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Old 05-05-2008, 09:14 AM
Schnitte Schnitte is offline
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Why is the Missouri considered a tributary to the Mississippi?

Looking at a map of North American rivers, I assume the source of the Mississippi is located somewhere in Minnesota, and the river is named Mississippi at that point already. Near St Louis, it is joined by the Missouri, which has its headwaters somewhere in Montana.

The Missouri, measured from its source to their confluence, is, however, far longer than the Upper Mississippi from its source to the confluence. This makes me wonder why the Missouri is, in geographic nomenclature, considered a tributary of the Mississippi. Wouldn't it be more logical to say that the shorter river joins the longer one, defining the river below St Louis as the "Lower Missouri" and the Mississippi as the Missouri's tributary? I guess there is no "natural" of inherent way of telling which river joins which one; it's just two streams flowing together, resulting in one new stream, so it's a matter of human nomenclature to say which river is the other one's tributary.

I assume one might also take water volume, not only length, into account in defining which is the main river and which the tributary. This picture of the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers from Wiki, OTOH, seems to show that at the confluence of these rivers, the Ohio is at least wider and presumably of larger volume than the Upper Mississippi at this point. This would argue in favor of the Ohio as the "dominant" river in the system, and the Mississippi as its tributary.
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Old 05-05-2008, 09:40 AM
Sigene Sigene is offline
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The people who were naming the rivers on the historic maps, didn't know where the headwaters of the missouri were yet before they made the maps and wrote the names in.

The key reason, is that the Missouri joins at an acute angle to the Mississipi, so it really just looks more like a tributary. Imagine yourself on a road that goes straight, another road of the same size joins it from the side at about 90 degrees. Generally the name of the road you are on doesn't change after the side road enters.

I think the volume and width of the Mississppi is larger at the confluence too, but I'm not sure of that.
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Old 05-05-2008, 09:48 AM
BJMoose BJMoose is offline
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As a rule, whoever "discovers" a river not only gets naming rights, but gets to decide which river is tributary to the other. They typically do so with little information (whoever first saw the mouth of the Missouri had no idea it is a damn sight longer than the upper Mississippi). In this case (and also the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio) I suspect the Mississippi was declared the principal river because it pretty much passes straight through these confluences; the Big Muddy and the Ohio are obliged to turn at these points.

In short, these matters are judgment calls, and not always correct.


William Least Heat-Moon (a born-and-bred Missouri River Rat) has some interesting comments on this matter in River Horse, his account of boating across the country on the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri, among others.
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Old 05-05-2008, 10:04 AM
Xema Xema is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Schnitte
I assume the source of the Mississippi is located somewhere in Minnesota
Yes - the source is considered to be Lake Itasca


Quote:
Near St Louis, it is joined by the Missouri, which has its headwaters somewhere in Montana.
It acquires its name at Three Forks Montana, where the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers join. The headwaters are considered to be those of the Jefferson River in southern Montana. Interestingly, for the first 100km the water flows WNW - directly away from the Mississippi-Missouri confluence.


Quote:
Wouldn't it be more logical to say that the shorter river joins the longer one, defining the river below St Louis as the "Lower Missouri" and the Mississippi as the Missouri's tributary? I guess there is no "natural" of inherent way of telling which river joins which one; it's just two streams flowing together, resulting in one new stream
There's also the point that at the confluence, the flow of the Mississippi is often larger than that of the Missouri (Googling suggests the average ratio is 55-45). Prior to exploration it would have been natural to view the Mississippi as the more important.
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Old 05-05-2008, 12:11 PM
DSYoungEsq DSYoungEsq is offline
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The main reason for the nomenclature has to do with the fact that the Mississippi River was originally explored from north to south, so the major rivers leading off to the "sides" were considered tributaries of the river that was explored. The first European explorers were Joliet and Marquette, who got to the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers before turning back north. Then, later, the Sieur de la Salle made it down the whole river to the mouth. The word Mississippi is an approximation of one of the names for the river used by the Amerinds of the Minnesota area, Misi-Ziibi, "great river."

While the Missouri River at times exceeds the flow of the Mississippi at their confluence, the normal state is for the Missouri to be slightly less. The Ohio River manages a significantly higher discharge, I believe, than the Mississippi, and it also currently forms a confluence that, if you were travelling up the Mississippi, you might naturally assume the Ohio was the main river. And, of course, the Ohio was independently discovered by Europeans (de la Salle, I believe), but wasn't traversed East to West until later, by which time the Mississippi was already set as being the "main" river by the French explorers of the time.
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Old 05-05-2008, 12:28 PM
NinetyWt NinetyWt is offline
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As a general rule, if you know the drainage areas of the two, the stream draining the larger drainage area is the "main stem" and that of the smaller drainage area is the "tributary".

Of course, in this discussion, that was unknown at the time. The best I can gather is that the Missouri has over twice the drainage area of the Mississippi at that point, supporting the OP's position.
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Old 05-05-2008, 12:34 PM
Schnitte Schnitte is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DSYoungEsq
The Ohio River manages a significantly higher discharge, I believe, than the Mississippi, and it also currently forms a confluence that, if you were travelling up the Mississippi, you might naturally assume the Ohio was the main river.
That's also my impression, from the picture I linked to.

But it has become clear from this thread that this (IMO rather odd) nomenclature is mostly due to the history of the exploration of the two rivers, not to any inherent logic. Thanks anybody for their input!
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Old 05-05-2008, 12:38 PM
Colophon Colophon is offline
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I've always found it weird that the Missouri is considered to "end" at the Mississippi. The name is kind of immaterial - the river continues to the sea whatever you call it.

To my mind, the length of a river is the length from the most distant headwater to the mouth. But of course, if you're surveying a river "upwards" then you don't know which branch is the longer unless you go up each branch and then back down and up the other one. That would quickly get pretty tedious I imagine!

(The Jefferson is 298 miles long before it even joins the other two rivers that create the Missouri by name.)


As for the OP, this picture gives a good idea. The Missouri is coming in from the upper left, the Mississippi comes in from the right. The Mississippi clearly looks like the "main channel" - it is wider and straighter, while the narrower Missouri comes in from an angle.

Last edited by Colophon; 05-05-2008 at 12:40 PM.
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Old 05-05-2008, 01:11 PM
DSYoungEsq DSYoungEsq is offline
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Colophon, the trouble with that is that it's likely that the course of the Mississippi at the confluence is affected by the work done to channelize the river. It's not clear that the confluence would have been the same in the pre-engineered state of either river. Interestingly, one excerpt I read from the report by Joliet of their expedition says that the inflowing Missouri River waters overwhelmed the Mississippi River waters with turbulent flow and substantial mud. Possibly, at the time he arrived, the Missouri was in one of its periods of higher flow.
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Old 05-05-2008, 01:39 PM
Balthisar Balthisar is offline
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Is there a practical reason why one would have to be designated the mainstem and the others designated tributaries? Granted they form a huge frickin' watershed and drain a giant hunk of the country, but why can't they simply be separate rivers and not lesser tributaries of some greater river? Really, I'm asking, is there an actual, practical reason for such nomenclature?
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Old 05-05-2008, 02:34 PM
NinetyWt NinetyWt is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Balthisar
Is there a practical reason why one would have to be designated the mainstem and the others designated tributaries? Granted they form a huge frickin' watershed and drain a giant hunk of the country, but why can't they simply be separate rivers and not lesser tributaries of some greater river? Really, I'm asking, is there an actual, practical reason for such nomenclature?
In hydrology, yes there is a reason.

When figuring the discharge at a certain point, one of the things we use is the stream length. If we have a point at which two converge, which length should we use? Answer: the length of the main stem. Which is the main stem, then? The one with the greater drainage area.

In other words, it helps to have a 'convention' so that everyone does the calculation the same way.
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Old 05-05-2008, 02:40 PM
NinetyWt NinetyWt is offline
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Intersting aside: the opposite of tributary is distributary, which is a channel which takes water away from the main stem.
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Old 05-06-2008, 09:29 AM
Colophon Colophon is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DSYoungEsq
Colophon, the trouble with that is that it's likely that the course of the Mississippi at the confluence is affected by the work done to channelize the river. It's not clear that the confluence would have been the same in the pre-engineered state of either river. Interestingly, one excerpt I read from the report by Joliet of their expedition says that the inflowing Missouri River waters overwhelmed the Mississippi River waters with turbulent flow and substantial mud. Possibly, at the time he arrived, the Missouri was in one of its periods of higher flow.
Well, you can see roughly how it looked in Lewis and Clark's day on the map here - different, yes, but the Missouri still came in from a near 90-degree angle.

Clark's map, and a later much more detailed map are on this page. (Incidentally, that's a really interesting website for anyone who likes maps, the history of exploration and geography as much as I do.)

Last edited by Colophon; 05-06-2008 at 09:29 AM.
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Old 05-06-2008, 10:11 AM
DSYoungEsq DSYoungEsq is offline
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Oooh I like that site!!! Thank you!!!
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Old 05-06-2008, 10:29 AM
KneadToKnow KneadToKnow is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sigene
Imagine yourself on a road that goes straight, another road of the same size joins it from the side at about 90 degrees. Generally the name of the road you are on doesn't change after the side road enters.
If you ever come to Charlotte, be sure to leave this notion behind.
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Old 05-06-2008, 10:56 AM
WF Tomba WF Tomba is offline
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From Wikipedia, on the nomenclature of the Upper Mississippi:

Quote:
The Ojibwa called Lake Itasca Omashkoozo-zaaga'igan ("Elk Lake") and the river flowing out of it Omashkoozo-ziibi ("Elk River"). After flowing into Lake Bemidji, the Ojibwe called the river Bemijigamaa-ziibi ("River from the Traversing Lake"). After flowing into Cass Lake, the name of the river again changed to Miskwaawaakokaa-ziibi ("Red Cedar River") and then to Gichi-ziibi ("Great River") after flowing into Lake Winnibigoshish.[11] The Ojibwe name Misi-ziibi applied only to the portion below the Crow Wing River, but the ever-changing names of the river seemed illogical to the English speakers.

After the expeditions by Giacomo Costantino Beltrami and Henry Schoolcraft, the longest stream above the juncture of the Crow Wing River and Gichi-ziibi was named Mississippi River.
Since they were probably not trying to do hydrological calculations, I wonder why the white explorers in the early 1800s were so interested in finding "the headwaters" of the Mississippi.
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Old 05-06-2008, 11:07 AM
MikeS MikeS is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by WF Tomba
Since they were probably not trying to do hydrological calculations, I wonder why the white explorers in the early 1800s were so interested in finding "the headwaters" of the Mississippi.
The Treaty of Paris, drawn up at the end of the Revolutionary War, stated that the border between the United States and Great Britain's North American possessions would proceed to the northernmost point of Lake of the Woods and then "due west to the Mississippi River" this despite the fact that the course of the Mississippi wasn't known that far north. It therefore became important to know exactly where the boundary lay. When it was discovered that the headwaters of the Mississippi were in fact well south of Lake of the Woods, things had to be rejiggered, resulting in the creation of the Northwest Angle.
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Old 05-06-2008, 11:08 AM
Freddy the Pig Freddy the Pig is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by WF Tomba
Since they were probably not trying to do hydrological calculations, I wonder why the white explorers in the early 1800s were so interested in finding "the headwaters" of the Mississippi.
It defined the boundary between the United States and Spanish Louisiana, and also played a role in the boundary between the US and Canada.
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Old 05-06-2008, 11:12 AM
wolfman wolfman is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NinetyWt
Intersting aside: the opposite of tributary is distributary, which is a channel which takes water away from the main stem.
.....And for the first time in my life I just realized the relationship of "Tribute" and "Distribute" as related and antonymish words.
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Old 05-06-2008, 01:17 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
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Quote:
It acquires its name at Three Forks Montana, where the Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers join. The headwaters are considered to be those of the Jefferson River in southern Montana. Interestingly, for the first 100km the water flows WNW - directly away from the Mississippi-Missouri confluence.
The three rivers don't join all at exactly the same point, either: The Madison and Jefferson join first, with the Gallatin getting in on the action a few hundred meters downstream. There's actually some debate between the State of Montana and the federal government over where, exactly, the Missouri River starts: I don't remember the details, but it has to do with who has to pay how much for maintenance of the parklands in the vicinity.
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  #21  
Old 05-11-2008, 03:33 PM
Ignatz Ignatz is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NinetyWt
As a general rule, if you know the drainage areas of the two, the stream draining the larger drainage area is the "main stem" and that of the smaller drainage area is the "tributary".

Of course, in this discussion, that was unknown at the time. The best I can gather is that the Missouri has over twice the drainage area of the Mississippi at that point, supporting the OP's position.
The Mississippi River drains 1,237,700 square miles and flows 2,348 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Missouri River drains 580,000 sq. mi. and flows 2,714 miles to the Mississippi River just north of Saint Louis.

If the Missouri were to be considered to be part of the Mississippi, then the total length would be 3,892 miles. Before being dammed in the 1900s, the Missouri flow ranged from a low of 13,000 cubic feet per second during a drought to 800,000 cfs in a flood and it transported about 550,000,000 tons of sediment to the Mississippi River every year. .

The Mississippi was explored and exploited in 1673 by, as stated earlier, by Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette, the former to expand the territory for the lucrative fur trade and the latter to save more souls. They reached the north end on June 17, 1673, and traveled south, passing the Missouri, which they named after a nearby tibe of Indigians. Fearing capture by the Spanish if they went further South, they stopped at the Arkansas River.

The upper reaches of the Missouri were reached only in 1739 by Sieur de la Verendrye.

Joliet and Marquette were not the first Europeans to find the Mississippi, as Hernando De Soto "discovered" it in April 1541, having pillaged and burned the Southeast all the way from Florida for two years, looking for gold.He died on May 21, 1542, and his second-in-command, Luis Moscoso, disposed of his body in the Mississippi so as to not let the Indigians know of his passing. Moscoso then led the remainder of the expedition to the Gulf of Mexico. Only 311 of the more than 600 original survived. Further exploration of the river would not happen for nearly 100 years. (DeSoto's descendants can now be found in the Hilton Hotel in Savannah, Ga., and running around Havana, Cuba. Just kidding.)

(cite: Bartlett, Richard, A., Editor, Rolling Rivers-An Encyclopedia of America's Rivers, McGraw-Hill, NY, etc., 1984, pp. 206-213)(not verbatim)

Last edited by Ignatz; 05-11-2008 at 03:37 PM.
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Old 05-11-2008, 03:44 PM
DSYoungEsq DSYoungEsq is offline
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Ignatz, the drainage basin figure you quote for the Mississippi includes all the basins of the "tributary" rivers, such as the Arkansas, the Ohio, etc. If you limited the drainage basins to what was drained up to the point of the junction, I think you'd find that the Missouri is both longer and bigger than the Mississippi. However, the average flow rate for the Mississippi is slightly higher at that spot.

Curiously, if the Ohio River were to have entered the Mississippi ABOVE the Missouri, there would be no question that the Ohio would be the main river all the way down. Its flow rate at the junction with the Mississippi is only less than the Mississippi because of the contribution of the Missouri River just a few miles upstream.
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Old 05-11-2008, 05:38 PM
NinetyWt NinetyWt is offline
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Yes, Ignatz, check out this cute watershed map. DSYoungEsq is right; the drainage basin I'm talking about is the Upper Mississippi in that link. If the naming convention had been used, the river should have been called the Missouri all the way to the Gulf. See what I mean?

DSYoung: I dunno about the Ohio. The drainage area is smaller than that of the Missouri.
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Old 05-11-2008, 09:48 PM
DSYoungEsq DSYoungEsq is offline
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But if the Ohio joined above the Missouri, then the drainage basin would be the Ohio plus the Mississippi. Is THAT smaller? <wonders>

ETA: Remember, add the Tennessee in; it drains into the Ohio.

Last edited by DSYoungEsq; 05-11-2008 at 09:49 PM.
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Old 05-11-2008, 11:05 PM
NinetyWt NinetyWt is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DSYoungEsq
But if the Ohio joined above the Missouri, then the drainage basin would be the Ohio plus the Mississippi. Is THAT smaller? <wonders>

ETA: Remember, add the Tennessee in; it drains into the Ohio.
Ah, ok. The handy-dandy little map shows the Tennessee as if it were a tributary of the Miss.

It's only a matter of addition, but I have not had luck pinning down some of these basin areas. Wikipedia has:

Missouri = 529,350 sq. mi.
Upper Mississippi = 3,296 sq. mi.
Ohio (including Tn?) = 189,422 sq. mi

The articles are not clear about what is included/excluded from those basin numbers, so take them with a grain of salt.

A little off topic, have you read about the Teays river, an historic predecessor of the Ohio? Interesting stuff.
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Old 05-12-2008, 01:30 AM
MilTan MilTan is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NinetyWt
Upper Mississippi = 3,296 sq. mi.
That number is very wrong, if only because the Missouri is technically a tributary of the Upper Mississippi. But even disregarding that, the river is >1000 miles long, so to get a drainage basin that small would require that it extend no more than a mile and a half to either side of the river throughout its course. This site gives a more reasonable figure of 189,000 sq. mi. for the Upper Mississippi's basin (and does not appear to include the Missouri's drainage basin).

Last edited by MilTan; 05-12-2008 at 01:31 AM.
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Old 05-12-2008, 07:32 AM
Harmonious Discord Harmonious Discord is offline
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The Library of Congress web site is a good site to look for old maps too.
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Old 05-12-2008, 09:49 AM
DSYoungEsq DSYoungEsq is offline
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Good site, MilTan.

Still, using that figure, and the figure for the Ohio River, it would appear that the Missouri drains an area not quite half-again as big as the Upper Mississippi + Ohio.

Since the flow rates clearly are much larger for the Upper Mississippi + Ohio compared to the Missouri, it would be interesting to see what current thought on the naming convention would be...
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Old 05-12-2008, 02:15 PM
DanBlather DanBlather is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DSYoungEsq
Possibly, at the time he arrived, the Missouri was in one of its periods of higher flow.
And this was before tampons.
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Old 05-12-2008, 07:24 PM
Spectre of Pithecanthropus Spectre of Pithecanthropus is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sigene

I think the volume and width of the Mississppi is larger at the confluence too, but I'm not sure of that.
"

According to Wikipedia this is correct in normal times, but not by a whole lot. And if the Upper Midwest is having a relatively dry year the volume of the Missouri at the confluence may be more than that of the Mississippi. It certainly isn't a case of a much smaller river joining a large one, but more like a merger of equals.

Still, the Mississippi was known and explored first, so it was natural for cartographers and geographers to discuss and map it as the main important river.

Last edited by Spectre of Pithecanthropus; 05-12-2008 at 07:26 PM.
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Old 05-12-2008, 07:55 PM
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So, if the situation were fixed, and the Missouri (or the Ohio) were considered the main river, entering the Gulf of Mexico after being joined by the Mississippi and the Ohio, not to mention all the other major rivers that join this group; would the world statistics on river length be modified? Are there other 'record' rivers than pose this issue?
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Old 06-18-2015, 12:09 AM
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"Well, you can see roughly how it looked in Lewis and Clark's day on the map here - different, yes, but the Missouri still came in from a near 90-degree angle. "

I think the hard turn is more due to the geologic influences of the Ozark Dome and the extent of the glaciers. If you look at a map you can see the Mississippi also makes a hard left running parallel with the Missouri just before combining. The Missouri River makes a couple of hard turns at Kansas City and again near Booneville, MO. I think these are a result geologic and glacial influences.

Perhaps the more appropriate naming should have been the Louisiana River from the Gulf to Montana. Since it does drain most of the Louisiana Purchase. Although the purchase post dated the naming.

As far as primary river, I think the biggest drainage basin is always primary because it has the potential to be the biggest. Its just a matter of average precipitation. If a climate shift made the great plains get as much rain as the Ohio River basin, there would be no comparison on size, but the Missouri basin is pretty dry. The river gains a large portion of its average flow in the state of Missouri, the Osage River joins the Missouri River in central Missouri and is said to provide a 7th of the average flow and it is only 500 miles long and it starts in eastern Kansas.
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