1862 made heroes of officers Ulysses S. Grant and David G. Farragut. Using ironclad gunboats adapted for river conditions, Union naval units occupied New Orleans in April.

In June Union forces captured Memphis. Besieged at Vicksburg that summer, Confederates, although lacking sufficient weaponry, held off the attack and maintained control of about 200 miles on the Mississippi.

Today’s Mississippi is still crowded with boats and barges, but its commercial importance continued to decline after the Civil War. New Orleans’s importance was eclipsed by New York’s Harbor. St. Louis lost out to Chicago, the nation’s railroad hub.

River tourism increased on paddle-wheel excursion boats appealing to gamblers and a growing leisure class. By 1882 Mark Twain, nostalgically traveling his river from New Orleans to St. Paul, found the formerly bustling river eerily quiet. The nation’s traditional watery heart, now mostly driven and flown over, makes headlines only when the Mississippi experiences devastating floods.