14,000 Years Ago, the Mississippi River Started to Form — Here’s What Happened Next

Lake Pepin
© iStock.com/juliannafunk

Written by Megan Martin

Updated: September 12, 2023

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Have you ever wondered how the Mississippi River started to form? It’s actually a long story, one dating back millions of years ago. Seventy million years ago, to be exact. However, while the river has been forming for millions of years, the Mississippi River as we know it can be traced back to a more recent time, around 14,000 years ago.

Ready to learn more about the formation of the Mississippi River? Keep reading!

The Formation of the Mississippi River

To learn more about how the Mississippi River formed 14,000 years ago, you’ll need to learn exactly what happened at this time. You see, every river has what is known as headwaters. This is a lake or other body of water that forms and then eventually feeds the river. For the Mississippi River, you can find its headwaters at Lake Itasca, which formed 14,000 years ago.

The Mississippi River is the most famous river in the United States and has a long history.


Lake Itasca and the Laurentide Ice Sheet

Further north, Lake Itasca was formed by glacial activity around 14,000 years ago, leading to the formation of the Mississippi River. During this time, glacial activity was common. However, this glacier was unlike any other.

The Laurentide Ice Sheet is the glacial ice body responsible for Lake Itasca. It’s also incredibly fascinating. The Laurentide Ice Sheet was a large sheet of ice that covered millions of square miles. From covering most of Canada to a majority of the northernmost parts of the United States, it was one of the largest ice sheets of the time. As the temperature shifted and changed, so did the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which resulted in a new topography for North America. In fact, the Laurentide Ice Sheet is responsible for many of the bodies of water you know today, including the Great Lakes

14,000 years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet moved north, changing the land and leaving behind water as parts of it melted. The water eventually filled the craters left in the glacier’s wake to form what we now know as Lake Itasca. 

While it took some time, Lake Itasca began to function as any other lake would. It formed relationships with other nearby lakes, such as Elk Lake. Rain would fall and fill hollow areas left by the retreating glaciers. Thus, with all of these factors coming together, the Mississippi River was born through the formation of a healthy river basin and headwaters created by the Laurentide Ice Sheet. 

lake itasca 2

Lake Itasca is the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

©Tomaz Kunst/Shutterstock.com

Is the Mississippi River Still Changing Today?

Like many parts of nature, the Mississippi River is always changing. As the river flows, it moves sediments and soil from one area to a new area. This works to create a distinct winding shape that changes through time.

Human influence has also changed the Mississippi River. The extensive levee system in the south and the dams throughout its course actively changed the Mississippi River. Although some changes help our communities grow and thrive, we must regulate our influence on the Mississippi. After all, the river has spent 14,000 years becoming the marvel it is today, and we should protect it!

Mississippi River - New Orleans

The Mississippi River is always changing.

©Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Megan is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is birds, felines, and sharks. She has been researching and writing about animals for four years, and she holds a Bachelor of Arts in English with minors in biology and professional and technical writing from Wingate University, which she earned in 2022. A resident of North Carolina, Megan is an avid birdwatcher that enjoys spending time with her cats and exploring local zoological parks with her husband.

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