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(1658) was the date given by local historian, Charles van Ravenswaay, for the first visit by white men to this area. He believed this honor belonged to Pierre Radisson, a French Canadian, and his brother-in-law, Medard Chouart, Sieur des Grosselliers. Radisson wrote in his journal that he had been where the great river (the Mississippi) divided itself. The river was called the “Forked,” because it had two branches: one towards the west, the other towards the north. They went up the Missouri, or the west fork as they knew it.


(1673) Father Pierre Marquette and Louis Joliet became the first Europeans to record seeing the Missouri River.


“As we were gently sailing down the still, clear water, we heard a noise of a rapid into which we were about to fall. I have seen nothing more frightful, a mass of large trees entire with branches, real floating islands came from Pekitanoui [Missouri River], so impetuous that we could not without great danger expose ourselves to pass across. The agitation was so great that the water was all muddy, and could not get clear. The Pekitanoui is a considerable river coming from the northwest and empties into the Mississippi. Many towns are located on this river and I hope to make the discovery of the Vermilion or California Sea [Pacific Ocean].”

Pekitanoui in the language of Marquette’s Peoria Indian guides meant “Great Muddy.” However the two explorers did not venture up its turbid waters.


The next European to record the Missouri was Robert Sieur de la Salle. He claimed the drainage of the Mississippi River for France. He passed the mouth of the Missouri River on September 1, 1682. He did not ascend the river but wrote that its “water is always thick and to which our Indians did not forget to offer sacrifice.” The “sacrifice” would have been a gift of tobacco placed in the water to placate a water spirit, the Underwater Panther. It was plea for the Underwater Panther to allow them to pass peacefully and not pull them into the river to drown. 


In 1683, LaSalle wrote that two Frenchmen had been captured by the Missouria tribe and had been living in their villages since 1680 or 1681. In May or June of 1683, two unnamed French traders accompanied by Kaskaskia (Iliniwek) Indians visited the Missouria and Osage, with the goal of establishing peace and trade. It seems likely that these men or the ones recorded by LaSalle were the origin of the Osage tradition about meeting white men for the first time. The last mention of the Missouri River in the 17th century was by Father Jerome St. Cosme in 1698. He sought native converts to Catholicism but said little about the river itself.   


In 1700 an unidentified writer told Governor Iberville in the capital of Biloxi that the land west of the Mississippi beyond three or four leagues (10-15 miles) was unknown. Pierre-Charles Le Sueur reported that on the Missouri River there were tin and lead mines. He also described the Missouria tribe as the first people to be encountered when going upriver.  Father Marest of the Kaskaskia mission in the Illinois Country also described in 1700 the Kaw, Pawnee, Otoe and Ioway tribes along the Missouri and said that they all had Spanish horses. However neither man had been on the Missouri River. Rather they got these reports from Indians visiting trade centers in Illinois.   


In 1702 Father Marc Bergier in Illinois asked for permission to establish a mission among the Pawnee and Kaw on the Missouri River. He wanted to go to them because the “Osage were too numerous and the Missouria were reduced to nothing.” It is possible he was referring to one the first of many smallpox epidemics that began reducing the Missouria who were described as “once the most powerful nation on the Missouri River.” The Osage said that the Missouria were too friendly with the French and as a result the weluschka, Little Mystery Men, living inside the white men caused many Missouria to sicken and die.


In 1703 Governor Iberville reported that a party of 20 Canadians departed Cahokia intent on reaching New Mexico via the Missouri River. The commonly held belief was that the headwaters of the Missouri formed near the silver mines north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. On September 6, 1704 Governor Bienville reported that parties of French-Canadian traders were traveling on the Mississippi and Missouria in bands of seven or eight. Undoubtedly, courier des bois (woods runners) had been on the Missouri for years to hunt or trade with Indians. However, these people were illiterate and their activities were often unknown to the territorial government.


The first definite and detailed exploration of the Missouri was by Etienne Veniard de Bourgmont in 1714. Bourgmont married into the Missouria tribe and also lived for a period with the Osage. A map produced in 1717 from Bourgmont’s notes presented a reasonably accurate map of the Missouri from its mouth to the mouth of the Platte River in Nebraska.


Groups of French-Canadian hunters and traders continued pressing further upriver each year. By the time the French secretly surrendered Louisiana to Spain in 1762, the Missouri River as far as the Niobrara River in Nebraska, was well known to traders from St. Louis. Spain on the other hand was slow to press any further exploration of the Missouri River. In the meantime British traders from Hudson Bay and the Northwest Company began trading with the Mandan and Hidatsa in North Dakota.


Spanish officials formed the “Missouri Company” to counter British activities on the Missouri River. Jean Baptiste Truteau was commissioned to explore the river and establish a trading post for the Mandan. He got underway in the spring of 1794, but was robbed of his trade goods by the Teton Lakota (Sioux) and did not return to St. Louis until 1796. In 1795 another expedition departed St. Louis under the leadership of a man named Lecuyer, to support Truteau. Lecuyer stopped at a Ponca village near the mouth of the Niobrara River where he took up residence and at least two wives. It was reported that he “wasted a great deal of the goods of the Company."


James Mackay, a Scotsman had traded with the Mandan as early as 1787. He became disaffected with the British and became a citizen of Spanish Louisiana in 1793. He and John T. Evans were commissioned to proceed up the Missouri, make allies with Indian nations, expel the British and find a route to the Pacific Ocean. They departed in August of 1795 with thirty men and four pirogues with trade goods for the Arikara, Sioux, and Mandan. The built a small fort at the Otoe village and made an alliance with the Omaha, where they built Fort Charles. After spending the winter with the Omaha, Evans proceeded to the Mandan in June of 1796 but was delayed by the Arikara. He took possession of a British fort in June and raised the Spanish flag in the Mandan village. However his trade goods were low and the British traders undermined his efforts with a large supply of superior trade goods.


Mackay and Evans returned to St. Louis in the summer of 1797. Although their mission failed to establish a strong Spanish presence on the upper Missouri River, their journals, tables of physical features and maps from their expedition would be of great benefit to the Lewis and Clark Expedition seven years later.


Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are noted for their exploration from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. President Jefferson requested funding to explore Louisiana in January of 1803, before Napoleon even offered to sell the territory. After the U.S. acquired the territory on April 3, 1803, impetus was added to the need for an expedition to explore the new land. Jefferson’s appointed his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, and Lewis’s friend William Clark, to lead the expedition. Their mission was to meet and inform Indian nations along the way, of America’s ownership of the territory and also search for a water route to the Pacific Coast, the fabled “Northwest Passage.” They were also to record the plant, animal and geologic features they encountered. They traded and explored along the Missouri River. This area was becoming fairly familiar to whites by 1800. The voyages of exploration were about to come to an end.

(1804) The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark,

leaves St. Louis up the Missouri River to find a trading route to the Pacific

(Courtesy of Missouri Bicentennial Timeline)

“The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, leaves St. Louis in a 55-foot keelboat to begin an epic two-year journey westward up the Missouri River to reach the Pacific Ocean near present-day Astoria, Oregon. Among the crew members was Shoshone Indian and translator Sacagawea joined the corps at the Hidatsa villages during the winter of 1804-1805 while she was six months pregnant and gave birth along the way. She was familiar with the terrain having grown up in the region of the Rocky Mountains. Sacagawea was one of the wives to a French-Canadian fur trader, who was a member of the crew. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition to explore the Missouri River, make diplomatic contact with Indians, expand the American fur trade, and locate the Northwest Passage - a then hypothetical northwestern water route to the Pacific Ocean.”

LEWIS and CLARK’s expedition was commissioned by the U.S. Government in 1804 to explore the upper Missouri and search for its source. Additionally, the U.S. had just acquired the Huge Louisiana Territory, and didn’t know what they had. While the official reason for the expedition was to explore the upper Missouri River, President Jefferson secretly hoped they would find a river route to the Pacific. 

On June 6, 1804 they arrived near the mouth of Moniteau Creek. Nearby they observed the bluff was covered with pictographs (paintings) done by American Indians. This place was infested with rattlesnakes, making a closer look dangerous. They camped for the night of June 7, near the mouth of the Bonne Femme River. They crossed the Lamine River on June 8th and Clark wrote that the river was navigable for 80 to 90 miles. They camped for the night on “Island of Mills” later known as Arrow Rock Island.  On the 9th, they passed the Arrow Rock bluff. The expedition returned in 1806, camping on September 18th on the north side of the river opposite the mouth of the Lamine.


On their expedition, they camped for the night of June 7, 1804, near where the Bonne Femme flows into the Missouri River on the north side. When they arrived at the mouth of Moniteau Creek, they found a point of rocks covered with strange hieroglyphic paintings that deeply aroused their interest. This place was infested with a large number of rattlesnakes, making a closer look dangerous and almost impossible.


As they traveled further up the river, they arrived at the mouth of the Lamine on June 8th. On the 9th, they reached what is now Arrow Rock. On their return trip in 1806, they passed the present sites of Boonville and Franklin. This area was becoming fairly familiar to whites by 1800. The voyages of exploration were about to come to an end. 


Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

Arrow Rock State Historic Site

Lewis and Clark Expedition - excellent information and maps


John James Audubon (1785 – 1851) was a naturalist, ornithologist and painter. He combined his interests and planned to make a complete pictorial record of all bird species in North America. In the course of collecting and illustrating birds, he is credited with discovering 25 new species. In 1804 he became the first person to band birds to study their movements and nesting patterns. Audubon was working in southeast Missouri when the New Madrid earthquake struck in 1811, but his residence survived the general destruction. During his wanderings in Missouri and Arkansas, he fell in with hunting parties of Osage and Shawnee Indians learning about local wildlife from them. In 1843, he journeyed up the Missouri River and arrived in Cooper County on March 29:

“We were off at five this rainy morning, and at 9 A.M. reached Boonville distant from St. Louis about 204 miles. We bought at this place an axe, a saw, three files, and some wafers; also some chickens, at one dollar a dozen. We found here some of the Santa Fe traders with whom we had crossed the Alleghenies. They were awaiting the arrival of their goods, and then would immediately start”.

Audubon cared about the animals and plants he studied. He published Birds of America between 1827 and 1838 containing prints of 435 species of birds that he painted. Original editions of his prints are collector’s items and his works are still used for reference. In 1905, the Audubon Society became the first conservation organization in North America. Today it has about 300 branches and clubs.

Adapted from “Discover Cooper County by Looking Back” by Ann Betteridge

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