Missouri River Then & Now
By Brett Dufur
Excerpted with permission from his book
& Clark's Missouri, available from
The Missouri River of 1804 was nothing like it is now.
Lewis & Clark would probably not recognize the
Missouri as the river they traversed 200 years ago.
Today, we have a river with a main channel that is 300 yards wide and nine
feet deep. It has been called America’s fastest navigable river, rushing by
at speeds of four to five miles an hour. That’s fast. The river is more like
a fast-moving drainage ditch than a biologically diverse river. Its primary
role today is dwindling but still important river barge use.
The Missouri River of 1804 was a maze of dangerous snags, sandbars and
collapsing banks. A wide, shallow, slow-moving wetland buffered the edges of
its unpredictable and meandering main channel. It was a vast series of
interconnected, braided streams, stretching more than a mile wide at places.
And the river was peppered with the stuff of a river captain’s
nightmares: collapsing riverbanks, shifting sandbars and menacing
snags—downed trees with rootballs still intact, which had a nasty habit of
lying submerged right below the water’s surface. In Karl Bodmer’s painting
Snags (Sunken Trees) on the Missouri, the snags loom large and in
chaotic multitudes, ready to thwart any attempts at navigation.
Clark wrote of one such snag near present-day Arrow Rock, "Stern Struck a
log under Water & She Swung round on the Snag, with her broad Side to the
Current," causing, "a disagreeable and Dangerous Situation, particularly as
immense large trees were Drifting down and we lay imediately in their
In other words, the expedition had to be ready for anything. Traveling
such a river required various forms of propulsion. Poling and rowing were by
far the most common ways of getting the boats upriver. Sails were used to a
limited degree. Poling—pushing poles into the muck and pushing the boat
upriver—was often employed when rapids threatened the unwieldy boats.
Cordelling was also used. In cordelling, a sturdy rope is tied to the bow
and the crew get in the river or on the bank and start pulling the boat
upriver. Although this may sound extremely inefficient to modern readers,
this was cutting edge military technology 200 years ago.
However, it wasn’t long after the Voyage of Discovery that new
technologies took hold on the Missouri. By 1819, the first steamboat was
plying the Big Muddy. Steamboat traffic was vital to the opening of the
West, reaching its peak in 1880. Steamboats shipped flour, salt, corn,
tobacco and hemp downriver to the markets in St. Louis and beyond and
returned laden with molasses, sugar, coffee and manufactured items.
For example, Rocheport, a Mid-Missouri rivertown, saw 57 steamboats make
500 landings in 1849 alone. The paddle wheeler’s shallow draft eventually
allowed rivermen to navigate their way upriver 2,285 miles from the mouth to
Fort Benton, Montana.