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Missouri River
The Missouri River in bright blue, and its tributaries in paler blue.
Countries United States of America, Canada
Source 45°55′39″N 111°30′29″W / 45.9275°N 111.50806°W / 45.9275; -111.50806[1] Confluence of
Madison River and Jefferson River,
near Gallatin River,[2] in
Gallatin County, Montana.
 - elevation 4,042 ft (1,232 m) [3]
Mouth 38°48′49″N 90°07′11″W / 38.81361°N 90.11972°W / 38.81361; -90.11972Coordinates: 38°48′49″N 90°07′11″W / 38.81361°N 90.11972°W / 38.81361; -90.11972[1] Mississippi River, near St. Louis,
in St. Charles County, Missouri
 - elevation 404 ft (123 m) [1]
Length 2,341 mi (3,767 km) [4]
Basin 529,350 sq mi (1,371,010 km2) [4]
Discharge Great Falls:[5] 292 ft³/s
Pierre:[6] 16,000 ft³/s

Sioux City: 36,830 ft³/s
Omaha: 39,100 ft³/s
Kansas City: 56,950 ft³/s
Boonville: 69,220 ft³/s
Hermann: 87,950 ft³/s[7]

Map of the Missouri River watershed with tributaries and states labelled

The Missouri River is the longest river in the United States of America and is a tributary of the Mississippi River.[8][9] 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. From this point, it flows through its valley south and east into the Mississippi north of St. Louis, Missouri. At 2,341 miles (3,767 km)[4][1] long, 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 72 miles (116 km) of the river have been cut off in channeling,[4] 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 in the world.

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.[10] It is the second-largest tributary by volume of the Mississippi, trailing the Ohio.



Missouri River near Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, South of Bismarck, North Dakota
The Missouri River as seen from southeast Nebraska

The 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.[11] 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 into North 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 past Sioux City and Omaha. It forms 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. Louis.

The extensive system of tributaries drain nearly all the semi-arid northern Great 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 River. 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.



Beaverhead River, a tributary of the Jefferson River and a headwater of the Missouri River

The Missouri in name officially begins at Missouri Headwaters State Park at 4,045 feet (1,233 m) 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. The Madison and Gallatin rivers flow out of northwest Wyoming to meet the Jefferson River.

Meriwether Lewis 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 and state.

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.

Lewis (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 8,600 feet (2,600 m) 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 wristless(sic) nights.

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 Spring. Brower published his finding in 1896 in "The Missouri: Its Utmost Source."

The site of Brower's Spring lies at around 8,800 feet (2,700 m) 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.[11]

In Montana, the river is a Class I water from Three Forks to the North Dakota border for the purposes of public access for recreational purposes[12].


The Missouri enters the Upper Mississippi River near its mile 195. The elevation is approximately 400 feet (120 m). 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, Missouri.


High silt content makes the Missouri River (left) noticeably lighter than the Mississippi River here at their confluence north of St. Louis.

The river is nicknamed "Big Muddy" and also "Dark River" because of the high silt content. The river meanders from bluff 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 Indian tribe whose Illinois name, ouemessourita (wimihsoorita[13]), means "those who have dugout canoes".[14] The etymology lies behind Bob Dyer'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.[1]


Jolliet and Marquette

The first 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.

Marquette wrote:

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 Sea.[15][16]
Mouth of the Missouri River (center)as it enters the Mississippi River (foreground)

Marquette 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 Étienne de 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 to 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 Antoine 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 American wife.

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 day Columbus, 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 Mexico.

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. In 1725 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 Louis XV. 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 1726.

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 blonde-haired Mandans, so it is possible that he made it as far north as their villages in central North Dakota.

MacKay and Evans

The Spanish took over the Missouri River in the Treaty of Paris (1763) that ended the French and Indian War/Seven Years War. The Spanish claim to the Missouri was based on Hernando de Soto's "discovery" 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 Company, 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.[17]

The most significant expedition though was the MacKay and Evans Expedition of 1795–1797. James 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 Missouri.[18]

McKay and Evans established a winter camp about 20 miles (32 km) south of Sioux City, Iowa, on the Nebraska side where they built Fort Columbus. 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 "Yellow Rock").

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 giving American 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.

Thomas Jefferson, 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[19] to explore the Missouri and look for a water route to the Pacific.

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, 1806.

American Frontier

Karl Bodmer "Fort Pierre and the Adjacent Prairie", c. 1833

The river 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.

All of the major trails for the opening of the American West have their starting points on the river, including the California, Mormon, Oregon, and Santa Fe trails. The first westward leg of the Pony Express was a ferry ride across the Missouri at St. Joseph, Missouri. 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.[20]

River modifications

Big Bend Dam on the Missouri River in South Dakota

Since the 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). In the 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 Rosecrans Airport.

In the 20th century, the upper Missouri was extensively dammed for flood control, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Flood Control Act of 1944, the Pick-Sloan Plan turned the Missouri River into the largest reservoir system in North America. There are 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 locks, 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 levels.

Thirty-five percent of the Missouri River is impounded, thirty-two percent has been channelized, and thirty-three percent is unchannelized.[4] 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 735-mile (1,183 km) 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.[21] 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 4.5 feet (1.4 m).


Barge traffic has been steadily declining from 3.3 million tons in 1977 to 1.3 million tons in 2000.[21] 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 gambling. 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.

Popular depictions

George Caleb Bingham "Fur Traders on Missouri River", c. 1845.

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 expedition. Bodmer was hired as an artist by Maximilian for the purpose of recording images of the Native American tribes 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 Territory 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 Bingham immortalized the fur traders and flatboatmen who plied the Missouri River in the early 19th century; these same boatmen were known for their river chanties, including the haunting American folk song "Oh Shenandoah". Each verse of "Oh Shenandoah" ends with the line, "...'cross the wide Missouri."


The following rivers are listed going downstream based on the states where they enter the Missouri.


The James River, a Missouri River tributary, in Jamestown, North Dakota

North Dakota

South Dakota

South Dakota/Nebraska

Falls of the Big Sioux River, a Missouri River tributary, at Sioux Falls, South Dakota

South Dakota/Iowa/Nebraska





Populated places

Missouri River at N.P. Dodge Park, Omaha, Nebraska

Although the Missouri drains about one-sixth of the United States, its basin is relatively lightly populated with only 10 million people.[4]

For a full list, see List of cities and towns along the Missouri River.

From mouth upstream to source:

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: Missouri River
  2. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: Gallatin River and/or U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: Gallatin River
  3. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: Jefferson River and/or U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: Madison River
  4. ^ a b c d e f "The Missouri River Story". United States Geological Survey, Central Region. 
  5. ^ "Sage Database for Great Falls". Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin–Madison. 
  6. ^ "Oahe Dam discharge rate". U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, District, Missouri River Region. 
  7. ^ "Rising Flood Stages on the Lower Missouri River by Robert E. Criss" (PDF). EWGateWay; Washington University, St. Louis. 
  8. ^ United States Geological Survey Hydrological Unit Code: 07-14-01-01- Cahokia-Joachim Watershed
  9. ^ "Largest Rivers in the United States". United States Geological Survey, Publications. 
  10. ^ "River users object to Missouri River flow levels — February 16, 2004". Illinois Business Journal. 
  11. ^ a b "The True Utmost Reaches of the Missouri". Montana Outdoors — July-August 2005. 
  12. ^ Stream Access in Montana
  13. ^ McCafferty, Michael. 2004. Correction: Etymology of Missouri (restricted access). American Speech, 79.1:32
  14. ^ American Heritage Dictionary: Missouri
  15. ^ A History of Missouri from the Earliest Explorations and Settlements Until the Admission of the... By Louis Houck - 1908. Google Books.,M1. 
  16. ^ Early Narratives of the Northwest By Louise Phelps Kellogg - 1917. Google Books.,M1. 
  17. ^ "Gathering Intelligence". Great River Road. 
  18. ^ "PROLOGUE TO LEWIS AND CLARK: The Mackay and Evans Expedition — Montana: Spring 2004". FindArticles.Com; The Magazine of Western History. 
  19. ^ "Jefferson's Instructions for Meriwether Lewis". Retrieved 2006-06-30. 
  20. ^ "Northernmost Missouri river navigation topographic map". TopoQuest. 
  21. ^ a b "Past and Future Grain Traffic on the Missouri River by C. Philip Baumel and Jerry Van Der Kamp" (PDF). Agri-Industries.Com. 

External links

1911 encyclopedia

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Simple English

The Missouri River is a river in the western United States. It is a tributary of the Mississippi River. It is longer than the Mississippi River. It is, in fact, the longest river in North America.


For most of its course, the Missouri flows across the Great Plains, one of the driest parts of North America.

The source of the Missouri River is in the Rocky Mountains, in the state of Montana. The Missouri flows eastward, across Montana, south of the border with Canada. It enters the state of North Dakota and then it turns south. It flows through South Dakota. Then it flows past Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas.

Near the city of Kansas City, Missouri, the Missouri turns eastward into the state of Missouri. It flows eastward across the state of Missouri. It joins the Mississippi just north of the city of Saint Louis, Missouri.

The Missouri has many important tributaries, including the Yellowstone River, the Platte River, and the Kansas River.


The Missouri was very important for the Native Americans who lived on the Great Plains. It was also very important in the history of the United States. The Missouri was used as the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804-1806. In the 19th century, the Missouri was very important in the North American fur trade and for transportation of army troops and supplies as well as general transportation and trade as the West was settled.


The nickname of the Missouri is "Big Muddy", because it has a lot of silt.


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