A Complete History of the Mississippi River (As I Know It Without Looking Up a Bunch of Stuff)

It’s another post featuring the only featureable feature worth featuring in MY Town. Sorry. Get over it.

The good news is this isn’t going to be just another story of me riding my bike and taking pictures along the river. Nope, I’m going to delve into the HISTORY of America’s greatest river.

Lest you think I’m just some crackpot with a keyboard who passed a 9th-grade history class, I’ll fill you in on my academic credentials. I graduated from college. History was my Minor. I got “A’s” in some of my history classes.

Of course, that was back in the late 1970’s when I thought research and scholarly activities were pretty fun. I’m too lazy for that now. Therefore you get THIS comprehensive history of “Old Man River”

The Mississippi River has existed for something like 45-million years, though there is some controversy about that. Some say 20-million years, some say 70-million years. Historical expert that I am, I’ll split the difference and call it good.

Then came some kind of melting glacier period where the river grew enormously.

Then millions of years later, some Siouxian tribe named it “Mis’sippi,” or something like that, which meant “Great Father of Waters,” or something like that.

Then a French priest named Father Jacques Marquette, along with Louis Joliet, explored and mapped the river. That was in the late 1600’s. Pretty cool huh?

Some 20 decades later, a dude named Mark Twain wrote a book about his experiences as a riverboat captain on the river. The book was filled with interesting facts and hilarious anecdotes.

Here’s the author’s well-used copy of Life On the Mississippi. He bought it as a college sophomore in about 1978. It’s his favorite travel book and he’s read it four times.

Then, in the year 2015 a.d., another Frenchman, Monsieur Garceau, rode a bicycle along the Mighty Mississippi. He may or may not have been the first person in history to accomplish that incredible feat. Hard to say.

Monsieur Garceau began his journey in the great city of New Orleans and could not believe his eyes. “Ocean-going ships on a river?” he questioned. “Nobody back home will believe such a thing could be.”

The following year, two bicycle tourists named G. and G-2, were the first explorers of European origin to discover the source of the Muddy Mississippi. Much to their surprise, many native Americans were bathing in the healing waters of the first few meters of the river.

G. and G-2 were able to capture this rare footage of, what, Chippewa? Ojibwa? Mdewakonton Sioux? Norwegians? performing their ancient ritual of crossing the river at it’s very beginning.

Then something was observed in modern times on the river. The date was November 2, 2020. The location was the boat landing in MY Town, where pick-up trucks normally back a trailer into the water to launch a fishing boat. That day, a huge crane lifted a much bigger boat off a flatbed truck, swung around, and set it down into the Father of Waters.


Fast forward in history to today, November 5, 2020. While biking along the river for the 1,444th time, the author saw that same big boat across the river. It was dredging the silt out of the channel that leads to the marina over there. Okay.

There it is — on the other side of the river in the center of the picture.

Further upriver, the author observed some other commotion. A large barge was passing through Lock and Dam #2. Our Mississippi River historian took it upon himself to investigate.

He parked his amazing bike and climbed the stairs to the observation deck to record the historical event.

There is the cargo in the lock. This historian took a photo a few months ago when the lock was empty. You’ll have to do your own research to find that moment in history.

Here, we can look across the deck of the big boat that pushes the load upriver.

Here, we can almost talk to the crew in the engine room.

Beyond the barge, a flock of seagulls are going nuts. (Hey, what’s that on the smokestack?)

There can be no doubt . . . it is the image of the great Father Marquette, quietly paddling his canoe down the Mississippi River in full Catholic garb. He seems so peaceful, so content, so docile.

On his bike tour of the Great River, the author met a very different Fr. Marquette at an Illinois State Park named after him. This Father Marquette was not so docile. In fact, the author thought the priest was going to hit him with that PEACE pipe, which would have been quite ironic.

That brings us to the end of this comprehensive history. Except for a song. Here comes a song that was recorded way back in (I think) the sixties. Normally, I don’t much care for Rod Stewart, but some of his work with Jeff Beck is good. “Ol’ Man River” is better than good.

Hi. My name is Greg and I ride my bike a lot. That is to say, I ride my bike almost every day. I go on long rides and short rides. Sunny rides, cloudy rides, and rainy rides. I like commuting, errand-running, day-tripping, overnighting, and touring on my bike. I ride on city streets, highways, gravel, single track, and snow with equal enthusiasm. Sometimes I ride fast and sometimes I ride slow. I try to keep my feet on the pedals at stop lights and I do not dismount when I hop up on a curb. I have a roadie bike, a mountain bike and a touring bike. I try to accept any challenge a bike ride can throw at me without complaint. But I don't like bugs.

14 response to "A Complete History of the Mississippi River (As I Know It Without Looking Up a Bunch of Stuff)"

  1. By: Scooter Posted: November 5, 2020

    Disappointed that this otherwise admirably detailed chronology omitted the viewing of the Great River by the Great Team Anderson, in June, 2017. Surely a regrettable oversight.

  2. By: gregblood Posted: November 5, 2020

    Speaking as a revered historian, it was a very regrettable oversight. In a meager attempt to redeem myself, here is an addendum to my comprehensive history of the Mississippi River:

    Somewhere between the time of the first bike tour ever to occur between New Orleans and MY Town and the present day, the author/historian rode along the river with Scooter and Rocky from St. Paul to MY Town. That’s when the author got hugs from them and they continued on downriver before crossing and heading back north to Lake Superior.

  3. By: The Navigator Posted: November 6, 2020

    Oh, great, another white guy telling us the history of something like it’s the only way it went down…. Lol! I do like that the statue has not been toppled even though he probably did some unkind things along the way.

    I remember camping on the Illinois River and 3-4 barges going by every hour all through the night – their lights sweeping the bank and flashing through the tent all night long…

    You may have missed a teeny bit in the river’s history, including the historic crossings at Fort Madison on 16 May, 2010 and 20 April 2013, and Muscatine on 22 May, 2014 of a certain frog and turtle on a bike. Of course, maybe it’s not that historic, frogs and turtles probably cross all the time… just probably not on a bike.

    • By: gregblood Posted: November 6, 2020

      I’ve camped along the Mississippi River and have seen that same light show you described. Those are some powerful beams of light. I thought it was even more spectacular than some of the laser lights I saw at rock concerts in the 70’s and 80’s.

      Sorry I forgot about those important frog & turtle crossings of the Mississippi. It seems there are a few historical events I missed over those 45 million years.

  4. By: Lednar De Nalloh Posted: November 6, 2020

    I couldn’t access the video as well. Maybe it’s a country copyright thing.

    Love big river history. The only time I saw the Mississippi myself was in New Orleans in 1986 and it was very wide and brown.

    Here in Australia the Murray River is very similar. Many years ago paddle steamers took the wool from inland to the coast. The Navigator would know more than me as she has lived around the river. I’ll have to get a copy of that Mark Twain book.

    • By: gregblood Posted: November 6, 2020

      I guess there are some international restrictions on certain videos. I’ve had that happen before and it’s very frustrating. I just don’t get it. If it’s on Youtube, why should it matter WHERE you are watching it? There were a couple other versions of “Ol Man River” by the Jeff Beck Group on Youtube, so I guess if you’re interested, maybe one of those will work in Australia.

  5. By: BobinVT Posted: November 6, 2020

    Thanks for the history lesson Historian Greg. It made me think about that fact that I’ve spent most of my life east of the Mississippi. I think I’ve driven across the river once (well, across and back), and maybe flown across half a dozen times. I’ve lived a sheltered east coast life. 🙂

    • By: gregblood Posted: November 6, 2020

      I’ve lived a similarly sheltered life as I have only been to New England twice. One of those times was on my bike and I actually made it to Vermont. From North Adams, MA, I rode three miles out of my way for no other reason than to be able to say I set foot in my 44th state. I parked my bike at the “Welcome to Vermont” sign, walked around it, declared Vermont to be a very nice state, and rode back to Massachusetts.

  6. By: Bill Stone Posted: November 6, 2020

    What, no indication of or historical information about the mysterious, shoe-less swimsuit woman?

    • By: gregblood Posted: November 6, 2020

      I have no doubt she’s been here before, but I just didn’t have the evidence to present at this time. Unlike our president, I have a hard time posting or taking legal action without concrete proof.

  7. By: Rich-Illinois Posted: November 6, 2020

    Thanks for the History lesson and photos.
    As an addendum:
    The Mississippi used to flow southeast into north central Illinois. Glaciers eventually displaced it to it present position, and the old channel is now occupied by the Illinois River.

    In 1881 a major flood caused the Mississippi to change course at Kaskaskia, leaving Kaskaskia Island WEST of the present channel. The boundary with Missouri remained in the old channel, so Kaskaskia Island is a part of Illinois west of the Mississippi River now and accessible only from Missouri.
    So, most of IL is east of the Mississippi, but not all of it.

    • By: gregblood Posted: November 6, 2020

      Interesting info, Rich. One thing I remember from my days as a 4th-grader was moving to Dyersville, Iowa with my family. We used to go to Dubuque quite often for shopping at the K-mart and a “big city” mall. We also would go to Eagle Point Park and have picnics with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. (Now called KFC) One day, my folks decided to drive beyond Dubuque and take us to the historic Mississippi River town of Galena. I distinctly remember thinking “what the heck? We just drove 20 miles east of the river,” but I don’t remember my mom or dad explaining that the course of the river had changed. I only figured that out many years later. Still, at the time, I thought it was pretty cool to see President Grant’s home.

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