It is 2,320 miles from its headwaters in Minnesota to its outlet in the Gulf of Mexico. Its watershed covers all or part of 31 states and parts of two Canadian provinces. That watershed extends from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the western side of the Appalachians in the east. All told, the watershed covers 1,245,000 square miles. The discharge into the Gulf of Mexico varies between 200 and 700 thousand cubic feet per second. You have probably guessed that I am writing about the Mississippi River, a name which derived from a Native American word meaning “Great River.”
Water draining into the storm drain at the corner of our lot ends up in this watershed. Growing up in Youngstown, the Mahoning River was part of this watershed. So are the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers, within 5 miles of our home, which in turn receive water from local creeks, including one in our subdivision. Waters from these rivers drain into the Ohio River which in turn drains into the Mississippi. Only during the years I lived in Toledo and Cleveland was I outside the Mississippi watershed, and then only by less than 50 miles.
I’ve been reading Julie M. Fenster’s Jefferson’s America, which is an account of how Jefferson encouraged exploration of the Louisiana purchase when he had scant resources to claim the land we had purchased from France but was still of great interest to Spain, England, as well as the native peoples living on that land. Exploration was his way of projecting an American presence, heralding the migrations, and eventual military actions to come in the future.
What struck me as I’ve been reading is that, by and large, this was an exploration of the Mississippi watershed. For Lewis and Clark, it began at the head of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh to the Mississippi and then up the Missouri into Montana. Eventually they made their way across the Continental Divide, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They were the most famous of the river explorers but there were others. There was Zebulon Pike, of Pike’s Peak fame who was the first American to explore the Mississippi River to its headwaters in Minnesota. William Dunbar and George Hunter explored the Ouachita River and Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis the Red River. All sent back to Jefferson reports on the geography, vegetation and wildlife of these regions. Pike, Lewis and Clark also established relationships with Native American tribes, further extending our sad history of broken promises and land grabs.
Just as the river is a central feature of our national geography, it has played a central role in our national history, from becoming a highway for transportation of agricultural crops, and especially cotton, to a point of contention as North and South fought over whether newly forming states on the west side of the river would be slave or free. During the Civil War control of the river was critical to the survival of the South and decisive in the victory of the North, particularly the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1963, which may have been as critical as the North’s victory at Gettysburg the day before.
The river has always flooded, despite flood control efforts. In the lower parts of the river, it will change course. Engineers have tried to tame it, which itself may have detrimental effects, particularly in the delta region. I had the chance to see how futile this was last December when I was in St. Louis for a convention during several days of continuous and heavy rains that flooded interstates, and some of the landing areas within a mile of where I was staying.
The Mississippi watershed reminds me of how tied together we are. What I put down the drain or even how I fertilize my lawn affects people and aquatic life downstream, even as our own water supply is affected by the towns and farms to the north of us. At one time, these were our interstate highways, and still important as transportation corridors. It reminds me of how farms, rural towns, and big industrial cities, how North and South and West are all tied together–from Appalachia and Montana to the Gulf of Mexico, and how this heartland of America is the connection that holds west coast and east, north coast and south together.