The Missouri River: Historical Overview

The Missouri River: Historical Overview Exhibit Exhibit Featured at NDSU Libraries

1. Title Panel “The Missouri River: A Historical Overview”


Missouri River Valley prior to construction of Garrison Dam * 760-24



2. “Scenic Missouri River”

The 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 * TC1400

3. “Native Peoples and the River” I

Peoples, 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 Heaven’s village (Lower Hidatsa), Black Moccasin’s village (Sakakawea), and Bad House’s 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. * 86-221

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

Native 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 Clark’s 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 boats

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

In 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 the Missouri.

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 * A5821

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

The 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 * C739

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. * A1895-24

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

Barges and motorized ferries allowed the transport of goods, wagons, and automobiles across the river until the 1960s.

William Kimball’s 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

With 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, 1805 (2)

Cattle, Swimming across Missouri River near Williston, circa 1890. * A3702

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

The 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 * C311

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

Flooding 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. * A4278

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. * A4160

Missouri river bottoms, near Bismarck, flood of 1934. Photo by E.J. Taylor * C1077

13. “Flooding” II

Since 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”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built rock stabilizing walls known as revetments, to consolidate the shoreline and channel the river for navigation.

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

Continual 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 Missouri’s water.

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 their families.

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 * A7108

Garrison Dam spillway, used to disgorge excess water. North Dakota Tourism Department

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

In 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 - Newtown

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

Native 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 Chief’s 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 garden produce.

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.
* 96-157

Electric pump and motor on Richard C. Ike, irrigated garden, Williston, North Dakota. * 96-158

19. “Economic Activities” I

The 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 customers.

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. * 270-73

Grain Elevator and Frayne at Deapolis, 1916. Photo by Frank B. Fiske* Fiske 6286

20. “Economic Activities” II

The 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

The 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

Riker’s 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, C-392 -

Ferry Boat on Lake Sakakawea. * ND Highway Department, Travel Division, C-1464 -

Swimming, Missouri River June 1970 * ND Highway Department, Travel Division, C-1668 -

Children at a boat dock, July 1970 * ND Highway Department, Travel Division, C-2525

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, pp. 138-139.

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, ND.

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.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller