The Wild Missouri

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

If only we could see the Missouri River as the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition saw it. The notes and journals of those early explorers described a big, wild, and treacherous waterway that would intimidate the most experienced river travelers.

As daunting as it was, the old Missouri was destined for use as a portal to the American West by explorers, traders and settlers as the United States began its westward expansion. This has led the Missouri River through a long series of human modifications that produced the more bridled river that we know today.

Probably the first Europeans to describe the Missouri River and its surrounding land paddled down the Mississippi from the north in two canoes in 1673. These were early French explorers under the charge of Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette. As the men passed near present day Alton, Illinois, they gazed at pictographs of huge monsters painted on the rocks of the Paysa Bluffs. Marquette wrote:

"As we were discoursing of them, sailing gently down a beautiful, still, clear water, we heard the noise of a rapid into which we were about to fall. I have seen nothing more frightful; a mass of large trees, entire, with branches, real floating islands, came rushing from the mouth of the river Pekitanoui [the Missouri], so impetuously, that we could not, without great danger, expose ourselves to pass across. The agitation was so great that the water was all muddy and could not get clear."

This description is consistent with those of William Clark in his notes during the 1803-1804 winter at Camp DuBois. There, he observed that the swift current of the Missouri pushed massive amounts of debris, ooze, mud, sand, and thick chunks of ice all the way across the Mississippi, often blocking the mouth of the little River DuBois (Wood River).

On Feb. 8, 1804, Clark was happy to report that "if the present fresh [rain] continus a fiew days, the water passing down this Small river will Wash off all that immence quantity of mud which has filled up its mouth for 300 yards by the Missouris ooze or mud."

From the beginning, the Missouri River taught many harsh lessons to the Corps of Discovery crew. Their daily entries nearly always mention some peril the river presented. On May 15, Clark noted, "the barge run foul three several times--on logs, and in one

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