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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.