The Mississippi River, which flows from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, is the fourth-longest river on earth. It also has one of the largest drainage areas, ranking behind only the Congo and the Amazon. Just before and during the colonial period of American history, the Mississippi was at the heart of the largest Native American civilization north of Mexico, a crucial piece of France’s North American empire, and one of many areas that Native Americans, the French, and the English struggled to control during the eighteenth century. The human history of the Mississippi River began thousands of years ago when Paleo-Indians migrated into the region. Between 700 and 1250, the city of Cahokia flourished on the Mississippi River in what is now present-day Collinsville, Illinois, across the river from today’s St. Louis. Cahokia, a theocracy, exacted tribute from tens of thousands of people in the surrounding area. It also participated in, and perhaps exerted some control over, trade networks that stretched across North America. Cahokian agriculture consisted of corn, beans, and squash, and these foodstuffs were supplemented by hunting and fishing. Cahokia was the largest of what have been labeled Mississippian cultures. From 700 to 1400 (and beyond, in a few cases), paramount chiefdoms in the Mississippian mold dominated much of North America. Perhaps overextended or facing food shortages, Cahokia began to decline around 1150, and, by 1250, was all but abandoned. Smaller polities, ones that more closely resembled historic-era tribes, were the main political entities along the Mississippi River when Europeans arrived several hundred years later. Natchez, another Mississippian center on the river, was a notable exception: it retained elements of Mississippian culture into its encounter with the French. The Spanish maintained a lukewarm interest in the Mississippi River. De Soto crossed the river in his 1539 1542 entrada, and his body may have been sunk in the river.
The French, however, were the first Europeans to seize on the Mississippi’s importance as a piece of their colonial empire. At the end of the seventeenth century, the French, trying to counter British endeavors on North America’s Atlantic coast and Spanish colonies throughout the Americas, began to explore the region near the mouth of the river. Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville established Biloxi in 1699, for instance. Marquette, Jolliet, and La Salle also tried to increase French awareness of the region to promote French trade and the Catholic Church. Along the upper Mississippi and in the adjoining Great Lakes region, the fur trade flourished, while farther south a wider range of economic activities occurred. By the early eighteenth century, the river was at the center of a contest among the French, English, and Native Americans for control of the region. Matters came to a head when traders operating out of Carolina armed the Chickasaw. The resulting conflict left 1,800 Chickasaws dead and another 500 enslaved. The French were able to secure alliances with many of the tribes along the Mississippi River in the early eighteenth century, as they were doing at approximately the same time in the St.
Lawrence River valley. One often-overlooked component of the French North American empire is Illinois country. Though its French population was smaller than those at Montreal, Quebec, and New Orleans, a substantial number of priests, soldiers, and settlers were moving through the region by the middle of the eighteenth century. Towns that were founded primarily as missions and for trading purposes (such as Cahokia/Fort St. Louis and Kaskaskia) were becoming agricultural settlements peopled by a mix of French laypeople, clergy, and Native Americans of various tribes. Since neither Native Americans nor Europeans could control the region, one scholar has labeled it a middle ground. The fragile middle ground collapsed in the wake of the French and Indian War. The French gave up their North American possessions. The native peoples living along the Mississippi River were faced with an aggressive, expansionist set of colonies and, later, an American nation intent on displacing tribes to the west of the Mississippi.
The Mississippi River took on symbolic meaning in Jacksonian America as the dividing line between the white and Native American worlds. Matthew Jennings See also: French; French Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology); Louisiana; New Orleans; Ohio Country; St. Louis. Bibliography “Cahokia.” In The Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. DuVal, Kathleen. The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Ekberg, Carl J. French Roots in the Illinois Country: The Mississippi Frontier in Colonial Times. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Usner, Daniel H., Jr. Indians, Settlers and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Mississippi River Photo Gallery