The early explorers were taken over America by Indian guides. The Indian introduced them to the wonders of the New World, the rivers, lakes and mountains. It was natural for the explorers to learn the Indian names for the places they found. In many cases, those pleasant sounding Indian names have stayed with us. The sounds were sometimes changed a little so that our tongues could pronounce them. But very often the names and their meanings can still be traced back to the Indian languages from which they came.
The map of North America is covered with these re‑modeled Indian place names. Huron, Erie, Ontario, Michigan ‑ Wyoming, Iowa, Dakota, Ohio have become familiar to our ears and our tongues. But the people of Europe still find them strange sounding names. They would find the meanings of them as beautiful as they are strange. For the Indians liked to convey a description of a place with its name.
The great Mississippi river was given one of these Indian picture names, most likely by the Ojibway Indians. For we can trace back its origin to their language. Originally the word was Miaisipi from two words in the Ojibway language. Misi meant big and sipi meant river ‑ a very suitable name for one of the world’s biggest rivers. Some people say the original word also meant Father of Waters. This description is also sound, for the big river and its branches drains two fifths of the United States.
The Big River is born among the countless crystal clear lakes of Minnesota. The waters of Lake Itaska and several other small lakes trickle together to form its source in the northwest part of the state. The baby river is but two feet deep and ten feet wide. Its clear waters gallop northward, gurgling over the stones and winding this way and that. Soon it turns south and flows by Minneapolis, now a river 1200 feet wide.
Other streams join to swell the Father of Waters on its southward journey , just north of St. Louis it is joined by tie Missouri, a mighty river in its own right. It has come all the way from the Rockies of Montana and is already more than twice as long as the, upper Mississippi. The early explorers did not know this. Otherwise they would have seen that/Big River was really the Missouri and the Mississippi merely one of its many large tributaries. In that case, the united streams would have, been called the: Missouri river from St. Louis and all the rest of the way to theGulf of Mexico.
Perhaps this was all for the best. For the Missouri has an Indian name also, a name which gives a picture of what the Indians thought of it. The word Missouri means Big Muddy ‑ and no one can say that the Indians were unfair about this. The mighty Missouri bears a load of red mud. When it joins the Mississippi, its muddy waters run side by side with the clear stream of Mississippi for many miles. Soon the streams mingle and the great river has a muddy character from here to the sea.
If we had a choice, we would still call the main river the Mississippi, the Big River, Father of Waters rather than the Missouri, Big Muddy. Measured from the source of the Missouri, which is the proper start of the huge waterway, the Big River is 3,872 miles long. It is about the same length as the Nile and the Amazon and hence one of the longest rivers in the world.