Who First Explored the Mississippi River?

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Updated: August 7, 2022
© Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com
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The Mississippi River is an iconic water body for multiple reasons. Apart from its huge financial benefits to North America’s economy, it also plays host to a wonderful number of plant and animal species. However, there is even more to the Mississippi. Many people do not know just how intriguing its discoverance story is. Fun fact: the River’s name has been changed many times. This article investigates the origin of the second-longest river in North America. Find out who first explored the Mississippi River.

History of the Mississippi River

The Mississippi River’s name was changed many times in the past.

©Milen Mkv/Shutterstock.com

Although there are quite a number of conflicting reports about who first explored the river, the history books set all confusion straight.


Alonso Álvarez de Piñeda became the first European on record to reach the Mississippi River in 1519. Piñeda was a Spanish cartographer and conquistador. He was the first man to prove the insularity of the Gulf of Mexico– a feat he achieved by sailing around the coastline. This enabled him to draw a map of the Gulf Coast which is still relevant today.

May 8, 1541

Hernando de Soto arrived in the Mississippi on this day. He named it Río del Espíritu Santo which translates to River of the Holy Spirit. Hernando, like Piñeda, was a Spanish conquistador as well as an explorer. Although a painting by popular American artist, William Henry Powell, depicts Hernando de Soto as the first to discover the Mississippi, Alonso Álvarez de Piñeda is the first person on record to have seen the Mississippi.


An unnamed Sioux Indian named the Mississippi “Ne Tongo” which meant Big River in the Sioux language.


Three Frenchmen; René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and Henri de Tonti claimed the river for France and named it the Colbert River. This was done in honor of the La Louisiane region and Jean-Baptiste Colbert.

March 2, 1699

Sieur de La Salle’s death preceded French soldier, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, rediscovering the mouth of the Mississippi River.

The 1700s

In the first decade of the 1700s, French governor D’Iberville named the river “St. Louis River” in honor of the French King, King Louis XIV.

Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette, two French explorers, began to explore the Mississippi sometime in the 17th century.

Marquette undertook his journey around the Mississippi River with the Sioux Indian who had named the Mississippi Ne Tongo years before. His familiarity with the river made him the perfect co-explorer for Marquette. After his exploration, Marquette suggested that the Mississippi be named “River of the Immaculate Conception.” But that clearly didn’t stick.

Louis Jolliet, on the other hand, began to explore the Mississippi valley and had become friendly with several natives. They guided him to a quicker way to get back to French Canada through the Illinois River.


French historian Antoine-Simon le Page du Pratz published an article in which he explained that Native Americans originally called the river “Mechasipi,” or “the ancient father of waters.”

It is unclear exactly how Mechasipi transformed into Mississippi, but it did just that and ever since then, the Mississippi River retained its name.

Who First Explored The Mississippi River?

Jacques Marquette, a French explorer, was the first person to explore the Mississippi River.

©Morphart Creation/Shutterstock.com

Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet are considered to be the first people to explore the Mississippi River. More specifically, Jacques Marquette, a French explorer, was the first person to explore the Mississippi River while Louis Jolliet was the first to explore the Mississippi valley. 

How Large is the Mississippi River?

Mississippi River - New Orleans
The Mississippi River is 2,350 miles long.

©Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

The Mississippi River is 2,350 miles long and flows through 10 states (Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. The river flows at a speed of 1.2 miles per hour.

At its skinniest or slimmest point, the Mississippi River is around 20 to 30 feet wide. However, at its widest (Lake Winnibigoshish), it is more than 58,080 feet (11 miles) wide.

How Deep is the Mississippi River?

The Mississippi River is deepest near Algiers Point in New Orleans. There, its maximum depth is 61 meters (200 feet). Its average depth between Saint Paul and Saint Louis is around 9 to 12 feet (2.7–3.7 m).

When Was the Mississippi River Formed?

It was previously believed that the Mississippi began to flow some 20 million years ago. However, in 2018, Potter-McIntyre and her team presented evidence that disproved this. Potter and her team discovered some zircon fragments from the River in Illinois. 

The age of the fragments allowed the team to safely conclude that the Mississippi is much closer to 70 million years old. Regardless, the Mississippi looks great for its age considering that it was in existence when dinosaurs walked the earth.

How Many Animal Species Are in the Mississippi River?

The Mississippi houses more than 50 mammal species, 45 amphibian species, 241 fish species, and 55 snake species- 6 of which are venomous.

How Many Plant Species Are in the Mississippi River?

The state of Mississippi plays host to more than 2,700 plant species! Among these are 217 nonvascular plants, 11 conifers, 72 ferns and fern allies, as well as over 400 flowering plants.

How Much Does the Mississippi River Make for America Each Year?

The Mississippi River makes about $405,000,000,000 in revenue each year. This is according to  Quad-City Times. It also contributes more than 351,000 jobs to the American economy. Many of Mississippi’s flora and fauna depend on the Mississippi River to live. The river is also a valuable alternative route to many congested transport lines. 

Is the Mississippi River a Source of Drinking Water?

The Mississippi River is a source of drinking water for millions of people. Minneapolis, Crystal, and New Hope cities are just some of the many cities that get drinking water from the Mississippi River. 

Over 18 million Americans get their drinking water from the Mississippi River. Of course, we don’t drink this water directly. It passes through various intake points to water treatment plants. Here, the water is made safe for consumption. Next, the drinkable water is contained in a storage tank and finally, it flows into our homes via our water pipelines.

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Mississippi River - New Orleans
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