The Mighty Mississippi

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“The Mississippi River towns are comely, clean, well built, and pleasing to the eye, and cheering to the spirit. The Mississippi Valley is as reposeful as a dreamland, nothing worldly about it…nothing to hang a fret or a worry upon.”

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

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An “Admiral’s Map” in the Royal Library at Madrid, Spain, thought to have been engraved in 1507,  names a mouth of a river “The River of Palms.”   This seemingly immaterial detail implies that Christopher Columbus may have been the first European to see the mighty Mississippi. Since this remains unconfirmed, the acclaim goes to a Spanish conquistador, Hernando de Soto, who documented his first view of the Mississippi from the vantage point just below present-day Memphis, Tennessee.

Hernando de Soto, was incredibly rich, having shared in the Inca treasure along with others who joined Francisco Pizarro in the 1530’s.  He was convinced, however, that there was more gold, glory and the discovery of the fabled sea passage to China waiting for him in the unexplored territories. He organised the biggest of the early Spanish exploratory expeditions that ranged across the south-eastern quadrant of the United States.   The journey was fraught with danger and extreme hardship.  In 1541, the expedition reached the Mississippi River.  Hernando de Soto’s elation was short-lived for in May 1542, he died of fever.   The name he had given his beloved river was Río del Espíritu Santo (River of the Holy Spirit).

The name “Mississippi” came from the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe or Algonquin) Misi-ziibi name for Great River. And it lives up to its name. The Mississippi River, divided into Upper, Middle and Lower, is the largest river system in all of North America traveling more that 3,734 kilometres, beginning at its source at Lake Itasca, Minnesota to its mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. Its river basin is 2,981,076 square kilometres; its watershed drains all or parts of 31 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces that lay between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains.

Over the years, the Mississippi has been transferred between nations through various treaties and purchases.  Even so, it flows as it did for the First Nation peoples that lived along its banks long before the arrival of Europeans.

“The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise…”
Mark Twain, In Eruption

The Man Who Named Canada

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We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” 
 Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

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Anyone who studies Canadian history will know the name Jacques Cartier.

Jacques Cartier was a Breton who was known for his expertise in navigation and cartography.  He had a grand aspiration to find the legendary North-West passage, the sea route around North American that would enable Europeans to trade directly with China.   His persuasive skills convinced King Francis I of France to agree to his ambitious plan.  In April 1534, Jacques Cartier left the port of St. Malo, his hometown, on what was the first of three voyages.   Twenty days later, he sighted Newfoundland, which was the beginning of his detailed exploration of the coastline of what is now known as the Gulf of the St. Lawrence.

The next year, on the second voyage Jacque Cartier entered the river on August 10, the feast of St. Lawrence. He named it, fleuve Saint-Laurent.  To the Tuscarora nation the river was Kahnawáʼkye; and to the Mohawk nation it was Kaniatarowanenneh, names that signified “big waterway.”  The St. Lawrence River is 1,197 kilometres in length with a basin of 1,344,200 square kilometres. It is the outflow for the entire Great Lakes system, which holds approximately 20% of the world’s fresh water.  The river’s extensive coastal wetlands provide a paradise for wildlife.

Jacque Cartier may not have found the North-West passage, but his carefully planned and mapped exploration gave a clear understanding of the land complexities of eastern Canada.  He gave names to Quebec City, Montreal and the Lachine Rapids.  And he named the land “The Country of Canadas,” originating from a First Nations word kanata for “village.”

“Our hopes are high. Our faith in the people is great. Our courage is strong. And our dreams for this beautiful country will never die.”
Pierre Trudeau