Mississippi River Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A mighty river whose watershed forms the continent’s heartland, the Mississippi provided inexpensive transit for immigrants bound for the Midwest and the western frontier. Many settled in the riverfront cities or on nearby lands. Their work increased the output of the region’s fields and factories, whose products were then shipped out via river transit. Unique cultural features evolved from the mix of immigrant settlers in major riverfront cities such as New Orleans.

The Mississippi River functioned as a magnet for immigrants even before becoming part of the United States. Discovered by the sixteenth century Spanish explorer Soto, Hernando deHernando de Soto and explored by the seventeenth century French noblemanLa Salle, Sieur deSieur de La Salle, both the river and its vast watershed were alternately claimed by France and Spain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The upper reaches remained the preserve of Native Americans and a few trappers until the American Revolution, but the economic and strategic importance of the river’s Delta region was recognized early. New OrleansNew Orleans was founded in 1719. Its eighteenth century population grew to ten thousand, including Spanish soldiers, West African slaves, refugees from Caribbean plantations, Portuguese fishermen, French Creoles, and entrepreneurs from the newly independent United States.Mississippi RiverFrontier;and Mississippi RiverNew OrleansMississippiRiverFrontier;and Mississippi River[cat]TRANSPORTATION;Mississippi River[03560]New Orleans

In the surrounding Delta country, Acadian immigrantsFrench Acadians settled after being expelled from Canada in the wake of its British takeover in the mid-eighteenth century. Isleños, former Canary Islands inhabitants, migrated to the Delta during the region’s Spanish rule, also bringing their culture and fishing-based economy to the bayous. The many coves and islands of the region provided shelter for legendary pirates such as Jean Lafitte.

Impact of the Louisiana Purchase

President Louisiana PurchaseThomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 not only gave an expanding nation a huge new storehouse of natural resources but also secured a water route that eased transit to all the areas that bordered the river and its major tributaries. Both immigration and shipping benefited from no longer having to make onerous overland trips through the wilderness. After New Orleans;and War of 1812[War of 1812]the Battle of New Orleans (1815) cut short a British land-grab attempt in the region, the territory was secured for settlers who wanted to build new lives there. The North American continent now offered unpopulated lands and opportunities, just as many European countries were entering an era of economic and political crises.

One early aspect of the Louisiana PurchaseLouisiana Purchase was that it granted automatic U.S. citizenship to those already living in the territory. These people included a fairly large population in the Delta region, and scattered settlements in the more sparsely inhabited areas upriver. In the first decade after the purchase, more than 10,000 new French-speaking immigrants poured into New Orleans;French Haitian refugeesNew Orleans, refugees from the Haitian revolution and other slave uprisings on French Caribbean islands.

French immigrants also predominated at this time in the river’s upper reaches. St. Louis, Missouri[Saint Louis, Missouri]St. Louis and some other river cities had been founded by French voyageurs during the eighteenth century, first as an outpost for Fur trade;Mississippi Riverfur traders, then serving as a supply base and port for the settlers in the countryside. Lead mining began early in the city’s hinterland, and by 1723 French entrepreneur Renault, Philip FrancoisPhilip Francois Renault was shipping lead down the Mississippi to diverse foreign markets. Other metals, furs, and timber were gathered or produced by the largely French early immigrants to the mid-Mississippi region.

Early during the nineteenth century, the wilderness was partially cleared and states were established in the former Northwest Territory. Their settlers often came via the Mississippi’s eastern tributaries such as the Ohio RiverOhio River. New towns sprang up, peopled by both these internal migrants and European immigrants who arrived via the Mississippi route. Throughout most of the mid-nineteenth century, immigrants tended to come from northern or western European countries: Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, and Germany. Many were rural folk. Some of these joined the burgeoning populations of the states on the river’s eastern bank, notably Illinois and Indiana, where town life and farms were already flourishing. Others set out to farm the rich, virgin soil of trans-Mississippi states, including Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. Still others settled in riverfront cities and became shopkeepers, or carried on the crafts, ranging from tailoring to metalwork, which they had followed in their homelands.

Like the French migrants to the Mississippi Delta, many other immigrants came as refugees from disasters in their homeland. The Irish faced starvation at home from the potato blight of the mid-nineteenth century. France and Germany churned with political turbulence and the uprooting of a centuries-old social order. If the Mississippi Valley was “untamed” in comparison, it still offered the chance to build a new life without being caught up in civic unrest.

Post-Civil War Expansion

With prospective statehood on the horizon during the early 1850’s, Kansas and Missouri were caught in the struggle over slave- versus free-state status. During the ensuing Civil War (1861-1865), it was clear that control of the Mississippi was vitally important to both sides. The war endangered ordinary river traffic, and immigration slowed drastically. There was a fair amount of immigrant participation in the war, however, supporting both sides. St. Louis, Missouri[Saint Louis, Missouri]St. Louis, for example, had large communities of both German and Irish immigrants. Open clashes occurred between the two during the war. Many from the city’s Irish Roman Catholic community joined the Confederate forces, along with Father John Bannon, who accompanied them as a chaplain and later served as a Confederate emissary to the Vatican. The Germans, with their strong martial tradition and marching societies, were staunchly antislavery and enlisted in the Union cause.

In the post-Civil War North, industry expanded to become the driving engine of the U.S. economy. The West was transformed from frontier to an integral part of the nation. The [a]Homestead Act of 1862Homestead Act of 1862 offered free land to settlers for farming. Once again, immigrants, mostly from Europe, arrived in large numbers to work the farms and factories in the Mississippi Valley. Those with special skills–coopers and blacksmiths, for example–were targeted by pamphleteers, and sometimes businessmen or state governments even paid their passage to the sponsoring area. Arkansas, Iowa, and MinnesotaMinnesota were among the states directly or indirectly offering such aid.

Most of the first wave of post-Civil War immigrants, like their predecessors, came from northern and western Europe and assimilated fairly well into the existing river towns. The raw materials they produced–hardwood lumber, ore, grain, and other Agricultureagricultural produce from the upper Mississippi basin, and rice, cotton, pine and cypress wood, and cane sugar from its lower reaches–were shipped in great quantities down the river and to far-flung markets. The craftsmen’s work, in contrast, tended to stay localized. Every town needed metalworkers and carpenters, for example, and their need to deal with customers and sponsors meant that these immigrants rapidly acquired rudimentary knowledge of the English language and American customs.

By 1890, the midwestern and Great Lakes states were becoming industrial powerhouses, and the composition of the immigrant flow changed. More than 18 million migrants were to enter the United States in the next thirty years, a rate double that of earlier times. These immigrants came largely from eastern and southern Europe: from Italy, Slavic areas and other parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, and the Baltic region. They immigrated to find work in factories and mines, and their mores and culture were different enough from those of established inhabitants to arouse suspicion. For example, a low-lying district called Bohemian Flats sprang up in Minneapolis. While it was inhabited by hardworking families, the fact that most residents were Czechs or Slovaks was nearly as suspect as the shantylike houses and frequent floods that predominated there.

During this period too, some unexpected immigrant enclaves developed. In Mississippi, immigrant Italians set up fishing and canning enterprises; others became wholesalers of seafood and imported food items. Into the same area moved Lebanese immigrantsLebanese, who often started as itinerant peddlers and then worked their way up to the ownership of groceries and specialty restaurants. In Arkansas;Chinese immigrantsArkansas, Chinese men were imported as laborers in the cotton fields to serve as replacements for the lost slave labor. When this program did not work out, the Chinese stayed and became grocers despite exclusionary laws aimed at them. Further north, Belgian immigrantsBelgian and Greek workers moved into the Quad Cities area of Iowa, drawn by the many unskilled jobs in the John Deere factory and those in similar Assembly lines;farm machineryassembly-line factories that were part of the new industrial America.

New Patterns and Peoples

World War I drastically slowed the inflow of migrants. Although a certain number of Europeans still came as refugees from the war and its aftermath, its net effect put a lid on mass migration to the Mississippi Valley as well as the rest of the nation. During the early 1920’s, there was a rebound in immigration from the war-torn European countries, but this was cut off by legislation in 1924 that established national quotas and for the first time limited the total number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States. It is notable that the only strong opposition to these measures was in the northeastern states, not the Mississippi Valley, which had also benefited much from immigrants’ contributions. In fact, anti-German sentiment that accompanied the war was intense in the Middle West. It probably sped up the assimilation process in this region for the many residents of German or middle European origin. Because it was no longer acceptable to speak the German language, much less express any solidarity with their (or their ancestors’) homeland, such residents redoubled their efforts to blend into the “melting pot.”

With the Great Depression of the 1930’s, World War II, and the quota system all contributing, the region experienced a dearth of new immigrants for several decades. Those who did come were often the beneficiaries of special provisions based on world events: War brideswar brides in the wake of U.S. servicemen’s wide deployment during World War II and after, or refugees from such events as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Members of the first two groups might end up in Mississippi Valley towns depending on their own personal situation. Although most Cubans settled in Florida, a significant minority found refuge in New Orleans;Cuban immigrantsNew Orleans and the Delta region, relatively close to their Caribbean origins.

Immigration possibilities changed drastically with passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This law repealed the existing quota system and based most immigration decisions, in theory, on family-related or skills-related considerations. Air travel and the automobile had replaced riverboats as a way for immigrants to reach their destination. For the first time, large numbers of migrants came to America’s heartland from Asia and Latin America. These new migrants had a wide variety of work and educational backgrounds. Like native-born Americans, they went where the jobs were.

The Vietnam War;postwar refugeesVietnam War’s aftermath brought thousands of Vietnamese to America. Many found work in the Gulf coast shrimp industry. Others scattered up and down the whole Mississippi Valley, working in various occupations from health care to agricultural processing. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Mexican and Central American immigrants, legal and illegal, moved to midwestern towns. They found work not only in agriculture but also in meatpacking and construction. After Hurricane KatrinaHurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf coast in 2005, Mexican workers were the single largest group involved in reconstruction efforts. Within a few months, the Latino population of New Orleans;Latin American immigrantsNew Orleans soared from 3.1 percent to an estimated 9.6 percent. Most of these new Delta residents were not newly arrived in the United States, but came from other U.S. locations.Mississippi RiverFrontier;and Mississippi River

Further Reading
  • Ambrose, Stephen E., and Douglas G. Brinkley. The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2002. Lavishly illustrated volume written by two distinguished historians. Shows the river as both a channel for commerce and a natural resource. Biographical sketches of many famous immigrants.
  • McDermott, John Francis, ed. Frenchmen and French Ways in the Mississippi Valley. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1969. Studies of the contributions of French explorers and immigrants to the Mississippi region.
  • _______. The Spanish in the Mississippi Valley, 1762-1804. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Papers on the era of Spanish ownership and maximum influence.
  • Massey, Douglas S., ed. New Faces in New Places: The Changing Geography of American Immigration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008. Symposium articles showing how non-Western and Latino immigrants have brought a new diversity to American life since the 1960’s. Includes studies of midwestern and southern destinations.
  • Thornell, John. “Struggle for Identity in the Most Southern Place on Earth: The Chinese in the Mississippi Delta.” Chinese America: History and Perspectives (January, 2003): 63. Scholarly but lively article tracing the survival strategies of the Chinese community from 1870 on.




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National Road

Natural disasters as push-pull factors

Transportation of immigrants

Westward expansion

Categories: History