Missouri River is the longest river in the
United States of
America and is a tributary of the
Missouri likely originates at Brower's Spring at the upper reaches of the Jefferson River, before joining the
confluence of the Madison, Jefferson,
and Gallatin rivers in Montana.
point, it flows through its
valley south and east into the Mississippi north of St. Louis,
At in length, it drains about one-sixth of
the continental United States. The Missouri in its original natural
meandering state was the longest river in North America. Nearly of
the river have been cut off in channeling, and so it is now
comparable in length to the Mississippi River. The combination of
the two longest rivers in North America forms the fourth longest river
At its confluence, the Missouri nearly doubles the volume of the
Mississippi, accounting for 45% of the flow at St. Louis in normal
times and as much as 70% of the flow during some droughts. It is
the second-largest tributary by volume of the Mississippi, trailing
headwaters of the Missouri are in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Montana,
near the small town of Three Forks, rising in the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin
rivers. The longest headwaters stream, and thus the
Missouri's hydrologic source, likely
begins at Brower's
Spring, which flows to the Jefferson by way of several
other named streams. From the confluence of its main tributaries
near Three Forks, the Missouri flows north through mountainous
canyons, emerging from the mountains near Great
Falls, where a large
cataract historically marked the navigable limit of the
river. It flows east across the plains of Montana
Dakota, then turns southeast, flowing into South Dakota, and along the north and eastern edge of Nebraska, forming part of its border with South Dakota and
all of its border with Iowa, flowing
City and Omaha.
the entire boundary between Nebraska and Missouri and part of the boundary between Missouri and
Kansas. At Kansas City, it turns generally eastward, flowing across
Missouri where it joins the Mississippi just north of St.
extensive system of tributaries drain nearly all the semi-arid
Plains of the United States. Small portions of
southern Alberta, Canada, and
southwestern Saskatchewan are also drained by the river through its
tributary, the Milk
Another separate area in southern Saskatchewan is
drained by another Missouri tributary, the Poplar River
The river roughly follows the edge of the glaciation during the
last ice age
. Most of the river's longer
tributaries stretch away from this edge, with their origins towards
the west, draining portions of the eastern Rockies.
Missouri in name officially begins at Missouri
Headwaters State Park at in Montana at the confluence of the Jefferson
River and Madison River.
The Gallatin River joins the river
about 0.6 mile downstream as it flows northeast. The Jefferson
River originates in southwest Montana near the Continental Divide
Madison and Gallatin rivers flow out of northwest Wyoming to meet the Jefferson River.
in his journal
entry on July 28, 1805 wrote:
- Both Capt. C. and myself corresponded in opinon with
rispect(sic) to the impropriety of calling either of these [three]
streams the Missouri and accordingly agreed to name them after the
President of the United States and the Secretaries of the Treasury
The Lewis and Clark decision not to call the Jefferson the Missouri
has spurred debate over what is the longest river in North America
since the Missouri and Mississippi are nearly identical in length.
With the Jefferson the Missouri would be the longest river.
(who had followed the Jefferson River to the Beaverhead River) said
that on August 12, 1805, he visited Beaverhead tributary of Trail
Creek just above Lemhi
Pass on the Continental
Divide in the Beaverhead Mountains on the Montana and Idaho border at
around which he described:
- the most distant fountain of the waters of the mighty Missouri
in surch(sic) of which we have spent so many toilsome days and
However in 1888 Jacob V.
Brower, who had championed turning the
headwaters of the Mississippi River into a Minnesota state park,
visited a site in Montana which today is believed to be the
furthest point on the Missouri -- now called Brower's
Brower published his finding in 1896 in
"The Missouri: Its Utmost Source."
The site of Brower's Spring lies at around in the Centennial Mountains
. The site is now
commemorated by a rock pile at the source of Hellroaring Creek
which flows into Red Rock River and then into Clark Canyon
Reservoir where it joins the Beaverhead then the Big Hole River
before ultimately hooking up with the Jefferson.
In Montana, the river is a Class I water from Three Forks to the
North Dakota border for the purposes of public access for
The Missouri enters the Upper
near its mile 195. The elevation is
approximately . The confluence is ringed by Camp Dubois which is now part of Lewis and Clark
State Memorial Park in Illinois; Columbia Bottom Conservation
Area on the south bank of the Missouri in St. Louis and on the
north bank of the Missouri by the Edward "Ted"
and Pat Jones-Confluence Point State Park in West Alton,
The river is nicknamed "Big Muddy" and also "Dark River" because of
the high silt
content. The river meanders from
to bluff in the flat Midwestern states,
leading to the nickname the "Wide Missouri".
The popular but erroneous conception that the name means "muddy
water" arose from the fact that Jacques Marquette
gave it the indigenous
name "Pekitanoui" meaning "muddy".
The state of Missouri is named after the Missouri River which in
turn is named after the Siouan
), means "those who
have dugout canoes
". The etymology lies behind
's tribute song, "River of the Big Canoes".
The river has also been known as: Big River, Big Muddy, Emasulia
sipiwi, Eomitai, Katapan Mene Shoska, Le Riviere des Missouri, Mini
Sose, Missoury River, Ni-sho-dse, Nudarcha, Rio Misuri, Riviere de
Pekitanoni, Riviere de Saint Philippe, Le Missouri, Le Riviere des
Osages, Missures Flu, Miz-zou-rye River, Niutaci, Pekitanoui, River
of the West, Yellow River.
Jolliet and Marquette
Europeans to see the river were the French explorers
Louis Jolliet and Jacques Marquette who shortly after
looking at the Piasa petroglyph painting on the bluffs of Mississippi River above Alton,
Illinois heard the
Missouri rushing into the Mississippi.
- While conversing about these monsters sailing quietly in clear
and calm water, we heard the noise of a rapid into which we were
about to run. I never saw anything more terrific, a tangle of
entire trees from the mouth of the Pekistanoui with such
impetuosity that one could not attempt to cross it without great
danger. The commotion was such that the water was made muddy by it
and could not clear itself.
- Pekitanoui is a river of considerable size, coming from the
northwest, from a great distance; and it discharges into the
Mississippi. There are many villages of savages along this river,
and I hope by this means to discover the Vermillion or California
wrote that natives had told him that it was just a six day canoe
trip up the river (about 60 miles) where it would be possible to
portage over to another river that would take people to California.
Jolliet and Marquette never explored the
Missouri beyond its mouth.
The Missouri remained formally unexplored and uncharted until
Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont
wrote "Exact Description of
Louisiana, of Its Harbors, Lands and Rivers, and Names of the
Indian Tribes That Occupy It, and the Commerce and Advantages to Be
Derived Therefrom for the Establishment of a Colony" in 1713
followed in 1714 by "The Route to Be Taken to Ascend the Missouri
River." In the two documents Bourgmont was the first to use the
name "Missouri" to refer to the river (and he was to name many of
the tributaries along the river based on the Native American tribes
that lived along them). The names and locations were used by
cartographer Guillaume Delisle
create the first reasonably accurate map of the river.
Bourgmont was living with the Missouri tribe at its Brunswick
village with his Missouri wife and son. He had been on the lam
from French authorities since 1706
when he deserted his post as commandant of Fort Detroit
after he was criticized by
Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac
for his handling of an
attack by the Ottawa tribe
in which a
priest, a French sergeant and 30 Ottawa were killed. Bourgmont had
further infuriated the French by illegally trapping and for immoral
behavior when he showed up at French outposts with his Native
However after Bourgmont's two documents, Jean-Baptiste Le
Moyne, Sieur de Bienville
, founder of Louisiana, said that
rather than arresting Bourgmont they should decorate him with
Cross of St. Louis
and name him
"commandant of the Missouri" to represent France on the entire
river. Bourgmont's reputation was further enhanced
when the Pawnee, who had been befriended by
Bourgmont, massacred the Spanish Villasur expedition in 1720 near modern
Nebraska, which temporarily ended Spanish designs on the
Missouri River and cleared the way for a New
France empire stretching from Montreal, Canada to New
After squabbling with French authorities over financing of a new
fort on the Missouri and also suffering a yearlong illness,
Bourgmont established Fort Orleans
which was the first fort and first longer term European settlement
of any kind on the Missouri, in late 1723 near his home at
Brunswick. In 1724 Bourgmont led an expedition to enlist Comanche
support in the fight against the Spanish.
Bourgmont brought the chiefs of the Missouri River tribes to
Paris to see the glory of France including the palaces of
Versailles, and Fountainbleau and a hunting expedition on a royal preserve with
Bourgmont was raised to
the rank of the nobility, remained in France and did not accompany
the chiefs back to the New World. Fort Orleans was either abandoned
or its small contingent was massacred by Native Americans in
It is unclear how far up the Missouri Bourgmont traveled. He is the
documented first European discoverer of the Platte River
. In his writings he described the
, so it is possible that
he made it as far north as their villages in central North
MacKay and Evans
The Spanish took over the Missouri River in the Treaty of Paris
that ended the
French and Indian War
/Seven Years War
. The Spanish claim to the
Missouri was based on Hernando de Soto's
of the Mississippi River on May 8, 1541. The Spanish initially did
not extensively explore the river and let French fur traders
continue their activities although under license.
After the British began to exert influence on the Upper Missouri
River via the Hudson's Bay
, news of English incursions came following an
expedition by Jacques D’Eglise in 1790. The Spanish chartered the
"Company of Discoverers and Explorers of the Missouri" (popularly
referred to as the "Missouri Company") and offered a reward for the
first person to reach the Pacific via the Missouri. In 1794 and
1795 expeditions led by Jean Baptiste Truteau and Antoine Simon
Lecuyer de la Jonchšre did not even make it as far north as the
Mandan villages in central North Dakota.
The most significant expedition though was the MacKay and Evans Expedition
MacKay and John Evans were
hired by the Spanish to search a route to the Pacific Ocean and to tell the British to leave the upper
Evans established a winter camp about south of Sioux City,
Iowa, on the Nebraska side where they built Fort
Evans went on to the Mandan village where he
expelled British traders. While talking to Native Americans they
pinpointed the location of the Yellowstone River
(which they called
They created a detailed map of the upper Missouri that was used by
Lewis and Clark
Lewis and Clark
On October 27, 1795, the United States and Spain signed Pinckney's Treaty
merchants the "right of deposit" in New Orleans, meaning they could
use the port to store goods for export. The treaty also recognized
American rights to navigate the entire Mississippi River. In 1798
Spain revoked the treaty.
On October 1, 1800, the Spanish secretly returned Louisiana to the
French under Napoleon
in the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso
The transfer was so secret that the Spanish continued to administer
the territory. In 1801 they restored the United States rights to
use the river and New Orleans.
, fearing the
cutoffs could occur again, sought to negotiate with France to buy
New Orleans for $10 million. Napoleon countered with an offer of
$15 million for all of the Louisiana Territory including the
Missouri River. The deal was signed on May 2, 1803.
On June 20, 1803, Thomas Jefferson
instructed Meriwether Lewis
explore the Missouri and look for a water route to the
Although the deal was signed, Spain still balked at an American
takeover, citing that France had never formally taken over the
Louisiana Territory. Spain was to formally tell Lewis not to take
the journey and expressly forbade Lewis from seeing the McKay and
Evans map which was the most detailed and accurate of its time.
Lewis gained access to it surreptitiously. To avoid jurisdictional
issues with Spain they wintered in 1803-1804 at Camp Dubois
on the Illinois (United States) side
of the Mississippi.
Lewis and William Clark
left on May 14, 1804 and returned to St. Louis on September 23,
defined the American frontier in the 19th century, particularly
downstream from Kansas City, Missouri, where it takes a sharp eastern turn into the heart
of the state of Missouri.
Karl Bodmer "Fort Pierre and the
Adjacent Prairie", c.
All of the major trails for the opening of the American West have
their starting points on the river, including the California
trails. The first westward
leg of the Pony Express
was a ferry
ride across the Missouri at St.
. The first westward leg of the First Transcontinental
Railroad was a ferry ride across the Missouri between Council
Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska.
The Hannibal Bridge
was the first
bridge to cross the river when it opened in Kansas City in 1869 and
was a major reason why Kansas City became the largest city on the
river upstream from its mouth at St. Louis.Extensive use of
paddle steamers on the upper river
helped facilitate European settlement of the Dakotas and Montana.The Department of the Missouri, which
was headquartered on the banks of the river at Fort
Leavenworth, Kansas, was the military command center for the Indian Wars in the region.The northernmost
navigable point on the Missouri before extensive navigation
improvements was Fort Benton, Montana, at approximately 2,620 feet.
lower river meanders through a broad floodplain in Midwestern
states, it has often changed course and in its wake left numerous
oxbow lakes (Big
Lake is the largest such lake in Missouri).
early 19th century the United States Supreme Court (which decides state border disputes) ruled that
when the river changed course the border also changed (as happened
with the Fairfax
District at Kansas City,
Kansas which switched from Missouri to Kansas.) However,
in the late 19th century the Court began ruling on absolute
boundaries, creating geographic oddities such as Carter Lake,
Iowa, which is now a piece of Iowa on the west side of
the Missouri between downtown Omaha and Eppley Airfield, and the French Bottoms in St. Joseph,
Missouri, a piece of Missouri on the west of the river,
requiring Missouri residents to go through Kansas to reach
In the 20th century, the upper Missouri was extensively dammed for
, and hydroelectric power
. After President
Franklin D. Roosevelt
signed the Flood Control Act of 1944
turned the Missouri
River into the largest reservoir system in North America.
six dams in four states: Fort Peck Dam in Montana; Garrison Dam in North Dakota; Oahe Dam, Big Bend
Dam, and Fort Randall
Dam in South Dakota; and Gavins Point Dam on the South Dakota-Nebraska border.
Ak-sar-ben Toll Bridge between Iowa
and Nebraska in November, 1938.
This was the first road bridge over the Missouri.
These dams were constructed without lock
so commercial navigation on the Missouri cannot proceed above the
Gavins Point Dam. The United States Army Corps
of Engineers maintains a 9-foot-deep (3 m) navigation channel
for 735 miles (1183 km) between Sioux City, Iowa and St. Louis in non-winter months.
The dams aid
navigation on the lower river by reducing fluctuations in water
Thirty-five percent of the Missouri River is impounded, thirty-two
percent has been channelized, and thirty-three percent is
unchannelized.The only significant stretch of free-flowing
stream on the lower Missouri is the Missouri
National Recreational River section between Gavins Point Dam and Ponca State Park, Nebraska.
This federally-designated "Wild and Scenic River
" is among the
last unspoiled stretches of the Missouri, and exhibits the islands,
bars, chutes and snags that once characterized the river.
The dikes, revetments, and levees constructed by the Corps of
Engineers as part of the Missouri River Navigation and Flood
Control Project have transformed the once sprawling and constantly
changing river into a narrower, deeper, fixed channel designed to
more easily maintain the navigation channel. The river carries a
large amount of silt and sand, but high water velocity in the
navigation channel normally prevents settling out and sand bar
accumulations. As a result, unlike the Mississippi River, the
Missouri River rarely requires dredging to maintain the navigation
channel. The huge amounts of sediment in the Big Muddy have long
provided a free source of sand, mined by commercial dredgers to be
used in concrete and asphalt for construction, mainly below Rulo,
Nebraska. In recent years, the quantity of sand commercially
dredged from the Missouri River has dramatically increased as
Kansas City, Columbia, and St. Louis have grown. In 2000, 7.4
million tons of sand and gravel were dredged out of the navigation
channel. As commercial sand dredging has increased, the Missouri
River bed has gradually cut deeper into the flood plain. Between
1990 and 2005 the river around Kansas City, Missouri, has degraded
as much as .
Barge traffic has been steadily declining from 3.3 million tons in
1977 to 1.3 million tons in 2000. The declining barge traffic
industry has stirred controversies over the management of the river
and whether upstream dams should release more water to maintain
commercial navigation standards.
The states of Iowa and Missouri have sought to revive their
waterfronts by permitting riverboat
. The initial gambling regulations required the casinos
to navigate the river. They were subsequently amended so that the
casinos could be permanent land-based structures as long as they
had a moat with Missouri River water surrounding them.
George Caleb Bingham "Fur Traders on
Missouri River", c.
The American painter George Catlin
traveled up the Missouri in the 1830s, making portraits of
individuals and tribes of Native Americans. He also painted several
Missouri River landscapes, notably " Floyd's Bluff
" and " Brick Kilns
", both from 1832.
Swiss painter Karl Bodmer
accompanied German explorer
Prince Maximilian zu
Wied-Neuwied from 1832 through 1834 on his Missouri River
Bodmer was hired as an artist by Maximilian for
the purpose of recording images of the Native American
that they encountered in the American West.
In 1843, American painter and naturalist John James Audubon
traveled west to the
upper Missouri River and the Dakota
to do fieldwork for his final major opus,
Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America
. A typical example
from this folio is "American Bison"
Missouri painter George Caleb
immortalized the fur traders
who plied the Missouri
River in the early 19th century; these same boatmen
were known for their river chanties
, including the haunting American
". Each verse of "Oh
" ends with the line, "...'cross the wide
The following rivers are listed going downstream based on the
states where they enter the Missouri.
Although the Missouri drains about one-sixth of the United States,
its basin is relatively lightly populated with only 10 million
For a full list, see List of cities
and towns along the Missouri River
From mouth upstream to source:
- St. Louis, Missouri
- Saint Charles,
- Jefferson City, Missouri (capital)
- Kansas City, Missouri
- Kansas City, Kansas
- Saint Joseph,
- Omaha, Nebraska
- Council Bluffs, Iowa
- Sioux City, Iowa
- Pierre, South Dakota (capital)
- Bismarck, North Dakota (capital)
- Great Falls, Montana
- United States Geological
Survey Hydrological Unit Code: 07-14-01-01- Cahokia-Joachim
- Stream Access in Montana
- McCafferty, Michael. 2004. Correction: Etymology of Missouri (restricted
access). American Speech, 79.1:32
- American Heritage Dictionary: Missouri