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Missouri River Trails

Navigation Tributaries Watershed and People

The Missouri is the longest river in North America, rising in the Rocky Mountains and flowing east and south for 2,341 miles – 3,767 km – before connecting with the Mississippi north of St. Louis.

Holter LakeHistory for over 12 thousand years, people have depended on the Missouri River as a source of food and transportation; ten Native American groups have led a nomadic lifestyle along with the buffalo herds. In the late 17th century, Spanish and French explorers reached the river which became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of the early 1800s. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark followed the Missouri on their 1803-06 journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Missouri river tug and bargesNavigation boat travel on the Missouri started with wood-framed canoes and Native American bull boats. The first steamboat was the Independence, in 1819. By the 1830s, large mail and freight-carrying vessels were running regularly between Kansas City and St. Louis. Water transport increased through the 1850s with craft ferrying pioneers, emigrants and miners. Steamboat navigation peaked in 1858 with over 130 boats operating full-time on the Missouri.

Tributaries nearly 100 significant tributaries and hundreds of smaller ones feed the Missouri River. Most rivers and streams in the Missouri River basin flow from west to east, following the incline of the Great Plains; however, some eastern tributaries, such as the James River, flow from north to south. The largest by runoff are the Yellowstone in Montana and Wyoming, and the Platte in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.

Upper and Lower the Upper River is north of Gavin Point Dam, the last of 15 hydroelectric dams upstream of Sioux City. The lower Missouri runs 840 miles meeting the Mississippi just above St. Louis.

Gavins Point Dam Yankton South DakotaThe Watershed encompasses most of the central Great Plains, stretching from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Mississippi River Valley in the east and from the southern extreme of western Canada to the border of the Arkansas River. This watershed is home to 12 million people in Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming. The watershed’s largest city is Denver; many northwestern cities, like Billings Montana, are among the fastest growing in the Missouri basin.

The Missouri Watershed includes 25 percent of Agricultural Land in America

The People archaeological evidence suggests that the first arrivals in the watershed of the Missouri River were between 10 and 12 thousand years ago, making the Missouri River one of the main migration paths that settled in the Ohio and the lower Mississippi River Valley.

Jefferson City Missouri

Hub and Spoke Transport

Your travel anchor locations are in South Dakota and Minnesota where you can follow the route of the Empire Builder and explore the Northern Plains, the US Northwest and the Rocky Mountains.

Pioneers the river defined the American frontier in the 19th century as the major trails that opened the American West started on the Missouri River.

The First Westward leg of the Pony Express was a Ferry across the Missouri River

Missouri River Map

Most emigrants arrived at the eastern terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad via a ferry ride across the Missouri between Council Bluffs and Omaha. In 1869, the Hannibal was the first bridge to cross the Missouri River near Kansas City, the largest city upstream from St. Louis.

Yellowstone steamboat agroundManifest Destiny over one half million people set out from the river town of Independence, Missouri to their various destinations in the American West from the 1830s to the 1860s. Covered wagons, known as prairie schooners, provided the primary means of transport until the beginning of regular boat service in side wheelers and stern wheelers in the 1850s. Over 80 percent of upstream passengers and freight hauled from the Midwest to Montana was transported by boat, a journey that took 150 days. Conflicts between natives and settlers over the opening of the Bozeman Trail in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana resulted in Native American victory. However, the Great Sioux War of 1876-77, sparked when American miners discovered gold in the Black Hills, ended in relocation to reservations.

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