This is Steve Ember.
And this is Shirley Griffith with the VOA Special English program, EXPLORATIONS. Today we tell about the biggest river in the United States, The Mississippi.
The Mississippi flows from near the northern border of the United States south into the Gulf of Mexico. The river flows for four-thousand kilometers through the center of the country. It is the one of the longest rivers in the world. The Amazon in South America and the Nile in eastern Africa are the only rivers in the world that are longer.
The name, Mississippi, came from the Chippewa Indians who lived in what is now the north central part of the United States. Their name for the river was “maesi-sipu”. In the Chippewa language this meant “river of many fishes”. The word was not easy for European explorers to say. So they began calling it the Mississippi instead. Today, it is often called ‘Old Man River’.
Modern maps show that Little Elk Lake in the north central state of Minnesota is the true beginning of the Mississippi River. Little Elk Lake is only about four kilometers long.
At its beginning, the Mississippi does not look like much of a river. But it grows as it starts moving slowly north before turning west and then south.
What is called the Upper Mississippi ends in southern Illinois, near a city with an Egyptian name – Cairo. However, in this middle western state it is called Kay-ro. At Cairo, another large river, the Ohio River, joins the expanding Mississippi.
It is easy to see how the Upper Mississippi has flowed through the land. It has cut its way through mountains of rock, pushing and pushing its waters slowly south.
The Lower Mississippi begins south of Cairo. It is often higher than the land along it. The land is protected by man-made levees, which are walls of earth. These levees prevent the river from flooding. Some of these levees are higher and longer than the Great Wall of China. If you stand behind some of the levees you look up at the river and boats sailing on it.
While the levees control the river, the land is safe. But when heavy rains fall on the hundreds of big and little rivers that flow into the Mississippi, the land is threatened. If the levees break, the river can spread its fingers across the land, flooding towns and villages and destroying crops growing in fields.
There are hundreds of big and little islands throughout the Mississippi River. These islands are formed by dirt carried along by the flow of the powerful river. Every year, the river carries five-hundred-million tons of dirt. Islands can form quickly, sometimes between the time a ship sails down the river and returns.
United States government engineers work hard to keep the river safe. They destroy islands built by the river to keep it clear for ships and trade. They also work to keep the levees strong so that the river does not break through them. Still, Old Man River does not like to be controlled. Every few years the Mississippi River changes its path or floods many thousands of hectares.
In the state of Minnesota, the two cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul face each other across the river. The cities are on the northernmost point on the river that is deep enough for trade boats to sail. The cities today form an important center for business and agriculture.
About two-thousand kilometers south along the river is the city of Saint Louis, Missouri. The city is just a few kilometers south of where the huge Missouri River joins the Mississippi. A French trader first established a business there in Seventeen-Sixty-Four. A few years later settlers named their new town after the Thirteenth Century French King, Louis the Ninth, who had been made a Christian saint. The city of Saint Louis was a popular starting point for settlers traveling to the American west.
The most famous city on the Mississippi is at the river’s southern end. It is the port city of New Orleans, Louisiana. French explorers first settled there, naming the town after the French city of Orleans (Or-lay-onh). From its earliest days, New Orleans was an important center for national and international trade. During the War of Eighteen-Twelve a great battle was fought there against British forces.
Today, New Orleans continues to be an important center for business and international trade. But the city is probably most famous for its culture, music, and food. Many cultures unite in New Orleans. The large black population of the city provides strong influences from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America. French culture also has been very important since the time the city and large areas of North America belonged to France.
Indians had lived in the Mississippi Valley for a very long time when Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto arrived around Fifteen-Forty.
De Soto was looking for gold and cities of gold. He thought the Mississippi was just another river to cross before he would reach those cities, which the Spanish called El Dorado. Instead of the cities, he found hostile Indians, hunger and sickness.
De Soto died on the edge of the river in Fifteen-Forty-Two. He was forty-two years old.
After De Soto’s death, the natives attacked the soldiers he had brought with him and forced them off the land. The Indians saw no more Europeans in the part of the country for more than one-hundred – twenty years.
In Sixteen-Eighty-Two, French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, reached the mouth of the Mississippi at the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle claimed the surrounding country for France. He named it Louisiana, after the King of France at that time, Louis the Fourteenth.
La Salle failed to reach his goal of building forts and trading towns along the Mississippi from Canada south to the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, he was murdered by one of his soldiers.
By the end of the Seventeenth Century, stories about Louisiana were spreading across France and other parts of Europe. Ships that were sailing to the new world were crowded with people. Many of them died of hunger and sickness. However French people kept coming. They began settling the Mississippi Valley. They established control along the river, from New Orleans to as far north as Illinois.
In Seventeen-Eighty-One, Britain and the new United States of America signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolutionary War. The treaty gave the United States complete control of the land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. The Americans also gained the right to use the river.
In Eighteen-Three, France sold the territory of Louisiana to the United States. What became known as “The Louisiana Purchase” included more than two-million square kilometers. It was the largest land purchase in history.
In the early Nineteenth Century, the steam engine was invented. Soon steamboats were moving goods and people on the Mississippi River. For about sixty years, steamboats were extremely important for trade in the Mississippi Valley and throughout most of the middle west.
During this time, a boy living in a town next to the Mississippi fell in love with steamboats and the river. He grew up to become a captain on one of those boats. Then he began writing stories and books, using the name Mark Twain. Mark Twain’s most famous book is “Huckleberry Finn”. It tells the story of a boy who runs away with a slave and their adventures as they drift on a raft down the Mississippi.
The American Civil War was fought between Eighteen-Sixty-One and Eighteen-Sixty-Five. During this time, nothing much was heard along the river but the sounds of war. After the war, trade along the river began again.
The Mississippi has always had an important part in American history. Today, the river is still an important part of the American economy. Goods are carried up and down the river to get to other parts of the country and the world.
Human activities on and along the Mississippi River have changed through history. But the great river just keeps flowing through the center of America. As the song “Old Man River” says: “It must know something. It don’t say nothing. It just keeps rolling along.”
((Music: "Old Man River"))
This Special English program was written by Oliver Chanler and directed by Paul Thompson. This is Shirley Griffith.
And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the VOICE OF AMERICA.