Life on the Missouri

The Missouri River has been much used but not much loved. An argument could be made that, historically, it is the most important waterway in North America, but significance does not always breed affection. People love domesticated rivers—the Seine, the Thames, the Danube—or even semi-domesticated rivers—the Nile, the Mississippi. They don’t love the Missouri, although they may fear it.

Some of the rivermen who have to work with the Missouri day in and day out call it Old Misery, because of the difficulty of getting a boat up it or down it. Its snags are so legendary that the painter George Catlin, in a mot of which he was proud, called it the River of Sticks (Styx), and this despite the fact that he himself went up in some luxury on the steamboat Yellowstone on that vessel’s maiden voyage in 1832. Catlin also called the Missouri a “filthy abyss,” a “Hell of waters,” a “huge and terrible deformity of waters,” and so forth. But for the fact that he refused to illustrate the pioneer ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft’s extensive researches into Native American life, thus making a powerful enemy, Catlin would probably have succeeded in selling his laboriously accumulated Indian portfolio to the nation. The portfolio consisted of 310 portraits and 200 other pictures, representing 48 tribes. When the sale fell through—narrowly defeated in the Congress—Catlin left America, showed his pictures in London and Paris, and lived as a kind of mountebank, traveling as far as Tierra del Fuego. Schoolcraft did give him a nice blurb when his book came out.

His fellow artist, the Haitian-born, mostly French John James Audubon, who went up the Missouri in 1843, didn’t bother bad-mouthing the river, preferring to bad-mouth Catlin instead:

We have seen much remarkably handsome scenery, but nothing at all comparing with Catlin’s descriptions; his book must, after all, be altogether a humbug….

The most common complaints against the river were snags—trees, stumps, branches—and mud. Captain William Clark estimated that every pint of the Missouri’s water would yield a wine-glass of ooze—or mud. Catlin claimed that if he dropped a white shell in a glass of Missouri water he could only detect the shell from a distance of an eighth of an inch.

Mark Twain didn’t write much about the Missouri—he had given his heart to the Mississippi—but the paragraph he does devote to it, at the beginning of Roughing It, has his usual snap:

We were six days going from St. Louis to “St. Jo.”—a trip that was so dull, and sleepy, and eventless that it has left no more impression on my memory than if its duration had been six minutes instead of that many days. No record is left in my mind, now, concerning it, but a confused jumble of savage-looking snags, which we deliberately walked over with one wheel or the other; and of reefs which we butted and butted …

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