The Mississippi River: Facts, History & Location

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  • 0:02 How Long Is the…
  • 1:18 The Mississippi River…
  • 2:15 Does the Mississippi…
  • 3:03 Brief History of the…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Ellen Ellis
You may have learned that the Mississippi River is the fourth longest river in the world. It also supplies water for millions of people and wildlife. Learn more interesting facts about this important American waterway in this lesson.

How Long Is the Mississippi River?

The answer to this question is a little more complicated than you may know, because how long a river is depends on how you measure it. Measured from its source, which is Lake Itasca in Minnesota, to the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana, the river is far from the fourth longest river in the world, which is what you might remember from elementary school.

However, most measurements of a river's length are from its 'true' source. This refers to the source of the tributary that is farthest from the river's mouth. The true source of the Mississippi is the Jefferson River in Montana. The Jefferson runs into the Missouri River, which runs into the Mississippi. Together these three rivers make up a river system, which is the fourth longest in the world, with a length of 3,710 miles.

The Mississippi is not just a long river. It is also a big river, with a lot of water. Near the Minnesota source at Lake Itasca, the Mississippi is as narrow as 20 to 30 feet across, but it's eleven miles across at its widest point, Lake Winnibigoshish in Minnesota.

The Mississippi River Watershed

The watershed for the Mississippi is even more impressive. A watershed is all of the area from which water, both above and underground, drains to a single location. The Mississippi watershed includes all of the land from which the water drains down through the delta to the mouth of the river in Louisiana and on to the Gulf of Mexico. It includes 31 U.S. states and two provinces in Canada and in total covers an area of 1.2 million square miles. This represents 40 percent of the 48 states.

The Mississippi river is important for humans and wildlife. Millions of people depend on the Mississippi and its tributaries for fresh water and for waste discharge. There are 260 species of fish that call the river home, and 60 percent of all birds in North America rely on the river basin full time or during migration.

Does the Mississippi River Run Through Mississippi?

Without considering the tributary Jefferson and Missouri Rivers, the Mississippi begins in northern Minnesota at Lake Itasca. It winds through that state and then heads east to form part of the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota. It then continues to serve as state borders between Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana on the west side of the river, and Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi on the east side. The final leg of the river flows through Louisiana and ends in the river delta emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. So, no, the Mississippi River doesn't flow through the state of Mississippi, but alongside it, making up most of its western border.

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