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Missouri River: Father of Waters?

“The Father of Waters.” When most people hear or read that phrase, they more than likely think of the Mississippi River. But why not the Missouri River? I have been thinking about that after reading John Madson’s Up on the River: An Upper Mississippi Chronicle. In the book, Madson wonders why it was the Mississippi River that was designated to continue on from St. Louis to New Orleans and not the Missouri River.

Most North Dakotans know that the Big Muddy is the longest river in North America. It starts west of Bozeman, Montana, with the confluence of the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin rivers. It then heads northward to Great Falls before taking a right turn and heading eastward to Williston before gradually turning southward through Bismarck-Mandan on its way to the Mississippi at St. Louis. It was the main artery in the Great Plains for Native Americans, and early traders and trappers.

The Missouri River is longer than the Mississippi River, and from what I have been able to ascertain, both the Missouri River and the Ohio River drain a larger area compared to the Mississippi above St. Louis. The Missouri River is similar to the Mississippi River at the confluence. But determining these and other factors such as discharge can get a bit complicated.

Madson notes that some people have said that Marquette and Joliet were told that what is now the upper Mississippi River was known to the Native Americans as the “Misisipi.” They assumedly applied that to the downstream portions all the way to New Orleans, and it stuck. Maybe some other factors came into play. At any rate, one cannot help but wonder why the Missouri River doesn’t continue to the Gulf of Mexico.

So, the Big Muddy doesn’t get to be the “Father of Waters.” But it is still the “Father of Waters” here in the Upper Great Plains. By the way, if you are looking for some good winter reading, I think you might want to check out Madson’s book. You may also enjoy another book of his, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie.

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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