The Missouri River: Historical Overview
Missouri River: Historical Overview Exhibit Exhibit Featured at
1. Title Panel The Missouri River: A Historical Overview
Missouri River Valley prior to construction of Garrison Dam * 760-24
2. Scenic Missouri River
Missouri River and its people have captured our nations attention
since the time of Lewis and Clark. Artists such as Carl Bodmer,
George Catlin, James J. Audubon, Carl Wimar, and Phillipe R. de
Trobriand have depicted the Missouri, the landscape, and the people
who reside on its banks. Channeled, dammed, diverted for industrial
and municipal use, the river has changed, but the portion of the
river from Garrison Dam to Lake Oahe still echoes the river that
Lewis and Clark traveled in 1804 - 1806.
I saw a Musquetor to day great numbers of Brant flying up the
river, the Maple, & Elm has buded & Cotton and arrow wood
beginning to bud. Diary of William Clark, April 9, 1805 (1)
Upper Missouri River, by Phillipe Regis deTrobriand, commander of
Fort Stevenson, 1867-1869 * SHSND 12469
Missouri River, at Kenel, South Dakota. Photo by Frank B. Fiske.
* Fiske 2989
Missouri River Valley * 760-16
Lake Oahe, near Huff, North Dakota, 1970 * North Dakota State Outdoor
Recreation Agency collection
Sunset on the Missouri River. North Dakota Tourism Department *
3. Native Peoples and the River I
known as the Plains Village Tradition, have lived along the Missouri
for about 1000 years. Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara peoples lived
in villages along the Missouri from the South Dakota to the Montana
border. When Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805 near
modern day Stanton, there were more Mandan and Hidatsa peoples living
in the nearby five villages than the entire population of St. Louis.
The Knife River confluence area was the center of a vast trade network
that moved Knife River flint from North Dakota, shell from the Gulf
of Mexico, copper from the Great Lakes, and corn from the Missouri
River villages throughout the plains. French and British traders
traveled by canoe and horse to trade and interact with this network.
The Missouri River was a source of water, and the annual floods
would deposit rich nutrients and silt on the bottom-lands. Crops
of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and tobacco were raised along
the river. The Missouri sustained bushes and shrubs laden with berries,
medicinal plants and herbs. The river provided fish and supported
wildlife. Stands of cottonwood, that thrived on the banks of the
river, provided the timber necessary to build the earth-lodge villages
and fuel for cooking and heating.
Hidatsa villages on the Knife River, illustrated by Sitting Rabbit,
a Mandan, in 1907. Big Heavens village (Lower Hidatsa), Black
Moccasins village (Sakakawea), and Bad Houses village
(Big Hidatsa) are depicted next to the confluence of the Knife and
Missouri Rivers. Note the proximity of the village gardens to the
river. * SHSND 673
Fish trap in the Missouri, Edward Goodbird, Hidatsa, ca. 1916. *
Passing of Winter. Photo by Frank B. Fiske. * Fiske 6432
Home of Blue Thunder, just below Standing Rock Agency. Photo
by Frank B. Fiske, circa 1940. * Fiske 6451
4. Native Peoples and the River II
people used bullboats made of bison hide stretched over a wood frame.
American explorers and traders used keel boats supplied with oars,
poles, and sail, capable of carrying 15 to 30 tons of cargo. They
would travel up the river with trade goods and down with furs. Lewis
and Clarks keel boat was 55 feet long, 8 feet wide, and had
a mast 32 feet tall. Keel boats were used primarily from 1800 to
1840, when they were replaced by steamboats. Mackinaw boats had
a flat bottom, pointed stem and square stern and could carry 25
tons of cargo. Built for one-way trips, down river, to St. Louis,
where they were broken up for lumber.
Standard keel boat, keel boats used by Lewis & Clark, Mackinaw
Fort Berthold, 1867 - by Phillipe Regis deTrobriand, commander of
Fort Stevenson, 1867-1869 * SHSND 12468
Portaging a bullboat, Edward Goodbird, Hidatsa, ca. 1916. * 86-1088
Bullboat paddled by Edward Goodbird, Hidatsa, 1916. * 86-1091
Launching a bullboat, Edward Goodbird, Hidatsa, 1916. * 86-1092
5. Steamboats - Navigation I
1832 the steamboat Yellowstone traversed its way up the Missouri,
ushering in a new era, and allowing the rapid transport of goods
from St. Louis to Fort Union and beyond. Independent contractors
known as wood-hawks would cut, haul, and pile timber on the river
banks, for the steamboats to use as fuel. Steamboats used on the
Missouri had a shallow draft, powerful engines, and a stern wheel.
Two annual periods of high water allowed easy navigation up the
river to Fort Benton, Montana. The April rise was the result of
local snow melt, while the June rise was the result of snow melt
in the Rockies. In 1876, the Far West, riding the June rise,
brought the wounded members of the 7th Cavalry, U.S. Army, back
from the Battle of the Little Bighorn, setting a speed record on
During the winter months, from November to March, the boats would
be hauled onto quays in ice harbors by the side of the river to
allow repairs, and prevent them from being crushed by ice floes
in the spring. The Bismarck ice harbor moved several times, before
being moved to Rock Haven. As railroads reached the region, the
main port for steamboats shifted from Yankton to Bismarck.
Steamboat on the Missouri - by Phillipe Regis deTrobriand, commander
of Fort Stevenson, 1867-1869 * SHSND 12473
Ferry Landing, Fort Lincoln, 1877, photo by F. Jay Haynes
Steamer Rosebud, photo by David F. Barry, circa
1880. * Col.-22H63
Washburn, Weston, and Expansion, at Bismarck, circa 1890,
photo by W.H. DeGraff * Fiske 7543
Benton Transportation Company boats, Fort Yates, circa 1910. Photo
by Frank B. Fiske. * B497
Missouri River steamboat passing Fort Yates. Photo by Frank B. Fiske.
* Fiske 550
6. Steamboats - Navigation II
US Army Corps of Engineers had the responsibility to keep the river
free of snags and other obstructions. As the river shifted, trees
on the banks would collapse into the river and become snags or sawyers.
Snags could disable or sink a passing vessel. If necessary, channels
were dredged to allow steamboats to pass beneath or by railroad
bridges. The Northern Pacific Railroad bridge at Bismarck , completed
in 1883, was built 50 feet above the water, allowing steamboats
to pass beneath.
Steamboat Josephine, US Army Corps of Engineers snag boat
USS Mandan, US Army Corps of Engineers snag boat * E354
George Benjamin, the 2nd Engineer of the McPherson, a U.S.
Army snag-boat. Taken by Frank E. Titus, 1st Engineer of the McPherson.
Crew of the U.S. Army snag-boat, McPherson. Taken by Frank
E. Titus, 1st Engineer of the McPherson. * A1895-11
Missouri River. High Water. Photo by Frank B. Fiske. *Fiske 1975
Crumbling River Bank. Photo by Frank B. Fiske.* Fiske 5769
7. Steamboats - Navigation lll
and motorized ferries allowed the transport of goods, wagons, and
automobiles across the river until the 1960s.
William Kimballs shipment of 6000 watermelons. Photo by Frank
B. Fiske.* Fiske 5216
Shipment of watermelons on the Benton from Fort Yates to
Bismarck. Photo by Frank B. Fiske. * Fiske 5217 -
Cattle on Barge. Photo by Frank B. Fiske. * Fiske 6166 -
Lily the First, a ferry across the Missouri to
the mouth of the Yellowstone River, circa 1885-1890. Photo by J.M.
Wies. * 221-26
Roams Ferry, near Williston. Photo by Kloss. * 32-WI-5-8
Elbowoods ferry, October 1953, Victor Young Bear, boatsman. Photo
by Alan Woolworth. * A3511
Ferry Carolina, Emmons County, circa 1920. * 281-32
Northern Pacific Railway ferry at Bismarck unloading flatcars, prior
to the bridge completion in 1882. * C649
8. Crossing the River - Fording I
constantly shifting channels, quicksand, and sandbars, the Missouri
presented enormous challenges for those who needed to cross it.
In winter, the frozen river provided a natural bridge people, animals,
and machines to cross. The spring melt and break up of the ice created
dangers that would result in the drowning of people and animals
as they sought to cross the river.
we found a number of carcases of the Buffaloe lying along shore,
which had been drowned by falling through the ice in winter and
lodged on shore by the high water when the river broke up about
the first of this month. Diary of Meriwether Lewis, April 13,
Cattle, Swimming across Missouri River near Williston, circa 1890.
Mail boat from Winona to Fort Yates. Photo by Frank B. Fiske,
circa 1920. * Fiske 5226
Leading a horse through river, circa 1918. * 86-1182
Leading a horse through river, circa 1918. * 86-1183
Leading a horse through river, circa 1918. * 86-1192
Leading a horse through river, circa 1918. * 86-1195
A perilous crossing of the Missouri River during freeze-up, 1910.
Photo by Frank B. Fiske. * Fiske 5947
9. Crossing the River - Fording II
Eighteen hundred head of cattle crossing the Missouri River ice
at Fort Yates in 1916. Photo by Frank B. Fiske. * A5018
Cattle and wagon load of hay crossing the river on ice, circa 1925.
Photo by Frank B. Fiske.* Fiske 3218
Crossing the river on channel ice with horse and wagon, circa 1925.
Photo by Frank B. Fiske. * Fiske 5960
Fording in a Ford - Crossing Missouri River on channel ice.
Photo by Frank B. Fiske, circa 1925.* Fiske 5965
Missouri River. High Water. Photo by Frank B. Fiske, circa
1925.* Fiske 1958
10. Bridging the River I
first bridge across the Missouri was the Northern Pacific bridge
at Bismarck. Soaring 50 feet above the high water level of the river,
the base of the piers rest 50-60 feet below the river. From September
1881 to June 1882 workers used pneumatic caissons (watertight, under-water
construction structures) to sink the middle piers to bedrock, risking
caissons disease, or the bends.
The creation of a national highway system in the 1920s resulted
in bridges for automobiles across the Missouri. The Liberty Memorial
bridge at Bismarck was completed in 1926, and was the first automobile
bridge across the Missouri in North Dakota. The Verendrye bridge
at Sanish was completed in 1927, and the Lewis and Clark bridge
at Williston in 1927. (3) Railroads and highways, built on east
to west routes, altered the north to south trade routes that had
been established for centuries. The Missouri was no longer a principal
means of moving man and goods.
Missouri River railroad bridge, Bismarck, D.T., September 1883 *
Missouri river flood, 1884. Transferring passengers via steamer
Helena * B190
Horses in river below Northern Pacific Railway bridge at Bismarck,
circa 1900-1905 * Fiske 2483
Ferry at Bismarck, circa 1908, with Northern Pacific Railway bridge
in background. * 151-61
Missouri river below Liberty Memorial bridge, Bismarck. * 800-28
11. Bridging the River II
Verendrye Memorial Bridge dedication at Sanish, August 5 - 6, 1927
* 739/Vol. 1/p. 28d
Image of Verendrye, from Crow Flies High Butte, July 1948. Photo
by Grant. * 760-16
Sanish bridge, circa 1926-27 * 56-234
Pontoon bridge at Williston, 1916. It was destroyed by ice in 1918.
Pasonault photo. * B392
Lewis and Clark Bridge at Williston * 56-35
12. Flooding I
on the Missouri River endangered not only transportation, but communication,
lives, and property. In a series of floods between 1884 and 1950,
homes and businesses were placed at jeopardy, and transportation
links were nearly severed.
The low-lying land adjacent to the river, known as the bottoms,
was frequently flooded. Seeds of cottonwood trees were spread by
flood waters and nourished by the rich silt deposits. Groves of
cottonwood provided habitant to numerous birds and animals.
we Saw a nomber of large Eagles which had nested on large cottonwood
trees. Diary of John Ordway, April 10, 1805 (4)
Bismarck flood, 1884, along the bottoms. Photo by David F. Barry
studio. * Col.-22H149
Missouri River, ice break up, spring 1884. * B355
Missouri River, ice jam at Mandan, 1884. Photo by F. Jay Haynes.
Northern Pacific railroad bridge, flood of 1884. * B319
Missouri river flood, 1884. W.H. DeGraff photo. * A3942
Northern Pacific Railroad, Mandan, during the March 3, 1923 flood.
Missouri river bottoms, near Bismarck, flood of 1934. Photo by E.J.
Taylor * C1077
13. Flooding II
the river was dammed, the bottoms have become desirable sites for
homes and businesses.
Missouri River breakup April 3, 1943, near Fort Yates. Photo by
Frank B. Fiske. * Fiske 5727
Indian Homes, Standing Rock Agency, Missouri River break-up April
2, 1943. Photo by Frank B. Fiske * Fiske 5758
Downtown Mandan, flood of March 25, 1943. * 497-13
Downtown Mandan, flood of March 25, 1943. * 497-17
Mandan flood, circa 1950s. * 276-23
14. Controling the River
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built rock stabilizing walls known
as revetments, to consolidate the shoreline and channel the river
Building Missouri River revetments from willow mats, circa 1920s.
Photo by Nancy Hendrickson. * Col. 25B19
Missouri River revetments on the west side, circa 1910. Photo by
A.E. Boyce. * D140
Missouri River revetments on the west side, circa 1910. * 151-21
Rip-raping river work on the Missouri, 1926 * 157-1
15. Garrison Dam I
flooding of the Missouri River forced people into action. The creation
of revetments to stabilize the shoreline and help to channel sections
of the river were one of the creations of the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers. The permanent creation of Garrison Dam marked the end
of the April and June rises, the perennial flooding of the Missouri.
But the dam came at a cost, thousands of acres were inundated and
native peoples up-rooted. Flood control, power generation and water
for agricultural irrigation, municipal use, and industrial use are
some of the benefits of the Garrison project. Municipal water systems,
such as the Southwest Pipeline project are tapping into the Missouris
The Garrison Dam was constructed from 1947 to 1954 at a cost of
$300 million. It is 210 feet high and 2.5 miles long. The five generating
units produce 2,600,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply
the annual power needs of 350,000 people. The towns of Riverdale
and Pick City were created to house the construction workers and
Garrison Dam and Riverdale, North Dakota, July 7, 1954 * C3746
Constructing Garrison Dam, 1950 * A7092
Garrison Damn. Photo by W.P. Sebens, North Dakota Soil Conservation
Committee * Col. 73-97
Side view of intake structure, June 18, 1952. Photo by W.P. Sebens,
North Dakota Soil Conservation Committee* A7107
Outlet wings, power house, foundation, Garrison Dam, June 18, 1952.
Photo by W.P. Sebens, North Dakota Soil Conservation Committee *
Garrison Dam spillway, used to disgorge excess water. North Dakota
Image of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Minot, ND, June 10,
1953. Eisenhower attended the closing of the dam ceremonies
on June 11, 1953. Photo by the Bismarck Tribune.
16. Garrison Dam II
1954 the waters of the Missouri River, held back by the new Garrison
Dam, began to fill the valley and cover several communities, including
the site of Like-a-Fishhook Village. The dam was to flood 156,000
acres of the Fort Berthold Reservation, all of it wooded bottomland
and bench lands where 90% of the tribal population lived.
You will excuse me if, first, I say that we will sign this contract
with a heavy heart. With a few scratches of the pen, we will sell
the best part of our reservation. Right now the future does not
look too good to us. (5) George Gillette, Chair of the Fort
Berthold Tribal Council, May 20, 1948.
Lo The Poor Indian, Washington Post, Friday, May 21,
1948. Photo courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos.
This photo of Tribal Chairman George Gillette and tribal council
members signing the legislation which resulted in the inundation
of Fort Berthold lands to the construction of Garrison Dam on
the Missouri. Left to right: Superintendent Ben Reifel, George
Gillette,Chair of the Council, Joseph Packinau, James Hall, Levi
Waters, and Mark Mahto. Seated: J.A. Krug, Secretary of the Interior.
Aerial view of Like-A-Fishhook Village taken in 1954. Photo by
Alan R. Woolworth. * 32ML2
View of Sanish from Crow Flies High butte, prior to flooding. Taken
in July 1958 by R.J. Elliott. * North Dakota State Outdoor Recreation
Agency collection - Crow Flies High -Sanish
View of Sanish from Crow Flies High butte, after flooding. * North
Dakota State Outdoor Recreation Agency collection - Crow Flies High
Towns inundated by the reservoir behind Garrison Dam. New Town was
created to replace the flooded communities of the Fort Berthold
Reservation. New Town celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 2001.
Garrison Dam. The reservoir behind the dam, initially slated to
be dubbed Lake Thompson, was named Lake Sakakawea, in honor of the
Sakakawea, the Hidatsa woman who accompanied the Lewis and Clark
expedition of 1804 to 1806 * A7120
17. Agriculture I
peoples used the bottom lands of the Missouri River for gardens
after the river had deposited its yearly nourishment of silt. Corn,
beans, squash, and pumpkins grown by native peoples supplemented
the diet of the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Native peoples
seeds formed the basis for new plant varieties introduced by the
Oscar Will Seed Company to farmers of the region.
Irrigation has long been a vision for agriculture along the Missouri.
A variety of pumps and ditches have been used to bring water to
land adjacent to the river. The Garrison Diversion Project was part
of the vision of the Garrison Dam, to irrigate the farmlands of
central North Dakota.
Mandan people, well known for their gardens along the river by the
time Lewis and Clark visited Crow Chiefs village in 1804.
Crow Chief is depicted standing on his house, the Hidatsa woman
is carrying a basket typically used to transport corn and other
Mandan Villages near the Knife River, illustrated by Sitting Rabbit,
a Mandan, in 1907.* SHSND 800
Field Irrigation * 96-193
Corn irrigation on Missouri River bottoms, R.L. Williamson farm,
Buford, North Dakota. * 96-205
Oscar Will Seed Company catalog.
Missouri River near Fort A. Lincoln State Park, 1970. North Dakota
Tourism Department * TC 1938
Missouri River near Fort A. Lincoln State Park, 1970. North Dakota
Tourism Department * TC 1939
18. Agriculture II
Irrigation gate and boys. * 399-45
Fume and pipeline from pump, R.H. Leroy farm, Mandan. * 96-163
Field Irrigation, Mandan Nursery, Soil Conservation Service, taken
June 17, 1938. * 96-192
Irrigation Ditch, Bismarck Victory Gardens, circa 1942. During World
War II, people were encouraged to aid the war effort by growing
their own, Victory Garden. * 96-100
A wood pump constructed by Mr. Lasey, Livona. Not suitable for
lifts over 12 Ft. * 96-155
12" Pump on Stout Farm on Missouri River flats west of Livona.
Electric pump and motor on Richard C. Ike, irrigated garden, Williston,
North Dakota. * 96-158
19. Economic Activities I
harvesting of ice was an economic activity necessary prior to the
advent of refrigeration. Ice was cut from the river and hauled to
insulated storehouses, where it would last into the late summer.
The trees along the Missouri provided building materials for native
peoples, traders, and early American settlers. Sawmills eventually
replaced the earlier wood hawks who supplied the timber necessary
to power the steamboats.
The BP Amoco refinery at Mandan uses 516 million gallons of water
per year in the refinery process, to make steam and cool equipment.
Eight coal-fired generating plants draw water from the Missouri
River or Lake Sakakawea. Each year 159.5 billion gallons (6) of
water is drawn from and returned to the Missouri and 10.2 billion
gallons of water is drawn and consumed in the production of electricity.(7)
Electricity produced by Garrison Dam and the eight coal-fired generating
stations is carried on high power transmission lines to eastern
Missouri River saw mill, White Earth, 1908. * A3209
Missouri River, putting up ice at Fort Yates, circa 1900. Photo
by Frank B. Fiske* Fiske 258.
Missouri River, ice cutting by the military, circa 1900. Photo by
Frank B. Fiske* Fiske 1238
Shell Creek Indians harvesting ice, Fort Berthold Reservation. *
Grain Elevator and Frayne at Deapolis, 1916. Photo by Frank B. Fiske*
20. Economic Activities II
Missouri provides water to the nine power generating plants in North
Dakota as well as the BP Amoco refinery at Mandan. Built in 1954
by Standard Oil Company, it is near Rock Haven, the old ice harbor
for steamboats and gasoline packet boats on the banks of the river.
The BP Amoco refinery draws in 803 million gallons per year and
it is used to help refine 21.5 million barrels of oil per day. The
refinery cleans, treats, and returns to the Missouri, 277 million
gallons per year.(8)
Electrical transmission tower * 96-236
Standard Oil Refinery, Mandan, October 1957. * C532
Mandan Refinery construction, October 1954. * 767-5
Power Plant at Garrison Dam * C-621
Coal Creek Station near Underwood, North Dakota, circa 2000. * Courtesy
of Great River Energy.
21. Recreation I
Missouri River became a source of recreation after World War II.
The wood hulled power boats have given way to aluminum and fiberglass
boats as recreation on the river and reservoir have increased. Lake
Sakakawea, created behind the Garrison Dam in 1954 is 178 miles
long, with 1,530 miles of shoreline and covers 382,000 acres. It
is the third largest man-made lake in the United States and contains
32 percent of all the stored water in the Missouri River dam system.
The Missouri River, the route of the Lewis & Clark expedition
from 1804-1806, has become a tourism destination as Americans re-trace
the Corps of Discovery.
Boating, circa 1915. Photo by Frank B. Fiske* Fiske 6472
Motorboats near Williston, circa 1930. * 7549
Santa Claus water skiing on Missouri River. Dec 22, 1957. Courtesy
of Bismarck Tribune * B629
Rikers Marina, Mandan, August 12, 1959. Photo by Mohr * 907-20
Water skiing on the Missouri * 382-21
Missouri River, trip by row-boat, 1925. * A5179
22. Recreation II
Boating on the Missouri. North Dakota Tourism Department Sailboat
on Lake Sakakawea. North Dakota Tourism Department
Fishing. The Missouri is teaming with fish such as walleye, northern
pike, sturgeon, paddlefish. * ND Highway Department, Travel Division,
Ferry Boat on Lake Sakakawea. * ND Highway Department, Travel Division,
Swimming, Missouri River June 1970 * ND Highway Department, Travel
Division, C-1668 -
Children at a boat dock, July 1970 * ND Highway Department, Travel
Fort Union National Historic Site on the Missouri, near Williston.
North Dakota Tourism Department
Heritage Outbound canoe trip, re-tracing Lewis & Clark adventure,
July 2000 * SHSND
This exhibit was produced by the State Historical Society
of North Dakota. Funding was provided by Lewis & Clark Enhancement
Funds appropriated by the 1999 State Legislature.
1. Brant [Lesser Snow Geese], Maple [boxelder], and arrow wood [June
berry]. Clay Jenkinson, ed., Lewis and Clark in North Dakota: a
Bicentennial Edition. The Complete North Dakota Journals, (Bismarck,
ND: State Historical Society of North Dakota, 2001).
2. Clay Jenkinson, ed., Lewis and Clark in North Dakota: a Bicentennial
Edition. The Complete North Dakota Journals, (Bismarck, ND: State
Historical Society of North Dakota, 200 1).
3. Completed 1 July 1927. Word & Picture Story of Williston
and Area Since 1887: 75th Anniversary & Diamond Jubilee, 1967,
4. Clay Jenkinson, ed., Lewis and Clark in North Dakota: a Bicentennial
Edition. The Complete North Dakota Journals, (Bismarck, ND: State
Historical Society of Nort h Dakota, 2001).
5. Typewritten remarks by George Gillette, Chair of Fort Berthold
Tribal Council. Preserved in Accession File 13037, M useum & Educat
ion Div isi on, State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck,
6. 1 acre foot = 1 foot of water over the area of one acre OR 1 acre
foot = 325,851 gallons. 489,411.3 acre feet X 325,851 gallons = 159,475,161,516.3
gallons. 31,288.9 acre feet X 325,851 gallons = 10,195226,088.9 gallons
7. Figures provided by Rex Honeyman, Hydrologist, State Water Commission.
8. Figures provided by Doug Scheetz, BP Amoco Mandan Refinery.