The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Missouri River

The Missouri River and its tributaries
The Missouri River and its tributaries
N.P. Dodge Park, Omaha, Nebraska
N.P. Dodge Park, Omaha, Nebraska

The Missouri River is a tributary of the Mississippi River in the United States. At about 2,565 mi (4,130 km) in length, it is the longest river in the United States and drains approximately one-sixth of the North American continent. The combined Missouri-Mississippi river system is the fourth longest river in the world.



The headwaters of the Missouri are in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Montana, near the continental divide. The river rises in the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers, which converge near Three Forks, Montana to form the Missouri. It 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 nearly all its boundary 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 and joins the Mississippi just north of St. Louis.

The river is nicknamed "Big Muddy" because of the high silt content in its flow, a feature that is highly visible at its confluence with the Mississippi. The river was of great importance in the westward expansion of the United States. It was acquired by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase and explored by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which successfully used the river to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. During the late 19th century, the river was a primary means of transportation of goods and passengers before the spread of the railroads. The extensive use of paddle steamers on the upper river helped facilitate white settlement of the Dakotas and Montana, helping spark several of the most intense Indian Wars in the region.

In the 20th century, the upper Missouri was extensively dammed for flood control, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. After President 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 three states: Fort Peck in Montana; Garrison in North Dakota; Oahe, Big Bend, and Fort Randall in South Dakota, and Gavins Point on the South Dakota-Nebraska border.

The extensive system of tributaries drain nearly all the semi-arid northern Great Plains of the United States. A very small portion of southern Alberta, Canada is also drained by the river through its tributary, the Milk.

The river's course roughly follows the edge of the glaciation during the last ice age. Most of the river's longer tributaries stretch away from this edge, towards the west, draining portions of the eastern Rockies.

Popular depictions

The river is notable for being the setting of the Pete Seeger song Waist Deep in the Big Muddy . The song is set in 1942, during training for World War II, but its image of a foolish captain who pushes his men further and further into a hopeless situation was clearly meant to parallel the Vietnam War. In the song, a captain leading a squad on training manuevers insists on crossing the titular river, insisting that it is safe to cross. The captain sinks into the mud, drowns, and his squad turns back.


See also the Roe River, a 201-foot long stream near Great Falls, Montana that empties into the Missouri.

See also

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