The Big Muddy was Muddy!
The Big Muddy is a phrase that has been used to describe several rivers, but is perhaps most used to refer to the Mississippi or Missouri rivers. The term is certainly appropriate for the Missouri River, although the mainstem dams have been in place so long, it is difficult to visualize what the flows of the river were like under natural conditions.
Many North Dakotans are familiar with the artwork and books of George Catlin.
Catlin came up the Missouri River in 1832 and spent time at Fort Union as well as among the Mandan and other tribes on the upper Missouri River. His Letters and Notes of the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of North American Indians can be found in libraries and bookstores across the state.
Catlin also recorded some interesting observations on the character of the Missouri River in his book. I think you will find his observations on the sediment load of the Missouri River particularly interesting. Here is an excerpt from Letter No.3 in his book about the Missouri River near the mouth of the Yellowstone:
“Owing to the continual falling in of its rich alluvial banks, its water is always turbid and opaque; having, at all seasons of the year, the colour of a cup of chocolate or coffee, with sugar and cream stirred into it. To give a better definition of its density and opacity, I have tried a number of simple experiments with it at this place, and at other points below, at the results of which I was exceedingly surprised. By placing a piece of silver (and afterwards a piece of shell, which is a much whiter substance) in a tumbler of its water, and looking through the side of the glass, I ascertained that those substances could not be seen through the eighth part of an inch; this, however, is in the spring of the year, when the freshet is upon the river, rendering the water, undoubtedly, much more turbid than it would be at other seasons; though it is always muddy and yellow, and from its boiling and wild character and uncommon colour, a stranger would think, even in its lowest state, that there was a freshet upon it.”
Wow! Now of course, those sediments settle out behind the Fort Peck Dam, Lake Sakakewea, and of course Oahe. Any predictions on how long it will take for these reservoirs to fill in?
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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