Few geographic names evoke a more powerful sense of place than the Mississippi River. Nearly everyone who writes about it seems compelled to call it “the Mighty Mississippi.” The river drains the third largest watershed in the world, emptying all or part of thirty-one states and two Canadian provinces. The Mississippi River flyway draws about 40 percent of North America’s population of waterfowl; 60 percent of its bird species are represented here. Physically the Mississippi River demands respect.
But the river’s hold over the American imagination emanates even more from its history. The Mississippi is mighty because of the stories it has accumulated. The Mississippi gathers stories like it does tributaries, growing culturally stronger and deeper with each one.
- John Anfinson, superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, a 72-mile stretch of riverfront in Minnesota
I remember feeling a part of something special when, as a boy in a small Midwestern town, I was told that the small river running near our house was on its way to the Mighty Mississippi. Then I discovered my friends Tom and Huck, and wanted to share their adventures. Mark Twain became my guide. And, if that did not commit me to a life on the Mississippi, my father informed me offhandedly one day that his grandfather had been a riverboat gambler.
I once walked into a Masai village in Tanzania to meet school children who looked confused when I told them I was from Minnesota. But when I said it was a place in the United States where the Mississippi River began, the children laughed and applauded. It occurred to me then that to nearly everyone, here and abroad, the Mississippi River means America.
- Don Shelby, an Emmy-winning journalist has portrayed Mark Twain in performances for more than 20 years
Historically, the Mississippi River has been the catalyst for the mixing of all these different cultures that today exist along the River. Water is a medium that dissolves things and allows them to come together in different ways, just as the Mississippi River has brought people together from Europe and Africa providing the medium that allows phenomenal growth with difficulties, but ultimately creating a mixing of cultures that are seen in artistic expressions such as the blues and southern music genres, literature, our history of civil rights, and our incredible food culture.
- John Ruskey, owner of Quapaw Canoe Company and river enthusiast, Clarksdale, Mississippi