Old Man River:  History Along the MississippiApril 19-November 2, 2003

The Upper vs. The Lower Mississippi River Regions

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Bald eagle and alligator crossing sign

The Upper vs. The Lower Mississippi
exhibit section showing the "Upper Mississippi" exhibit section showing "The Lower Mississippi"
Artifacts and images show contrasting elements of the Upper vs. Lower Regions of the Mississippi River.

The Upper Mississippi originates at Lake Itasca, flows through the Twin Cities, and borders southern Minnesota, southern Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, and Missouri. The Lower Region begins where the Ohio River drains into the Mississippi, and edges southern Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and northern Louisiana. The Mississippi then branches into smaller channels before disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico.

"I feel that there is something in having passed one's childhood beside the big river which is incommunicable to those who have not … The river cast a spell over the entirety of my life. It was always with me."
- T.S. Eliot, poet, referring to his youth spent in St. Louis, Missouri

The ten states that border the Mississippi form the central heart of our vast nation as the river connects far-away regions and facilitates the exchange of trade, industrial products, knowledge, and the arts. Yet the river's length encompasses at least two distinct sections based on geography and climate.

The two regions share a river, but are as different as a Minnesota moose is to a Louisiana alligator! Neighborhoods in the Lower Mississippi Region retain a French or Spanish flair with added dashes of Caribbean and African customs. The Upper Region was primarily settled by people of Scandinavian, German, and Irish descent.

Settlement was slower in the north due to shallow rapids and winter accumulations of ice and snow. The smaller communities that were established here relied on local services before 20th century locks and dams introduced a smooth flow of commerce. In contrast, the lower Mississippi ran freely to the Gulf past deep, rich soil steaming under the hot sun. Grand plantations fueled by slave labor supplied America and much of the world with cotton, sugar, and rice.

The institution of slavery ultimately shaped the entire history of the United States, from war to racism to Civil Rights. And from lowly African field hollers sprang the blues, jazz, and rock and roll. Add a liberal dose of talent from the poets, writers, artists, and adventurers who had spent much of their lives along the Mississippi, and modern America was born!

Did you know …?
At the headwaters of the Mississippi, a visitor can walk across the narrow and shallow channel.

Continue Through Exhibit

2 men in a canoe
Early Exploration and Development
River Days
view of Bellview, Iowa
Riverfront Property
Civil War enenactors
Man vs. Man
Bald eagle and conservation officer
Man vs. Nature
jazz musician
The Arts Along the River
New Orleans graveyard
Legends and Spirits
View Selected Artifacts
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