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, and then retired from and climbed over in some softer place; and of sand-bars which we roosted on occasionally, and rested, and then got out our crutches and sparred over. In fact, the boat might almost have gone to St. Jo. by land, for she was walking most of the time, anyhow…. The captain said she was a “bully” boat, and all she wanted was more “shear” and a bigger wheel. I thought she wanted a pair of stilts, but I had the deep sagacity not to say so….

These few complaints can stand for thousands. The Missouri was a voracious river, draining more than half a million square miles of canyon and plain. It constantly ate its own banks, trees and all, so many trees that the editor Timothy Flint said that in places the river resembled a field of dead trees—indeed, the Swiss artist Karl Bodmer painted just such a scene in the great series of watercolors he did in 1833–1834 for his patron Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied.

Nonetheless, for a century and a half, the Missouri functioned as a kind of superhighway. It was the best road to the Deep West, traveled by everybody who was anybody—painters, princes, generals, capitalists, mountain men, adventurers of several nations—as well as the merely hopeful, the many thousands of nameless immigrants who were just looking for a little piece of land, a parcel of America, to call their own; these hopefuls were willing to risk any danger and endure any hardship to secure their little homeplace.


The sight of moving water is affecting—humans love to walk by it, build beside it, fish in it, bathe in it, or merely stand on a bridge and look at it. Even though unstable itself, the sight of moving water makes people feel somehow more stable. City dwellers come to feel that they own the rivers running through their cities, even while recognizing that nobody really owns rivers. Some of the greatest buildings in Europe can be seen from river boats on the Thames or the Seine, the Danube or the Rhine. New York can be seen from the Hudson and the East River, Washington from the Potomac, Pittsburgh from the Ohio, and so on. Even a few small cities still have vital waterfronts: Louisville, Memphis, Baton Rouge.

But there are rivers long and wild, with no great buildings or notable cities beside them: the Lena and the Yenesei, the Congo, the Yangtze, even the Amazon (despite that opera house in Manaus).

The Missouri is a river of the second sort. When low and sluggish it invites contempt, when in flood a kind of horror. Here, for example, is the first recorded European impression—at least the first that we know of for sure. Father Jacques Marquette and his companion Jolliet were drifting down the Mississippi, gazing at some “ruined castles” said to be the home of Indian gods, “when they were suddenly aroused by a real danger”:

A torrent of yellow mud rushed furiously athwart the calm blue current of the Mississippi: boiling and surging, and sweeping in its course logs, branches, and uprooted trees. They had reached the mouth of the Missouri, where that savage river, descending from its mad career through a vast unknown of barbarism, poured its turbid floods into the bosom of its gentler sister. Their light canoes whirled on the miry vortex like dry leaves on an angry brook. “I never,” writes Marquette, “saw any thing more terrific”; but they escaped with their fright, and held their way down the turbulent and swollen current of the now united rivers. They passed the lonely forest that covered the site of the destined city of St. Louis, and, a few days later, saw on their left the mouth of the stream to which the Iroquois had given the well-merited name of Ohio, or the Beautiful River….

Thus the historian Francis Parkman, reporting for Marquette and editorializing as he does. The Missouri is “yellow,” a baleful color to begin with. It “careers through a vast unknown of barbarism”; it compares unfavorably with the Ohio, the beautiful river that comes from the east—that is, from civilization, the opposite of barbarism, though many of the Iroquois’ captives would have allowed that they were barbaric enough. But Francis Parkman did like to dramatize his histories; he picks up “turbid,” one of George Catlin’s favorite adjectives. Catlin, like Parkman, after all had books to sell. A factor in his failure to sell his portfolio to the nation was the fear among some congressmen that showing so many Indians in their splendor—and their humanity—might arouse undue sympathy in the public at large, making it that much harder to displace the soon-to-be-evicted Five Civilized Tribes and get them started on their woeful journey along the Trail of Tears. In time many of the pictures did end up in the Smithsonian, donated by the widow of one of Catlin’s creditors.

For all his crankiness, George Catlin was no fool. He saw quite clearly that the native life he was recording would soon vanish; the very fact that he could travel all the way to the Yellowstone River on a steamboat told him that. The trickiest part of his task was convincing the Indians that, by taking their image, he was not stealing part of themselves. The photographers who would soon flood the West had the same problem. Catlin quickly learned that the chiefs who posed for him would not tolerate any attempt to draw them in profile—where was the other half of them? The subjects (and the medicine men) men wanted to know.

The sale of his portfolio to the nation failed, but before he departed these shores (for thirty-one years) George Catlin took the trouble to invent the Wild West Show, a species of which he produced in 1839.


The American West as we know it today came about in response to European—particularly Spanish—disappointment. Nothing that any European power ever did in the Americas prior to our own century equaled, for drama, what Spain did in its initial strikes at Mexico and Peru. Between 1519, when Cortez took Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), and 1533, when Atahuallpa the Inca was strangled in Peru, two old, elaborate empires collapsed before the aggression of a handful of European invaders. The treasures these two countries yielded were not to be easily matched. Though of course, in the long term, the Spanish took plenty out of North America.

The British and French came a little late to the New World party. Having found no Mexico and no Peru they were not troubled by the sense of let-down that the Spanish felt. In the western regions, when they finally got there, both furs and souls interested the French—for the British, furs alone were enough. Even though the English ultimately won the struggle for Canada, the French didn’t really leave, and still haven’t. Spend a night in Quebec, or Montreal.

The Hudson’s Bay Company, the Microsoft of its era, could not have flourished as it did without legions of French trappers. Lewis and Clark themselves had a number of French engagés when they started up the river in 1804. By my reckoning there were some forty small expeditions up the Missouri River before Lewis and Clark, many of which depended on the expertise, and the muscle, of French boatmen; and St. Louis, the Gateway, was at first a French city.

It seems clear now that the United States at the end of the eighteenth century was poised to make an irresistible surge to the West, but this surge was much assisted by French calculation—specifically, Napoleon’s calculation, seconded by his minister, Talleyrand, not to compete. The latter had not enjoyed his exile in America, though it probably enabled him to keep his head. Napoleon hadn’t enjoyed his defeats in Santo Domingo, either. Perhaps both men recognized that their genius was continental. Napoleon had England, Austria, and Spain to think about, with Russia already in his dreams. The American West was both too empty and too far.

The other great player in the story of the Missouri River, Thomas Jefferson, thus received an extraordinary plum, the Louisiana Purchase, the deal for which “closed,” as the realtors say, just before Lewis and Clark started up the river in 1804. Jefferson’s principal worry had been that the British would somehow manage to seal us off at the Mississippi. He worried less about Spain, perhaps reckoning that thousands of little American mice would slowly nibble away until the Spanish empire in the West had been quietly consumed.

Since the 1780s at least, Thomas Jefferson had been looking for someone to ascend the Missouri River and make a thorough report; the first person he approached was George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s big brother. George Rogers Clark declined. Then Jefferson tried Joseph Ledyard, a wanderer, who decided that the smart approach would be to sprint across Siberia and do America from west to east. The Russians, however, promptly kicked Ledyard out, leaving Jefferson to try and tempt, separately, two botanists, Moses Marshall and André Michaux. Marshall declined and Michaux turned out to be a schemer whose schemes did not include the Missouri River.

The achievement of Lewis and Clark has rightly dominated American thinking about the early West. Most Americans who think historically at all probably recall that there were some French trappers paddling their canoes around somewhere in the northern reaches of the Missouri’s drainage system; they may also recall that there were some Spaniards over in Santa Fe, where all the nice New York shops now have branches. A few may even remember that there was once something called the Fur Trade, but that’s about as far as historical reflection gets, in regard to the West.

For those who want to look deeper, two excellent books should be mentioned: A.P. Nasatir’s Before Lewis and Clark,1 and Louise Barry’s The Beginnings of the West.2 These books contain accurate and formidable lists of the travelers—dozens of them, most of them Spanish and French—who were out and about in the West well before Lewis and Clark. Such lists are useful mainly because they show how very determined the European powers were to find whatever was valuable in the West and secure as much of the valuables as possible for themselves or their crowns.

The reader might wonder why I mention the Spanish explorers in a piece about the Missouri River, since few of them ranged that far east or northwest. I put them in because the Spanish were extremely vigorous in their efforts to extend their trading reach. When Lewis and Clark finally got to Idaho and began to purchase horses from the local tribes, they discovered that some of the horses bore Spanish brands. The Spanish authorities in New Mexico were fully aware of what Lewis and Clark meant for the future of their territory. They sent four expeditions to try to head them off, three under Pedro Vial and one under Facundo Malgres; the latter captured Zebulon Pike two years later. But the captains slipped by.

Besides, from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries the great trade portal in the interior West was Santa Fe—Spanish until 1821, then Mexican. There was no settlement in the upper West to compare with it. Santa Fe provided the logical, and for long the dominant, trade link with St. Louis, and a great many of the well-known soldiers of fortune who went up the Missouri did so only as far as the overland embarkation points in northern Missouri: St. Joseph, Independence, Westport Landing. The Missouri took an almost continuous stream of traders north to the jumping-off points. From whence they jumped off and headed west, for Santa Fe.


On their way back down the Missouri in the summer of 1806, Lewis and Clark amiably discharged the expedition member John Colter, so that he could go trapping with two adventurous souls Captain Clark had run into on the Yellowstone. These bold trappers were Joseph Dixon and Forrest Hancock, and John Colter’s decision to join them on the dangerous Yellowstone might be said to have ushered in the era of the Mountain Men, a colorful and various company that eventually grew to include Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, Hugh Glass, Thomas Fitzpatrick, James Beckwourth, Charles Bent, Old Bill Williams, Peg-Leg Smith, Uncle Dick Wotton, Ezekiel Williams, Zenas Leonard, James Pattie, and many more. Though the greatest of the these was probably Jedediah Smith, one of the few mountain men who sought geographical knowledge for its own sake, and added much to what was then known about the interior West, the only names from that roster that might register with the public now today are Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, and few could describe with accuracy what either of those men did.

What all mountain men did, first and foremost, was to attempt to catch and skin as many as possible of the millions of small fur-bearing animals that inhabited the prairie or mountain streams, an activity that very often brought them into sharp and sometimes fatal conflict with native tribes. It says something about the fierce force of commercial instinct that so much effort could be expended, and such great distances crossed, to establish trade relations with scattered bands of Indians whose groups were small in number and usually very poor. And yet the dependence of even the poorest tribes on the white man’s hatchets and fish hooks was established almost immediately, pelts being what the whites got in return. Once a trading relationship was established, the Indians fought hard to maintain their advantage.

In this regard the river Indians along the Missouri, particularly the Arikaras and the Mandans, enjoyed a distinct advantage. The great river made them reachable, and allowed them, very quickly, to establish themselves as middlemen between the white traders and nomadic tribes such as the Sioux. The failure of even well-armed fur traders to crack this hegemony drove the mountain men, for a time, off the river and into the mountains from whence their dangerous profession took its name.

The climax of this short chapter in the history of American commerce came in 1823, when the Arikaras defeated a company of trappers led by the flamboyant but not always sufficiently cautious William Ashley. The Arikaras won that fight decisively; and a foolish attempt to punish them by militia commanded by Colonel Henry Leavenworth—after whom a famous federal prison is named—ended in fiasco as well. The Arikaras and the Mandans continued to hold the central section of the Missouri for a time, though not for long. Smallpox, a weapon deadlier than cannon, decimated the river villages in the 1830s—by the end of that bitter decade the Arikaras and the Mandans had been reduced almost to remnant populations.

William Ashley, not daunted, then helped to develop the rendezvous system, in which all the mountain men in the central Rockies would gather in a certain spot once a season to trade their furs, swap stores, and in general enjoy a great binge. (A quaint vestige of these wild gatherings is the annual rally of Harley-Davidson riders that have recently been assembling in Sturgis, South Dakota.)

Almost all the mountain men mentioned in my list used the Missouri River at one time or another in their careers; their contribution to the lore and legend of the Missouri has been vast but their direct contribution to its literature is minute. A few of them left short journals (Jedediah Smith) or dictated autobiographies (Kit Carson). Others, with the aid of obedient ghostwriters, spun long, self-glorifying narratives (Beckwourth). Almost all of these men now have biographies, sometimes several biographies, but these mostly had to wait until the middle of the twentieth century, and vary greatly in quality.

Few of these mountain men would have bothered to complain about the Missouri River and its whims—complaint was left to the aesthetes who soon came. The mountain men, following Lewis and Clark’s lead, took a matter-of-fact approach to the river. A mountain man, noticing an acre or so of the river bank about to fall into the water, would bestir himself so as not to be underneath it; but he would not allow such trifles to disturb his sleep.

From the return of Lewis and Clark in 1806 to the close of the Indian wars in the 1880s the Missouri remained the superhighway, its function as a quick road to the Deep West not yet usurped by the railroads—although the railroads were rapidly closing in. The Union Pacific and the Northern Pacific soon divided the carrier functions that had once belonged almost solely to Old Misery.


For the Indians of the central Missouri the 1830s were the decade of smallpox, a scourge that destroyed forever their power as river-keepers. For artists, though, the 1830s provided a golden moment, the last moment in fact when it was possible to capture in oil or watercolor or charcoal sketch the great diversity of the native peoples of the West at the height of their splendor and strength. Three artists in particular profited from this moment: George Catlin, who worked for himself; Karl Bodmer, who worked for Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied; and Alfred Jacob Miller, who was taken on by the great Scottish sportsman William Drummond Stewart. (Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s son, also worked for a time for the flamboyant Scot, helping to gather animals for his game park back in Scotland.)

These three painters shared a collective bonanza: they got to the right places at the right times. Alfred Jacob Miller went west along the Platte and into the Rockies. Catlin and Bodmer both stuck to the river; each spent time at Fort Union, at the Missouri’s junction with the Yellowstone, and Bodmer went on, with his persistent prince, all the way to Fort Mackenzie, which was about as far as boats went on the Missouri in that day.

Catlin, as I have said, went upriver in 1832, Bodmer in 1833–1834, and Miller in 1837. By the time their Indian pictures were shown many of their sitters were already dead of smallpox. Ironically, Catlin’s Indian gallery was touring Europe just as Karl Bodmer was putting the final, exacting touches on his wonderful, delicate aquatints. Although neither Bodmer nor his prince liked Catlin’s work, both hoped that some of his popularity would rub off and yield a few subscriptions for Bodmer’s expensive albums. Catlin’s small fame didn’t rub off, but Bodmer’s work survived. His extraordinary watercolor Mih-Tutta-Hang-Kush, which shows a Mandan village on the Missouri’s freezing banks—it was 46 below the day Bodmer made the sketch—remains, for me at least, the summit of Missouri River art. Nothing has ever caught so well the bleakness of those hills and that river in winter’s heart (see illustration on page 53).

Karl Bodmer must have felt that he never wanted to be in a place that exposed or that cold again; he spent the rest of his life drawing cozy forest scenes for French magazines. Yet his and his prince’s great work, Reise in das Innere Nord-America in den Jahren 1832 bis 1834—though commercially a failure of such proportions that only a prince could have afforded it—remains probably the greatest treasure among art works dealing with the American West.


When I began this essay I thought I would follow Missouri River narratives from Father Marquette in the seventeenth century to Custer and Cody, near the end of the nineteenth. If there were forty or fifty expeditions that followed the river for at least some little distance before Lewis and Clark, hundreds poured up the river in the decades after the captains came home. Many of these travelers left at least some scraps of narrative: Bradbury and Brackenridge, Prince Maximilian and Prince Paul, Zebulon Pike, Stephen Long, John Fremont, and the various surveyors; Washington Irving and Timothy Flint; Sherman, Sheridan, Miles, the Custers, Crook; a medley of Indian chiefs including Red Cloud and Sitting Bull; bureaucrats and scientists by the score; Ned Buntline, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and, as I have said, virtually all the mountain men.

I thought it might be fun to ramble around in all those purple autobiographies and pull out a quote here and a quote there: but that was before I read The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the thirteen-volume University of Nebraska edition, wonderfully and wisely edited by Gary E. Moulton, after which reading the purple autobiographies ceased to be half as much fun.3 Lewis and Clark loom over the narrative literature of the West as the Rockies loom over the rivers that run through them. These Journals are to the narrative of the American West as the Iliad is to the epic or as Don Quixote is to the novel: a first exemplar so great as to contain in embryo the genre’s full potential. The narrative writing about the West that came before Lewis and Clark seems fragmentary and slight; what came after them seems insipid and slight, lacking both the scale and the force of those Journals.

By executing their mission so ably, and by describing it so fully, Lewis and Clark claimed the West for America—and the claim succeeded. That their words, in the unabridged Nebraska version, followed their deeds by nearly two hundred years doesn’t matter very much. We now know the deeds in fine detail. But the happy year that I spent with these Journals cost me my appetite for the musings of Libbie Custer or the exaggerations of Buffalo Bill Cody.

The only supplements that really add anything to what Lewis and Clark left us are the albums of the three painters: Catlin, Bodmer, Miller—with Audubon’s Quadrupeds as a welcome fourth. Very fortunately the painters followed closely enough upon the captains to be able to record the native people’s great vigor before disease and conflict destroyed it. Thanks to the character, courage, and ability of these few men we can now know what the West was like before the prairie was plowed, the buffalo killed, the native peoples broken, and the mighty Missouri damned.

  1. 1

    St. Louis Historical Documents Foundation, 1952; University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

  2. 2

    Kansas State Historical Society, 1972.

  3. 3

    See my review in these pages, February 8, 2001.