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Mississippi Valley

( Originally Published 1851 )



On the Continent of America the works of nature are on a great and extensive scale; and in estimating their magnitude, the mind is actually lost in wonder. When we think of the valley of any river in this country," says an English writer " we have only in view a district of ground measuring at most a hundred miles in length by less than the third of that extent in breadth; but in speaking of the valleys in America, we are called on to remember that they sometimes include a territory fir more extensive than the whole island of Britain." The chief wonder of this description in North America is the valley of the Mississippi, which is the natural drain of the central part of this vast continent, and embraces all that tract of country of which the waters are discharged into the Gulf of Mexico. It is bounded on the north by an elevated country, which divides it from the waters that flow into Hudson's Bay, and the northern Iakes and St. Lawrence; on the east by the table land from whence descend the waters that fall into the Atlantic; and on the west by the Rocky, or Chippewau Mountains, which separate the waters of the Atlantic from those of the Pacific.

This great central vale of America is considered the largest division of the globe, of which the waters pass into one estuar. It extends from the 9th to the 49th degree of north latitude, or about 1400 miles from south to north, while the breadth across is about the same dimensions. To suppose the United States and its territory to be divided into three portions, the arrangement would be the Atlantic slope, the Mississippi basin or valley, and the Pacific slope. A glance on any map of North America will show that this valley includes about two-thirds of the territory of the United State's. The Atlantic slope contains 390,000, the Pacific slope about 300,000, which, combined, are 690,000 square miles; while the valley of the Mississippi contains at least 1,300,000 square miles, or four times as much land as the whole of England. This great vale is divided into two portions, the Upper and Lower Valley, distinguished by particular features, and separated by an imaginary intersecting line at the place where the Ohio pours its waters Into the Mississippi. This large river has many tributaries of first rate propel tions besides the Ohio. The chief is the Missouri, which indeed is the main stream, for it is not only longer and larger, but drains a greater extent of country. Its length is computed at 1870 miles, and upon a particular course 3000 miles. In its appearance it is turbid, violent, and rapid, while the Mississippi, above its junction with the Missouri, is clear, with a gentle current. At St. Charles, 20 miles from its entrance into the Mississippi, the Missouri measures from five to six hundred yards across, though its depth is only a few fathoms.

The Mississippi Proper takes its rise in Cedar Lake, in the 47th degree of north latitude. From this to the Falls of St. Anthony, a distance of five hundred miles, it runs in a devious course, first southeast, then southwest, and, finally, southeast again; which last it continues, without much deviation, till it reaches the Missouri, the waters of which strike it at right angles, and throw the cur-rent of the Mississippi entirely upon the eastern side. The prominent branch of the Upper Mississippi is the St. Peter's, which rises in the great prairies in the northwest, and enters the parent stream a little below the Falls of St. Anthony. The Kaskaskia next joins it, after a course of 200 miles. In the 36th degree of north latitude, the Ohio (formed by the junction of the Alleghany and Monongahela) pours in its tribute, after pursuing a course of 750 miles, and draining about 200,000 square miles of country. A little below the 34th degree the White River enters, after a course of more than 1000 miles. Thirty miles below that, the Arkansas, bringing in its tribute from the confines of Mexico, pours in its waters. Its last great tributary is Red River, a stream taking its rise in the Mexican dominions, and flowing a course of more than 2000 miles.

Hitherto the waters in the wide regions of the west have been congregating to one point. The " Father of Waters" is now upwards of a mile in width, and several fathoms deep. During its annual floods it overflows its banks below the mouth of the Ohio, and sometimes extends thirty and forty miles into the interior, laying the prairies, bottoms, swamps, and other low grounds under water for a season. After receiving Red River, this vast stream is unable to continue in one channel; it parts into separate courses, and, like the Nile, finds its way to the ocean at different and distant points.

The capabilities of the Mississippi for purposes of trade are almost beyond calculation, and are hardly yet developed. For thousands of years this magnificent American river rolled its placid and undisturbed waters amidst widely-spreading forests, rich green prairies, and swelling mountain scenery, ornamented with the ever-varying tints of nature in its wildest mood, unnoticed save by the wandering savage of the west, or the animals which browse upon its banks. At length it came under the observation of civilized men, and now has begun to con-tribute to their wants and wishes. Every part of the vast region irrigated by the main stream and its tributaries can be penetrated by steam-boats and other water craft; nor is there a spot in all this wide territory, excepting a small district in the plains of Upper Missouri, that is more than one hundred miles from some navigable water. A boat may take in its lading on the banks of the Chatauque Lake, in the state of New York, another may receive its cargo in the interior of Virginia, a third may start from the Rice Lakes at the head of the Mississippi and a fourth may come laden with furs from the Chippewau Mountains, 2800 miles up the Missouri and all meet at the mouth of the Ohio, and proceed in company to the ocean.

Within the last twenty-four years, the Mississippi, with the Ohio, and its other large tributaries, have been covered with steam-boats and barges of every kind, and populous cities have sprung up on their banks. There are now sea-ports at the centre of the American continent trading towns, each already doing more business than some half dozen celebrated ports in the Old World, with all the protection which restrictive enactments and traditional importance can confer upon them.

The valley of the Mississippi, one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, will one day possess and comfortably sustain a population nearly as great as that of all Europe. Let its inhabitants become equally dense with England, including Wales, which contains 207 to the square mile, and its numbers will amount to 179,400,000. But let it become equal to the Netherlands, which its fertility would warrant and its surface will sustain a population of two hundred millions. What reflections ought this view to present to the philanthropist and the Christian!

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