The river was designed by the Creator to flood. Before spring or summer had a name, it was there, draining the heart of the land, committing muddy rampage as the mountain snows melted, dripping and flowing through themselves toward the sea.

In the beginning, the sea was the northern one, where the muddy waters found the Hudson Bay. It was only after colossal ice plows rearranged the land that the river turned southward to thrust its troubled waters into the Mississippi. Indeed, it drained more land, visited far grander sights, came within a day’s walk of besting the Mississippi in length, and an eyecup of surpassing the flow of the river which claims its final segment.

The Missouri is formed where the Gallatin, the Madison and the Jefferson join at Three Forks in southwestern Montana. It takes on the waters of the Mussellshell, the Milk, the Yellowstone, the Grand of South Dakota, the Cheyenne, the Niobrara, the James, the Big Sioux, the Little Sioux, the Platte in Nebraska and the Little Platte of Missouri, the Mighty Kaw, the Grand Rivers of both Iowa and Missouri, the Chariton, the Osage, and the Gasconade.

The Missouri was the artery of commerce for Indians before the coming of the white man – notably the Mandan, the Arikara and the Hidatsa. Myriad Indian tribes were influenced by the river and its many watersheds and basins.

The first visitors had trouble settling on a name. The Missourah Indians called it the Pekitanoui, the Fox Indians named it Missourah for the stout wooden canoes the Missourah people needed to survive its brutal waters. The French tried to call it the River of St. Phillip for a time in the early 1700s. Other Indians called the river Nishodse or MiniSose or Anati, but most of their names translated to some version of Troubled Waters, according to William Clark. But, Missouri it remained to those who knew it, and you best pronounce it “Mahzurah” if you want to please the natives.

Its turbid, chocolate-colored flood waters troubled everyone who had the questionable pleasure of her company, whether in bull boat, pirogue, keelboat or steamboat.

The river’s other characteristic was, and still is, the cottonwood tree. From its source at Three Forks, across Montana, down through North and South Dakota, south between Nebraska and Iowa, past St. Joseph and Leavenworth and across the entire state of Missouri, its banks are lined with cottonwoods. And the river makes it her business to take as many of them as possible with her to the sea.

The Missouri’s log-laced waters and galloping sandbars inspired those who lived along her banks to give it many handles, such as Ol’ Misery, Hell of Waters, River of Sticks, and compared its lower waters to a hog wallow, and its upper reaches to a rainwater creek.

Here was a river that never chose a middle course – or the same course two days running. It washed you from your bed one week, yet it was so dry it blew sand in your eyes the next, a fact commemorated by the Omaha Indians when they called it Smoking River.

The Big Muddy was a barrier to some and an unwilling highway for others. It changed nearly everyone who challenged it. For she was the near shore of the West, the baptism into a land where all the cannons were new, and the people who attempted coexistence found both paradise and perdition. They were as varied as the river’s moods, but she has fascinated man as few other rivers have – or she used to anyway, before man stepped in with levees, dikes, dams and reservoirs, making her a prisoner on good behavior for most of its 2,400 miles – most of the time.

Reference: “People of the Troubled Waters” by Nancy M. Peterson

– To reach Ted W. Stillwell send email to or call him at 816-896-3582