Humble Mississippi

Most everyone has an awareness of the Mississippi River no matter their cultural background or geographic familiarity. It would be like never hearing about the Amazon or the Nile. The Mississippi is one of the great rivers of the world and it drains a huge North American watershed. It’s a fixture. I’ve enjoyed this natural wonder many times over the years including an entire vacation that I focused specifically upon the Upper-Midwest portion of the Great River Road. It certainly earned the honorific "Mighty" Mississippi.

Mississippi watershed map 1
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license

Except this article isn’t about the Mighty Mississippi.

Certainly it’s about the Mississippi River, albeit a more humble, demure Mississippi River. It’s the one in Canada, and I don’t mean the small portions of Alberta and Saskatchewan that fall within the massive footprint of the famous one. I mean the Mississippi River in Ontario, near Ottawa.

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This version of the Mississippi River flows around 200 kilometres (120 miles) to drain much of the wetlands and lakes southwest of Ottawa. I’ve chosen to highlight only the final segment before it spills into the Ottawa River in the map because it’s too small to view easily beyond that. It’s quite a pretty river from reports I read, with stands of deciduous forests just beyond the edge of the Carolinian Zone. The river supports lots of outdoor activities such as canoeing, kayaking and fishing. The watershed sounded like a rather pleasant place as the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists described it. I wouldn’t mind seeing it in person someday.

Mississippi Mills is a primary community within the basin, a name reflecting longer than a century of textile milling powered by the river. The factories closed their doors only in recent times. The town is new, however. As Lanark County explains, "The former Town of Almonte joined with the townships of Pakenham and Ramsay to form the new Town of Mississippi Mills" in 1998. It has a population of about 12,000 residents in "a diverse community of rural and small town interests covering over 500 square kilometres." One might think of it as an exurb of Ottawa, a 40 minute drive away.

Nobody knows for certain how this tributary of a much larger river became known as the Mississippi. It doesn’t make sense. One popular theory postulates that the name may have derived from an unrelated Algonquian phrase that sounded similar to Mississippi. Over time it morphed into a form that reflected the spelling of the famous river flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s as plausible as any other explanation I suppose.

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The former town of Almonte, at the heart of Mississippi Mills, honors a Mexican general. This unusual designation created another odd twist to place name selections within the area. Lanark County explained,

The former Town of Almonte was named after General Juan Almonte, a Mexican soldier and diplomat. Lauded as a ‘kindly and accomplished gentlemen’ he was venerated by a group of British residents in the late 1800’s.

That seems to be a bit of revisionist history.

The inhabitants of Almonte provided a different slant. Juan Almonte was a thorn in the side of the United States in the 1850’s, the years immediately following the Mexican war. Residents named their town after Almonte because of lingering hard feelings and distrust in the decades following the War of 1812. The United States continued to be viewed as antagonistic as it expand its borders during the Nineteenth Century. The naming of a town to recognize a Mexican general was meant as a poke-in-the-eye to the United States.

Pakenham 5 Arched Stone Bridge
SOURCE: ActiveSteve on Flickr, via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

Pakenham township was another area absorbed within newly-created Mississippi Mills. People seemed justifiably proud of their local bridge with five masonry arches spanning the Mississippi River. It’s reputed to be the only structure of its type in North America according to numerous Intertubes claims that I cannot verify. It’s quite striking although that’s not why I highlighted the former township.

Let’s roll the clock back to the War of 1812 again. General Edward Pakenham apparently stopped here briefly during the war. That was enough of a physical connection to name a town along the Mississippi River for him.

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Pakenham was the commanding British general at Battle of New Orleans in 1815, a decisive United States victory even though combatants hadn’t heard that a peace treaty had already been negotiated. Pakenham died in battle (as depicted in a well-known engraving) after being struck by grapeshot from a U.S. artillery position.

Here’s the final irony or indignity depending on how one might wish to view it: Pakenham died along the banks of the Mississippi River. The one in the United States. That’s a nice little poke-in-the-eye in return for all of that Almonte business.

There is another Mississippi River in Ontario called the Little Mississippi to avoid confusing it with all of the others (map). That would make it a third-tier Mississippi. I don’t know much more about it other than it exists.

2 Replies to “Humble Mississippi”

  1. I was looking around Mississippi Mills’ site, went to the list of the city officials, and saw to my extreme surprise that all of them, even the mayor, listed their home and cell phone numbers right for everyone to see. That would be inconceivable in the United States.

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