June – September 1998 

The Mississippi River watershed, with all of its tributaries, ranges from the Rockies to the Alleghenies and from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. It drains three-fifths of the continent, including thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces. Of its hundreds of tributaries, forty–five are navigable for at least fifty miles, providing a system of waterways that exceeds 15,000 miles in length. The Mississippi River proper is navigable from the Falls of St. Anthony (Minneapolis) to the Gulf of Mexico. The volume of water discharged in the Gulf of Mexico varies, ranging from ca. 100,000 cubic feet per second in 1939 to over 2,278,000 cubic feet per second during the 1927 flood.
The exhibit traces the route of the Mississippi from its source at Lake Itasca through many of its cities:

Minnesota: Minneapolis/St. Paul,
Wisconsin: LaCrosse, Prairie du Chien
Iowa: Dubuque, Burlington, Keokuk
Iowa/Illinois: The Quad Cities
Illinois: Nauvoo, Cairo
Missouri: St. Louis
Arkansas: Helena
Tennessee: Tiptonville/Reelfoot Lake, Memphis
Mississippi: Vicksburg, Natchez
Louisiana: Baton Rouge, New Orleans

Throughout the history of this country the Mississippi has served as a route for travel and transport of its peoples. Means of transportation range from the canoes of the Native Americans through rafts, flatboats, and steamboats. During the War Between the States the Mississippi was a primary route for moving troops and supplies. The varied traffic of today includes recreational, often by steamboat, and business, with millions of tons of produce and goods transported each year.

De Soto (154 1), Marquette and Joliet (1673), and La Salle (1682) were among the first Europeans to explore the Mississippi Valley, where they encountered various Native American tribes. Early European settlers included French and Spanish, followed in the next century by waves of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Scandinavia, and elsewhere.

By 1800 the territories east of the Mississippi were all part of the growing country. The Louisiana Purchase added western lands including virtually the entire Missouri River Valley, bringing the entire Mississippi River Basin into American hands. Following the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark were sent to explore the western reaches of the Mississippi valley in 1804. Inspired in part by accounts of this expedition, many individuals toured the river in whole or in part, producing varied accounts of their travels and many artistic renderings of the sights along the way.

In addition to its human residents, the Mississippi Valley serves as home to an incredible array of fish and wildlife. Each fall and spring it is an migration corridor for numerous varieties of birds, and its banks provide nesting and feeding grounds for hundreds of species of waterfowl.

Natural disasters influence the lives of those along the Mississippi. The New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-1812 was so violent that portions of the Mississippi actually flowed upstream. Flooding continues to be a problem. The flood of 1993 did much to increase awareness of the river’s importance, and the impossibility of truly taming it. Course changes along the river have altered state lines, affected cities along the river, and changed flood patterns. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked for more than a century to stabilize channels and to control flooding.

Today the Mississippi River faces many challenges. The Corps of Engineers continues the battle to stabilize the path of the river, and to control flooding. Perhaps even more important is the continuing damage to the ecosystem. Wetland drainage, agricultural and industrial pollution, sedimentation, and habitat destruction threaten wildlife, plants, and even the people of the Mississippi watershed.

An extended body of literature relates to the Mississippi River. The writings of Mark Twain are, for many, their first introduction to the Mississippi. The age of steamboats and the plantation life of the lower Mississippi served as inspiration for many authors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Among the materials in the exhibition are writings of Iowa Authors William J. Petersen, Richard Bissell, and Bruce Carlson. Locales bordering the river serve as settings for novels, from the Prey series by John Sandford set in Minneapolis/St. Paul to Clive Cussler’s FLOOD TIDE, set partially in Louisiana. Poets inspired by the Mississippi include Arthur Brown and Dick Stahl.

Music has played an important role in life along the river, from show boats to jazz and the blues. It is no accident that the original movement of jazz out of New Orleans followed the river to Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, the Quad Cities, and beyond.

The Mississippi River has been part of the academic life of the University of Iowa. Several dissertations relating to life along the Mississippi are included in the exhibition. Selected course offerings have focused on aspects of the river, among them an honors proseminar by the English Department. Faculty and graduate students in the College of Education recently received a grant from Iowa Public Television to develop virtual tours of the Mississippi River as part of the Mississippi Heritage Project. Instructional materials and lessons for this project include CD-ROMs, web sites and video technology, as well as traditional paper materials.

This exhibition was prepared by Grace Fitzgerald, Joyce Barker, Christine Bellomy , with assistance from Pam Spitzmueller and Anna Embree.