The Wild Missouri

By Jim Harlan | January 2, 2004
From Missouri Conservationist: Jan 2004

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 instance it was with much difficulty they could get her off..., tho' the barge was several minutes in eminent danger." It was a rare day for the Corps of Discovery not to experience hardship and danger from an extremely violent and unpredictable river.

Looking at the Missouri River today, it is hard to imagine its being so tempestuous and dangerous. That's because the Missouri River today bears little resemblance to the river of the early 19th century. For the past two centuries, we have steadily worked to mold or engineer the Missouri River into a more predictable stream that would serve the needs of commerce, transportation, agriculture and recreation.

The differences between the river then and the river now are evident in hard statistics from the mouth of the Missouri River to the northwest corner of our state.

The early river statistics were calculated from the compiled data of the U.S. General Land Office surveyors who measured down to the survey link (7.92 inches) the locations of the Missouri River banks, as well as the banks of most of the large islands, that existed in the early 19th century. The present river statistics were calculated from digitized representations of the river from contemporary aerial photography.

The old lower Missouri River was about the same length as it is today, but contemporary research has concluded that it should have been as much as 50 miles longer. The bank, or water edge, that is so important to both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife was more than 400 miles greater then. The actual water area then was more than 2.5 times larger than that of today. The immense area that the old river actually occupied, including the many big islands, was more than 3.5 times greater than today. On average, the river was more than three times as wide as today.

In addition, information from the old surveyor data and the notes and journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition indicate that the old Missouri River was quite often higher in elevation than the adjacent bottomland. Indeed, most of the tributary streams show evidence of this by traveling downstream and parallel to the Big Muddy for miles, thus forming many old lakes, ponds, sloughs, and swamps.

For example, the Little Platte River (in present Platte County) flowed parallel to the Missouri River for more than 10 miles, leaving a narrow strip of bottomland that Clark called "Slaik'y" (swampy, miry, or muddy).

Lewis also prominently noted this phenomenon when he rode out to the Nishnabotna River on July 16, 1804 (in northwest Missouri) and concluded that he was "at least 16 feet lower" than the Missouri and only about "300 yards" away. At that time, the Nishnabotna flowed almost 20 miles farther south than its current course before it entered the Missouri in a swampy, delta-like configuration.

Centerline Length 547.264 miles 543.832 miles
Bank/Water Edge 1,673.255 miles 1,230.395 miles
Water Area 180,793.906 acres 68,380.227 acres
Total Area 230,279.015 acres 70,025.939 acres
Average Width .6575 miles .2011 miles

The current of the old Missouri River and all its swirling sandbars, caving banks, snags, embarras (floating-debris islands), and sawyers (bobbing trees embedded in the river) were formidable obstacles to any river traveler at that time. Only after the Corps of Discovery had passed the mouth of the Platte River (in present day Nebraska) did the river assume a more placid nature.

There, they noticed a significant change in the velocity of the Missouri River. Lewis wrote that the Missouri was moving at 5.5 miles per hour below the Platte and decreased to 3.5 miles per hour above it. The tempestuous Platte River was measured to be flowing at 8 miles per hour (twice his measurements of the Mississippi River) pushing great quantities of sand and debris all the way across the wide Missouri. Lewis estimated that the speed of the old Missouri current increased to 6.5 to 7 miles per hour at the Kansas River and flowed at 5.5 to 6 miles per hour from the Osage River to the Mississippi confluence.

William Clark had also previously recorded several measurements of river velocity up to that point. At their campsite of July 16-17, 1804, Clark measured the "common current" using the logline near what is known as McKissick Island in Atchison County. Clark called it "Bald Island."

He found that the Missouri River ran at 50 fathoms (300 feet) in 40 seconds at one spot. In other places, the log took only 30 seconds and, at times, even 20 seconds, to run the same 50-fathom distance. Assuming that Clark's fathom was equal to about six feet, the current was flowing at speeds of 5.11, 6.82, and 10.23 miles per hour at his respective locations.

More dramatic are the river velocity readings that Clark took on June 17, 1804, just northwest of and across the river from the present town of Waverly (named "Rope Walk Camp" by the Corps). Using his survey equipment and a stick to measure the speed of the water, Clark found that the most rapid part of the river would float a stick at 48 survey-poles and 6 feet (798 feet) in 23 seconds. That is equal to 34.7 feet per second or 23.66 miles per hour. That figure is seemingly incredible since it approximates the velocity of water at the edge of a waterfall. Nevertheless, it is illuminating and somewhat ironic that three days later, Clark observed and wrote down that the Missouri River "riffleed and roered like a great fall."

These days, the swiftest parts of our present Missouri River are found at the ends of the river dikes, where the water breaks over and around these structures. There, recorded water velocities are often about 3 meters per second (9.84 feet per second or 6.7 miles per hour). The overall velocity of the present river current, of course, is much less than that.

Comparing the velocity of the Missouri River now to that of the river in the 19th century is by its nature inexact. For example, we now measure the river's velocity at differing horizons within the river's depth, not by floating a log or stick downstream. Moreover, the old Missouri River most probably was a much more complex stream than what it is today. Quite likely, water flowed at different speeds at any given location, whereas today, water speed is more uniform.

Nevertheless, the historical records indicate that the early 19th century Missouri River should definitely not be considered as a slower river than the one we have today. In fact, most evidence points to its flowing much faster. Possible explanations for increased velocity would be that the river was carrying more water then than now.

It surely must have been invigorating to experience a journey on the old Missouri River. Our modern society, however, would not tolerate such a wild and temperamental river. However, you can relive how the Missouri River used to be by reading the timeless journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler