The name of the Mississippi River comes from an Indian word 'Misi-Ziibi', meaning 'Great River' in the Ojibwa or Algonquin language. The river begins in northern Minnesota and flows for 2,320 miles south to the delta in Louisiana and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The river forms the borders of some states. Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi are on the east side of the river. Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas are on the west. It also passes through Minnesota and Louisiana.
The source of the river is in Lake Itasca in Clearwater, Minnesota. The name for the lake is a combination of the last four letters of the Latin word for truth, veritas, and the first two letters of the word for head, caput. The name of the lake means 'true head' of the river. Henry Schoolcraft substituted this name in place of a previous Ojibwa name. He was an American explorer, (1793-1864) most famous for his discovery of the source of the Mississippi River. The lake is 1,475 feet above sea level.
The river is divided into three sections. The Upper Mississippi is the part of the river which flows down from the north until it joins the Missouri River. Twelve tributaries, or smaller rivers, flow into the Upper Mississippi River. The Missouri River comes in from the west and joins with the Mississippi at St.Louis, Missouri. The Upper Mississippi has 43 dams to regulate the flow of the water. The level of the river drops to 687 feet above sea level by the time it reaches St. Paul, Minnesota. For much of its course, this part of the river has high bedrock cliffs on each side.
The Middle Mississippi flows from St. Louis for 197 miles to Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River joins it. It then falls 220 feet along the way to Cairo. Besides the Missouri River, only two tributaries enter the Middle Mississippi.
The Lower Mississippi flows from Cairo, Illinois, for 1,000 miles to its entrance to the sea at the Gulf of Mexico. This is called its mouth. Four tributaries besides the Ohio flow into the Lower Mississippi. The river is the widest in this lower part, over a mile wide at several places. A structure in Louisiana diverts 70% of the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya River so that it makes a shorter trip to the Gulf of Mexico. About 30% of the Mississippi's waters flow to the Gulf of Mexico by way of a longer route. The Gulf of Mexico is a part of the Atlantic Ocean. The Mississippi River enters the Gulf about 100 miles south of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Water flows from its source to its mouth in about 90 days. Water is discharged from the mouth of the Mississippi at about 200-700 cubic feet per second. Although the river is the fifth largest in the world, it spews forth only eight percent of the amount which the Amazon River does, seven million cubic feet per second. The fresh water from the Mississippi does not mix with the ocean's salt water right away. Images from a satellite show that water from the Mississippi flows into the Gulf and enters the Gulf Stream near Florida. The fresh water then flows around the tip of Florida and on up the east coast to Georgia. At that point, the river water mixes totally into the seawater and cannot be seen by the satellite pictures.
Over time, the Mississippi has changed its course on its path to the Gulf. Deposits of silt or dirt clog the channel and raise the level of the land. This diverts the water of the river into another direction. Leftover routes become bayous, or low swampy lands. This whole process occurs because of all the silt carried down the river from the northern United States. The coastline of Louisiana has moved from 15-50 feet further out into the Gulf over several thousand years, according to scientists, because of the dirt continually being deposited at the mouth of the Mississippi River.