In the early and middle nineteenth century, Europeans and European-Americans referred to the Upper Missouri drainage basin as the Upper Missouri Country. The Upper Missouri Country included all the land drained by the Missouri River itself and its tributaries north and west of the Platte-Missouri confluence. In the nineteenth century, the Upper Missouri Country never appeared on an official government map as a distinct territory. Rather, the Upper Missouri Country became a folk geographical and environmental unit. In other words, it was a geographical and environmental entity created and perpetuated by commoners, such as fur trappers, fur traders, Indian agents, and steamboat crewmen who lived and worked in the area. The closest this region ever came to being considered “official” occurred when the U.S. government’s Indian Bureau established the Upper Missouri Agency in 1819. The American Fur Company added a further degree of legitimacy to the official existence of the region when it established a subsidiary known as the Upper Missouri Outfit (UMO). The UMO worked the region north and west of the Platte River in the 1830s. Although references to the Upper Missouri as an official region are non-existent, the region did exist in the minds of thousands of 19th-century commoners. Thus, the place did exist. What all of these commoners recognized was that the Upper Missouri river drainage area was a distinct environmental region – separate from the areas surrounding it. It possessed unique hydrological conditions, vegetation, and fauna.
Nineteenth-century Europeans and European-Americans who traveled up the Missouri River on keelboats or steamers noticed that above the Platte they entered a new place, where the Missouri River became a different river and the land shed its trees. Henry Brackenridge, a lawyer by training and a nomad at heart, stated the following after arriving at the mouth of the Platte in 1811. “From this we enter what is called the Upper Missouri. Indeed the change is perceptible and great, for the open bare plains now prevail.” Pierre Antoine Tabeau, a trader in the Upper Missouri Country in the first decade of the 1800s, also noted the environmental uniqueness of the area. Tabeau wrote, “The two banks of the Missouri are well wooded as far as the approaches to the River Platte… Then vast and high prairies, separated from the river by low and humid plains, present to the eye a monotonous expanse.” Both Brackenridge and Tabeau noticed that above the Platte, the grassland began to unfold in endless vistas.
The Missouri River itself took on a different appearance north of the Platte. Most notably, its water changed color. While the lower Missouri looked like “water mixed with ashes,” the Upper Missouri appeared milky brown or light tan. Some even believed its waters took on a yellow tinge. Edward Harris, who traveled up the Missouri with John James Audubon in 1843 on board the steamboat “Omega” remarked that the water of the Upper Missouri “looks more like that of a hog puddle than any thing else I can compare it to.” The Upper Missouri acquired its color from the sands, gravels, and clays that washed into the stream from such faraway places as the Rocky Mountains and the White River Badlands.
But more than just the river’s water color, or the absence of trees in the uplands adjacent to the stream, distinguished the Upper Missouri Country from other regions. North of the Platte, the Missouri’s channel became less stable. Here, the river frequently shifted its course, cutting long bends through the valley’s sugary alluvium. The upper river had a greater number of sandbars and fewer islands than the lower river. The channel’s constant alterations prevented the formation of more permanent landforms, such as islands, in mid-channel. In addition to the river’s altered character north of the Platte, the land took on appearance unlike anything back east in the United States. A large, broad carpet of little bluestem and buffalo grass covered the hills and valleys of the Upper Missouri Country for as far as the eye could see. And atop that velvety green roamed countless numbers of elk, pronghorn, and bison.
Bison dominated the Upper Missouri Country’s landscape. At the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806), it is estimated that between 7,678,125 and 8,531,250 bison lived in the 350,000 square miles of the Upper Missouri Country. Meriwether Lewis repeatedly expressed astonishment at the number of bison he viewed atop the area’s prairies and plains. Near today’s Oacoma, South Dakota, Lewis wrote, “This senery already rich pleasing and beatiful, was still farther hightened by immence herds of Buffaloe deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains.” Besides their actual physical presence, bison asserted their dominion over the Upper Missouri Country through their extensive road network. Bison roads crisscrossed the territory in every direction. The bulk of the bison roads followed the river valleys and stream beds of the region. John James Audubon remarked in 1843, “…the roads the Buffalo make in crossing the prairies have all the appearance of heavy wagon tracks.” Audubon’s companion Edward Harris seconded that opinion when he stated, “You would be surprised to see how the whole country here is trodden up by the feet of the Buffalo….” Brackenridge, near today’s Pierre, South Dakota, remarked on the prevalence of bison roads upon the land. He noted, “Wide and beaten roads formed by the passing of the buffaloe, may every where be seen.” The Upper Missouri was a land of bison and silty, slow rivers.
The Upper Missouri Country remained a folk geographical and environmental entity until the 1860s and 1870s. But at that time, a new, elitist, official American geography began to replace the older, populist geography. Government territories with names such as Montana, Dakota, and Wyoming subsumed the Upper Missouri Country. As the U.S. empire integrated the northern plains region, the former geography that recognized the region’s unique environmental attributes went away. An abstract, environmentally-ignorant geography then came to the fore. By the 1880s, the Upper Missouri Country ceased to exist. Instead, the northern plains states (with their arbitrary and environmentally-insensitive borders) lay atop the former Upper Missouri Country.
The common folk of the nineteenth century recognized the Upper Missouri Country’s distinctive environmental traits – its silt-laden, tawny rivers; its huge herds of bison; and its vast, open stretches of little bluestem and buffalo grass. Yet, the contemporary northern plains states have been platted without any consideration for the environment. Consequently, the modern geography of the northern plains blinds us to the area’s many unique environmental characteristics. Take for example the map of present-day Wyoming. Wyoming appears as a perfect square on the land. Looking at that square, an observer gains no insight into the environment within Wyoming. Drainage patterns, animal migration routes, and topography are ignored by the square that is Wyoming. In contrast, a map of the Upper Missouri Country adheres to lines drawn by rivers and streams. As a result, we can discern river systems, migration routes, and topography in the Upper Missouri Country. The point of all of this is that our maps, and our modern geographical constructs, perpetuate our ignorance of the environment. If we want to better understand our world, we need to remake our maps. We need to create maps that reflect the environment. Nineteenth century Americans recognized the Upper Missouri Country’s environmental distinctiveness. Modern Americans have forgotten that past. Modern maps of the area only perpetuate our environmental ignorance. Let’s redraw our maps to reflect a greater environmental awareness. We can start by resurrecting the Upper Missouri Country. Let’s overlay the map of the Upper Missouri Country on top of Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Wyoming.