Skip to Content

Who Owns the Mississippi River?

It’s nearly impossible to get to the wild west without crossing the Mississippi River. It was one of the many challenges settlers faced as they headed west to discover the massive lands that were relatively unknown. It’s an enormous river that passes through 10 states in the center of the United States before dumping into the Gulf of Mexico. With so many connections to different states, who owns the Mississippi River?

Let’s dive in and find out!

About the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River runs 2,340 miles from Minnesota’s Lake Itasca to New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Gulf of Mexico. While it’s a massive river, it’s not the longest in the United States. It’s approximately 100 miles shorter than the Missouri River, which takes the crown for the longest US river.

While the river is a couple of thousand miles long, it’s often divided into upper, middle, and lower divisions. The Upper Mississippi runs from the headwaters in Minnesota to St. Louis, Mo., where the river combines with the Missouri River. These two massive rivers merge to form the Middle Mississippi. They flow for approximately 190 miles until they reach the Ohio River in Cairo, Ill., and the Lower Mississippi division begins. The final division runs from Cairo until it drains into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Who Owns the Mississippi River?

The Mississippi River has played a significant role for thousands of years. There’s evidence that indigenous people settled along its banks thousands of years ago. Those in the area created shelters and established systems to thrive in the environment. The river served as a food source and a major trade route for maize, beans, and squash between the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes.

Europeans began exploring the area in the early 1500s. Alonso Alvarez de Pineda and Hernando de Soto were some of the first Europeans to venture up the river and explore. Over the next couple of hundred years, explorers traveled up and down the waters.

It wasn’t until 1682 that Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and Henri de Tonti proclaimed that the entire Mississippi River valley belonged to France. In 1699, the French built a small fort, La Balise, near the mouth of the Mississippi to control access to the passage. 

The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, which gave Great Britain and citizens of the United States permission to navigate the river. This was just one of many treaties signed between countries regarding this area. However, in 1803 the United States and France signed the Louisiana Purchase, which gave the United States of America complete control and ownership of the land.

Pro Tip: Before you dive into the Mississippi, find out Is It Safe to Swim in the Mississippi River?

Sunset over the Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is one of the most influential rivers in the U.S.

Who Is in Charge of the Mississippi River Today?

In 1879, congress created the Mississippi River Commission. According to their website, their purpose was “improve the condition of the Mississippi River, foster navigation, promote commerce, and prevent destructive floods.” 

The individual states use their Department of Natural Resources to enforce rules and regulations for recreation and commercial use of the waters within their borders. You must familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations specific to the state.

How Valuable Is the Mississippi River?

The Mississippi River has been a valuable resource for humans for thousands of years. Today, it provides opportunities for tourism, recreation, and fishing. Some estimate that these activities on the Mississippi River generate $21.4 billion in revenue annually.

However, it’s also important to consider its value for shipping. The commercial industries heavily use the river for transporting bulk items like petroleum, coal, iron, steel, and much more. It’s responsible for shipping 60% of the grain, 20% of the coal, and 22% of oil and gas for the United States. To say that the Mississippi River is incredibly valuable to our economy is an understatement.

How Far Up the Mississippi Can Ships Go?

How far a ship can travel up the Mississippi River depends on its size. Smaller ships and tugboats can travel as far north as Minneapolis, Minn. However, most cargo ships typically can only venture as far north as Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

Low bridges and shallow waters north of this point make it very challenging or impossible for ships to travel further north than this.

Boys walking into Mississippi River
Many Americans enjoying boating and swimming in the Mississippi River.

How Much of the US Is Drained by the Mississippi?

The Mississippi River drains approximately 41% of the U.S. water. This is primarily because the river combines with major rivers like the Missouri and Ohio rivers. The Mississippi River basin covers 31 states, two Canadian provinces, and 1.24 million square miles. The waters from the Mississippi River drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

Why Is the Mississippi River So Dirty?

Agricultural runoff is one of the biggest reasons the Mississippi River is so dirty. A large chunk of the Mississippi River basin includes the Midwest, which plays a massive role in agricultural production in the U.S. Chemicals used in varying capacities eventually find their way into the river. However, pollution isn’t the only reason the river appears the way it does.

The Mississippi River contains an abundance of sediments that create a brownish hue in the waters. These sediments often include particles of sand, clay, silt, and many other materials that find their way into the river.

Pro Tip: While exploring the Mississippi River, make sure to keep an eye out for these Most Dangerous Creatures in the Mississippi River.

Can You Explore the Mississippi on a River Boat? 

There are hundreds of people who embark on an adventure to explore the Mississippi River in its entirety. You’ll find people traveling down the river on homemade boats, yachts, and everything in between. However, while it’s primarily only offered in the Lower Mississippi, river cruises are also available. So there are plenty of options available for exploring the Mississippi River.

Whatever option you choose, take time to appreciate the tremendous value that this river provides to us. Do your part to protect this vital part of our environment.

Discover the Best Free Camping Across the USA

To be honest with you, we hate paying for camping. There are so many free campsites in America (with complete privacy).

You should give it a try!

As a matter of fact, these free campsites are yours. Every time you pay federal taxes, you’re contributing to these lands.

Become a FREE CAMPING INSIDER and join the 100,000 campers that love to score the best site! 

We’ll send you the 50 Best Free Campsites in the USA (one per state). Access the list by submitting your email below: