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Chart showing the world's longest rivers across the top (ordered by length) and highest mountains on the bottom
"Mountains and Rivers" from Johnson's new illustrated family atlas, A.J. Johnson & J.H. Colton, 1862. Geography & Map Division.

The Lost Glory of the Missouri River

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Reporting in the Washington Post this week highlighted a long-standing geographical debate: which river is the longest in the world? Their reporting focused on recent debates over the length of the Amazon and the Nile – but in 19th century America, there was another contender.

Chart showing the world's longest rivers across the top (ordered by length) and highest mountains on the bottom
“Mountains and Rivers” from Johnson’s new illustrated family atlas, A.J. Johnson & J.H. Colton, 1862. Geography & Map Division.

In Johnson’s New Illustrated Family Atlas of 1862, the world’s longest rivers and highest mountains are stretched out alongside one another and ordered for length. What was deemed the longest river? In a bold act of American patriotism, the “Missouri and Mississippi” clocks in at #1, listed at an estimated 4,490 miles in length. The Amazon comes in 2nd at 3,795 and the Nile is in 5th place with 3,200 miles.

Left-hand corner of previous map image showing the top 7 longest rivers from left to right
Detail of “Mountains and Rivers” from Johnson’s new illustrated family atlas, A.J. Johnson & J.H. Colton, 1862. Geography & Map Division.

Going back even further in time to 1849, the pattern holds. S. Augustus Mitchell’s “New Universal Atlas” declares the Missouri River the longest in the world at an estimated 4,100 miles in length. As illustrated, the Missouri River stretches from New Orleans through St. Louis and out to the Oregon Mountains, with attached tributaries listed as the Arkansas River, the Mississippi River, and the Ohio River.

Large image of a mountain centered at the bottom of the image with the world's longest rivers illustrated above. Long river spans are at both ends, with shorter rivers in the middle to accommodate the peak of the mountain.
“Principal rivers of the world” from New Universal Atlas by S. Augustus Mitchell, 1849. Geography & Map Division.

The Amazon came in 2nd at 3,700 miles, the Yangtse Kiang at 3,500 miles, the Obe River at 3,000, and the Lena River at 2,800 miles, with the Nile clocking in at the 6th longest at 2,600 miles.

Close up view of the corner of the map showing the names of the world's longest rivers
Detail of “Principal rivers of the world” from New Universal Atlas by S. Augustus Mitchell, 1849. Geography & Map Division.

 

The era in which both maps were published was one of American “Manifest Destiny,” a time when American exceptionalism and westward expansion was considered to be both right and inevitable. The positioning of the Missouri as the world’s longest (stretching out toward the “Oregon Mountains”) would serve to bolster a sense of both American patriotism and interest in the American west. Crossing the Missouri River was often the first big step settlers took on their journey west.

Early black and white lithograph showing an aerial view of the Missouri River at its headwaters
“The three forks. Headwaters of the Missouri,” A. E. Matthews, 1868. Prints and Photographs Division.

Today of course, the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers are understood to be two separate rivers. USGS lists the Missouri as the longest American river  (2,540 miles) and the Mississippi River as the 2nd (at 2,340 miles). Both fall far behind the Nile (4,132 miles), Amazon (4,000 miles), and Yangtze (3,915 miles) as the world’s top three longest rivers. Even when combined river systems are considered, America’s longest rivers still remain in 4th place.

For further reading on the debate between the Amazon and Nile, see a previous Worlds Revealed series, ”Extremities of the Earth: The Longest River”: Part One | Part Two

Comments (3)

  1. Nice information dear, about River of USA Nation history

  2. Last I saw, USGS had the Missouri at 2341 miles from head waters to St. Louis where it joins the Mississippi. Mississippi runs 2350 miles from Lake Itaska (headwater/source) to the Gulf. That makes the Mississippi 9 miles longer than the Missouri.

  3. Can you explain your statement “Today of course, the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers are understood to be two separate rivers.”? It is my understanding that the source of a river is determined by following the river upstream from its mouth to its most distant tributary source. As stated above, the length of the Missouri (2540 miles) is longer than the distance of the Mississippi from St. Louis to Lake Itasca, about 1150 miles. Would this not mean the full, longer route of the river that has its mouth near New Orleans takes a left turn north of St. Louis and follows the course of the Missouri westward? I have been wondering about this for years and would appreciate a clarification. Thanks!

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