Welcome to the Missouri River Basin Education Network. Designed with students, teachers, and the general public in mind, this project promotes Missouri River education through information, interactive activities, and more.

The Missouri River Basin is in the heart of North America. The river forms in southwestern Montana where the Gallatin, Jefferson, and Madison Rivers join forces. These three forks of the Missouri were rivers named by Lewis and Clark in 1805. From there, the Missouri flows in a great arc looping across Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and on to the state of Missouri, where it joins the Mississippi River.

The Missouri River Basin
(click image to enlarge)

The Missouri River Basin is rich with beauty. Here one encounters rustling cottonwood groves golden with fall color, 200-foot-deep coulees etched into the Missouri Breaks, prairie potholes scattered across North Dakota, the braided channels of the Platte, pastel badland layers bordering the Little Missouri, surprising canyons along the Niobrara, and humid hardwood forests blanketing the state of Missouri. From its source in Hell Roaring Creek near the Idaho border to its mouth 10 miles north of St. Louis, the river whispers with power.

Like an artery, the Missouri River pulses life-giving water across the breadth of the Great Plains, from the semi-arid lands in the shadow of the mountains, to the fertile, tallgrass prairies of the plains. It is the geographical feature that determines the character of evolving regional ecosystems, the habitats used by animals and humans, and many of the natural and cultural systems that have developed over millennia.

The modern-day course of the river is a legacy of the glacial era, when tremendous ice sheets bulldozed south from Hudson Bay and literally shoved the river course into place. When the glaciers retreated, they left behind a watershed that evolved into one of the most impressive and dramatic stages for wildlife and native culture ever displayed on earth.

American Indian peoples—Crow, Hidatsa, Shoshone, Assiniboin, Blackfeet, and others—flourished in the rich, spacious environment brimming with game. Each people distinguished themselves by unique adaptations in response to this environment dominated by the force of the river and its tributaries. Their territories waxed and waned through the decades; their fortunes were tied to the buffalo; their way of life was radically altered by the arrival of the horse.

The Missouri, by accident of placement and circumstance, was destined to be at the center of modern North American development. It was the transportation corridor of the fur trade. It was the route of explorers like Lewis and Clark, and later, of steamboats and settlers. It was central to the eventual shape of the Louisiana Territory and figured importantly in the Indian Wars.

Like the sediment carried downstream by the Big Muddy, lessons float our way, ready to be reeled in. There are the ways of native cultures, the battle of European countries for Western land, the interplay of wetland and flood, the weaving together of predator and prey and migration, the management of an ecosystem. From glacial land form to exotic species, and from Lewis and Clark’s triumph to Sitting Bull’s tragic end, the Missouri hands over its stories and lessons to those willing to stop and spend time.

Today the Missouri River is managed to provide flood control, irrigation water, power, transportation, recreation, wildlife habitat, refreshment of the spirit and nourishment for a landscape. The development, management, and protection of the Missouri have gone on for hundreds of years, and the struggle for balance between competing demands continues.

Many issues face the people of this region as we try to grapple with how to be better stewards of the river. Understanding the Missouri River and its basin lies at the heart of responsible stewardship. Education is the first and most urgent step in approaching that challenge. The river remains our teacher. It has taught through the ages. All we need to bring with us is a zest for exploration and the willingness to learn the lessons borne on the river's currents.