The Missouri River is arguably the longest river in North America, traversing an amazing variety of landscapes on its journey to the sea. This mighty river flows more than 2,300 miles from Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis, where it joins the Mississippi River. These waters continue on for another 1,500 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, making the Missouri/Mississippi River complex the fourth longest river and the third largest drainage basin in the world.
Nicknamed the "Big Muddy," the Missouri River has long been one of America's most important natural resources. Every bend in the river is saturated in history. Her waters have offered a spiritual centerpiece for many American Indian tribes and have nurtured an astonishing amount of wildlife. The river served as the path for the Lewis and Clark expedition, later evolving to become the primary pathway for our country's western expansion. She has witnessed the rise and fall of the steamboat era and given birth to countless communities that settled near her banks.
"The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, and such principal stream of it, as, by it's course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce."
-President Thomas Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis
With these words, Thomas Jefferson set in motion what was to become perhaps the greatest exploration in the history of North America. For many years Jefferson had envisioned a trade route across the America to the Pacific Ocean. He selected Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition exploring this possibility. Jefferson appointed him as his personal secretary and began grooming him for this mission. For three years Lewis and Jefferson spent evenings discussing and planning the logistics and goals of an expedition. Those goals were multi-faceted, with both scientific and economic intentions. While Jefferson certainly wanted to open a trade route to the west and expand the territory of the United States, he also was keenly interested in expanding the scientific understanding of the flora and fauna of this little explored region.
Lewis was also instructed to try to establish positive relationships with the American Indians populating the region.
"The commerce which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue, renders a knolege of those people important."
The mission gained a new emphasis with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The United States paid France $15 million for the lands stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and has been described as the greatest real estate deal in history, more than doubling the area of the United States. The Lewis and Clark expedition would pass right through the heart of this newly acquired region.
Lewis selected his former military leader William Clark as his co-command. Together they went about a year of preparations involving equipment and crew selections. The Corps of Discovery consisted of nine young men from Kentucky, 14 soldiers of the U.S. Army, two French boatmen, a woodsman and interpreter and a Captain Clark's slave, York. The expedition would later be joined by the American Indian woman, Sacagawea, along with her husband and infant son.
The expedition started up the Missouri River in May 1804 aboard a large keelboat (55 feet long) and two pirogues (open boats). They would not return until two years later in September 1806.
While Lewis and Clark did not uncover the easy river route to the Pacific Ocean that Jefferson had sought, they successfully documented territory few Europeans had previously visited. Their reports of lands rich and abundant with game created an excitement in the American people that helped to fuel the western expansion that followed.
The expedition's reports concerning the ecosystems and the native people encountered are still relevant. The journals of Lewis and Clark offer a unique perspective on the changes that have occurred to the American landscape over the last 200 years.
The Lewis and Clark expedition conducted the first comprehensive scientific watershed survey of the Missouri River. Their journey opened the door to future development that would yield great changes in the American landscape.
The river we know today was named after an American Indian tribe that was first encountered by Europeans exploring the region. These Missouri Indians traditionally occupied the lands surrounding the point where the Missouri River blends its muddy waters into the mighty Mississippi River. The great tribes of the Osage, Kansas, Mandan, Sioux and many others also called the lands surrounding the Missouri River home.
During the 1800s the river provided the obvious path for the western expansion of the rapidly developing United States. The Missouri River served as a central trade route for the western territories and scores of settlements were established along the river. During this time the Missouri River was characterized by a constantly shifting channel, numerous smaller braided channels, chutes, sloughs, islands, sandbars and backwater areas. The river was infamous for its sudden and dramatic shifts in course. Settlements near the river were just as likely to become submerged in the muddy water, as they were to end up located miles from the river's edge. The Big Muddy maintained a fierce reputation as one of the most treacherous rivers in America to navigate. The average life span of a steamboat working on the Missouri River was only two years. Two hundred and eighty-nine steamboats are known to have sunk in the river from 1819 to 1897. Such statistics stand as a testament to the difficulty faced by those attempting to operate a boat on the Missouri River
"We separated the men from the boys at the mouth of the Missouri. The boys went up the Mississippi and the men went up the Big Muddy."
- "Steamboat Bill" Heckmann
The modern Missouri River has been substantially changed from the river that Lewis and Clark traveled 200 years ago. As early as 1819 the United States government initiated programs to determine methods for managing the river, in terms of both navigation and flood control. Over the ensuing years the river has been systematically reshaped and stabilized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Today, the lower Missouri River is contained to a set channel. In order to accomplish this, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used the natural sediment load of the Missouri River. Structures were installed along sections of the river, designed to slow a portion of the rivers flow. The resulting reduction in turbulence would cause the sediment rich water to drop its heavy load of silt and sand. This process was designed to eventually create landforms and yield a deeper river with a dramatically reduced channel width.
Wing dams (rock dikes) were also installed to further control the flow of the river. These structures act to direct the flow of the river to a central channel. This increases the velocity and allows the river to self-scour its channel, minimizing the need for dredging of the river. In addition, most of the riverbank was reinforced with rock to prevent the river from eroding the channel and changing its course. Later, levy systems were constructed along the river in an effort to protect the bottomlands from the high water events that the Missouri River is famous for.
Despite all these changes, the lower Missouri River still retains much of its remote natural beauty. The Big Muddy provides a unique paddling experience, unlike any other river in North America.