Mississippi River System

The 3,658 miles of the Mississippi River makes it one of the longest rivers in the world. Its drainage basin covers two-fifths of the continental United States, extending from western Pennsylvania to Idaho and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi basin covers more than 1,245,000 square miles; only the Amazon and Congo basins surpass it in area.

The Mississippi Alluvial Flood Plain (otherwise called the Valley or Bottom) begins at Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and extends 1,000 miles down the river. The valley covers 35,460 square miles and extends the length of Tennessee's western edge, ranging in width from 10 to 14 miles at an elevation of 250 to 300 feet above sea level. Spring rains and melting snows bring annual floods, carrying away 400 million tons of soil annually. Geologists speculate that the bay of the Gulf of Mexico once reached north to Cairo, Illinois, the ancient mouth of the Mississippi. Centuries of siltation have filled the ancient bay to an area beyond New Orleans.

The river meanders over the valley in great bends and curves, creating islands, oxbow lakes (or bayous), swamps, natural levees, and fossil river beds. The river moves often. Reelfoot Lake was created from its waters during the December 1811 and January 1812 New Madrid earthquakes. Portions of Tennessee once on the east bank when the state was created, such as Centennial Island, now lie on the west bank. The river builds large necks of land, around which it loops until it breaks through in a cut off, creating a new channel.

The rich soils of the Mississippi Valley are also found along the river's main Tennessee tributaries–the Forked Deer River system including the Obion River and the South Forked Deer, the Hatchie River, and the Wolf River. The sluggish currents of the West Tennessee streams flow northwest between earthen banks before turning southwest some 15 miles from the Mississippi. Loess deposits, 50-foot deep drifts of soil deposited by wind as Ice Age glaciers retreated in the Great Plains, top the bluffs above the valley and mark its edge.

Standing at Hales Point in Lauderdale County, or any one of a number of Tennessee landings, it is easy to understand the awe which gave rise to the Native American name for the river, “Father of Waters.” The river became a major migration and trade route for Native Americans. Along the banks of the broad, surging river, the Mississippian culture arose with its large cities and temple mounds. Chucalissa, now in Memphis, is a reconstructed town from that period.

Once Europeans learned of the river, it became the target of diplomatic and territorial battles between the French, Spanish, and English, who viewed the river system as the key to an inland North American empire. As early as 1513 the Mississippi River appeared on Spanish maps, but the first European to see the river was probably Hernando de Soto, who reached the river with his party of Spanish explorers in May 1541 at a spot reportedly near Memphis.

By the time the French arrived only a remnant of the Mississippian nations survived, and the Chickasaws claimed the Tennessee region along the river. In birch-bark canoes Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet passed by the future state in 1673. Robert Cavelier de La Salle and his men landed near the mouth of the Hatchie in 1682, where they constructed Fort Prudhomme. Following these early explorations, the French settled the middle Mississippi Valley in the early 1700s, trading down river to the French port of New Orleans.

In 1763 the Spanish gained control of New Orleans and attempted to assert their rights in the Tennessee region, which was also claimed by England and later the United States. In 1785, in an effort to establish land warrant claims, North Carolina sent Henry Rutherford to survey the “Western District.” Beginning at Key Corner, he laid out land grants on Coal Creek Bluff. In 1795 the Spanish became concerned about American activities in the territory along the Mississippi and sent Don Miguel Gayoso de Lemos to erect Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas near the Chickasaw Bluffs at the mouth of the Wolf River. The struggle for control of the east bank ended with the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795), and the Spanish dismantled Fort San Fernando in 1797. The United States took control of the Mississippi Valley in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase.

A brisk traffic in flatboats and keelboats carried Middle Tennessee pork, corn, whiskey, and hides down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where goods and boats were sold; crews returned home by way of the Natchez Trace. The first steamboat on the Mississippi, the New Orleans, passed by Tennessee in December 1811, and the crew witnessed the destructive force of the New Madrid earthquake.

In 1818 the Chickasaws relinquished their claims to the Western District, and settlement began in the Mississippi Valley. Towns quickly sprang up on the Tennessee bank of the river, and the steamboat trade flourished. By 1834 some 230 steamboats plied the Mississippi. Memphis emerged as an inland port city and a destination for immigrants arriving in the United States through New Orleans. Towns along the Mississippi tributaries benefited as well. The Forked Deer was navigable for steamboats to Dyersburg, although a few managed to reach Jackson. The Hatchie was navigable for several miles, and some boats went as far as Bolivar, though this area could not as easily engage in shipping despite its rich agricultural land.

Little was done to improve navigation on Tennessee's Mississippi tributaries except for the clearing of snags and driftwood and the removal of overhanging trees. Rotting, sunken keelboats became one of the greatest barriers to navigation on the Forked Deer. In 1838 the Tennessee General Assembly appropriated $93,000 for improvement of the Obion, Forked Deer, and Hatchie Rivers, but most improvements depended on local efforts. The Civil War disrupted the river trade and the development of Tennessee towns. Union strategy targeted control of the Mississippi River. Confederate fortifications at Island #10 fell on April 8, 1862. Federal forces took Fort Pillow on June 5, 1862, and Memphis surrendered the next day.

Beginning in 1879, with the creation of the Mississippi River Commission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal government assumed a more active role in making improvements, controlling floods, and maintaining navigation on the Mississippi. The corps created cutoffs, built levees, laid revetments, and opened spillways. The grass-covered earthen levees built by the corps along the river and its tributaries averaged 21 feet in height. Revetments, now mats constructed of connected concrete slabs, were laid on banks to prevent erosion. Twentieth-century methods of flood control also include restoration of wetlands and bottomland forests. New Deal agencies also funded and/or worked on flood control, river navigation, and recreation.

Modes of river transportation changed as well. By 1930 diesel-powered tugboats and barges had replaced the last of the steamboats. Since World War II, intensive agricultural practices and the draining of wetlands to create new cropland greatly increased erosion in the valley, since loess soils, stable at vertical cuts, erode quickly from the flatter slopes that are plowed. Choked streams caused by the erosional runoff and siltation became a major problem in West Tennessee. In 1948 Congress authorized the West Tennessee Tributaries Project to help residents struggling with the problems associated with the rivers. Through the program, the Corps of Engineers channelized more than 20 percent of the 350 miles of streams in the Obion-Forked Deer basin. Channelization was used to minimize flooding and drain wetlands for cropland. Although providing relief to farmers in the immediate area, it often increased flooding downstream. A series of environmental lawsuits, most notably the landmark Akers v. Resor, have suspended channelization as of 1996. In the 1990s the Hatchie River, designated a Tennessee Scenic River, is the only major tributary below Cairo, Illinois, to have escaped channelization. One of the world's natural wonders, the Mississippi River system looms large in the history and culture of Tennessee, and residents living along its banks continue to search for ways to live in harmony with its strength.

Suggested Reading

Norah Deakin Davis, The Father of Waters: A Mississippi River Chronicle (1982)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Mississippi River System
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018