History and Culture

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Americans gave the Missouri River a number of nicknames, including  “The Big Muddy,” “The Mighty Mo,” “The Wide Missouri,” and “Old Misery.”  But Muddy denoted the river’s water; the Mighty Mo acknowledged its incredible power, especially during floods; the Wide Missouri described the great width of the river as it flowed through the Dakotas, and past eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, eastern Kansas, and Missouri; Old Misery expressed the sufferings of the thousands of individuals who had lost loved ones or property to the stream.

Throughout the 1800s, when the Missouri River was first opened for homesteading and farming, American settlers developed several popular sayings to describe the river.   Some people who lived near the river  said it behaved like a transient because it spent every night in a different bed; while others asserted that farmers with crops in the bottomlands never knew whether they would harvest corn in the fall or a stringer full of catfish.  Several settlers  declared the river’s water too thick to drink and too thin to plow.  To learn more about these popular sayings, read Robert Kelley Schneiders’ book, “Unruly River.”

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery to explore the river in 1804, they found the Missouri River basin consisted of  braided channels,  riparian wetlands, tallgrass prairies, bottomland forests, sloughs and backwaters, and islands natured had formed with sand and gravel.  It was a river full of snags and deadfall and logjams that made the Corps of Discovery work for every mile. The river channel within the larger valley was in a constant state of flux brought on by the erosive energy, both lateral and downward, of the currents, by the scouring power of heavy sediment loads, and by the seasonal flushing action of alternating floods and low water.

Before dams were built throughout the basin,  the yearly hydrological cycle of the Missouri River and its tributaries was much different than what we see today. During winters, much of the river was often covered with a thick sheet of ice.  In the springs, melting  snowpacks often caused the river to rise in May and June. If rainfall and snowmelt were excessive, local flooding occurred. These spring floods often changed the course of the river channel, especially if large ice jams were cut loose as temperatures warmed.  In some years, the river channel moved  as much as 2,000 feet in some years and  deposited massive loads of silt in the flood plain. Floodwaters often eroded  several hundred feet of land each year, sending  debris downstream. . When the spring floods ended, the Missouri River often ebbed dramatically, leaving much of the channel exposed and a meager flow in the river course.

At Sioux City, Iowa, the maximum mean flow that has been recorded was  187,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) occurredin 1952,  while the minimum low  was only 3,700 cfs (in 1940). At Kansas City,  the maximum flow of 301,000 cfs was recorded in June 1908,  while the minimum of 5,000 cfs occurred in  1940.

Animal and plant species  of all kinds adapted to this yearly cycle. Cottonwood trees  required fresh silt deposited by floods to grow and flourish. Fish like sturgeon and paddlefish depended on  the water temperature and turbidity of the river to provide cues to trigger spawning and migration. Birds such as the piping  plover and least tern relied on islands and gravel bars created by flood deposits in river for sites to nest and rear their young. When the Missouri River flooded each spring, it created backwaters in nearby sloughs and creeks that  provided nurseries for fish.  Fallen trees in the river channel created  snags and logjams that provided  essential microhabitats for fish and aquatic mammals and perches for bald eagles.  Wetlands created by the floding of the river  created marshes that could mitigate the adverse effects of large  flood events.