The Great Falls of the Missouri River are a series of waterfalls on the upper Missouri River in north-central Montana in the United States. From upstream to downstream, the five falls, which are located along a 10-mile (16 km) segment of the river, are:
Crooked Falls, also known as Horseshoe Falls (19 feet or 5.79 m)
Big Falls, also known as the Great Falls, (87 feet or 26.52 m)
The Missouri River drops a total of 612 feet (187 m) from the first of the falls to the last, which includes a combined 187 feet (57 m) of vertical plunges and 425 feet (130 m) of riverbed descent. The Great Falls have been described as "spectacular", one of the "scenic wonders of America", and "a major geographic discovery". When the Lewis and Clark Expion became the first white men to see the falls in 1805, Meriwether Lewis said they were the grandest sight he had beheld thus far in the journey.
The Great Falls of the Missouri River were depicted on the territorial seal of the Montana Territory, and later on the state seal of Montana in 1893.
Four of the five waterfalls were given names in 1805 by American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Both Lewis and Clark named Crooked Falls in their journals. Clark named three of the remaining waterfalls on his map: "Great Falls" (which retains its name to this day), "Beautiful Cascade" (now called Rainbow Falls), and "Upper Pitch" (now known as Black Eagle Falls). "Beautiful Cascade" was renamed "Rainbow Falls" in 1872 by Thomas B. Rogers, an engineer with the Great Northern Railway. Colter Falls received its name from Paris Gibson, in honor of John Colter (a member of the Lewis and Clark Expion). Black Eagle Falls is named for the black eagle which built a nest in a cottonwood tree on an island in the middle of the falls. It is not clear when the falls lost their original name of "Upper Pitch," but they had acquired their modern name by at least 1877.
The Great Falls themselves formed on a fall lineunconformity in the Great Falls Tectonic Zone. The Missouri River settled into a bedrock canyon which lay beneath the clay laid down by Glacial Lake Great Falls. The course of the Missouri in and around the Great Falls has changed very little since then, in comparison to lower regions of the river on the ground moraine that forms much of the upper Great Plains.
The Great Falls of the Missouri River formed because the Missouri is flowing over and through the Kootenai Formation, a mostly nonmarine sandstone laid down by rivers, glaciers, and lakes in the past. Some of the Kootenai Formation is marine, however, laid down by shallow seas. The river is eating away at the softer nonmarine sandstone, with the harder rock forming the falls themselves. Until relatively recently (in geologic time) the Missouri River in the area had a much wider channel, but it has now settled into its current course, where it will continue to cut more deeply into the sandstone.
The first human beings to see the Great Falls were Paleo-Indians who migrated into the area between 9,500 and 8,270 BCE. The earliest inhabitants of North America entered Montana east of the Continental Divide between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets. The area remained only sparsely inhabited, however.Salish Indians would often hunt bison in the area on a seasonal basis, but no permanent settlements existed near the Great Falls for much of prehistory. Around 1600, Piegan Blackfoot Indians, migrating west, entered the area, pushing the Salish back into the Rocky Mountains and claiming the area as their own. The Great Falls of the Missouri remained in the tribal territory of the Blackfeet until Americans claimed the region in 1803.
Although the discovery of the Great Falls by Native Americans is not recorded, the South Piegan Blackfeet were well-acquainted with the Great Falls by the late 18th century, and news of the cataracts had spread among native peoples as far east as central North Dakota.
The Lewis and Clark Expion reached the Great Falls on June 13, 1805. Meriwether Lewis was the first White person to see the falls. Lewis described the encounter in a now-famous passage of his expion diary:
...my ears were saluted with the agreeable sound of a fall of water and advancing a little further I saw the spray arrise above the plain like a collumn of smoke which would frequently dispear again in an instant caused I presume by the wind which blew pretty hard from the S. W. I did not however loose my direction to this point which soon began to make a roaring too tremendious to be mistaken for any cause short of the great falls of the Missouri. ... I hurryed down the hill which was about 200 feet high and difficult of access, to gaze on this sublimely grand specticle. ... immediately at the cascade the river is about 300 yds. wide; about ninety or a hundred yards of this next the Lard. bluff is a smoth even sheet of water falling over a precipice of at least eighty feet, the remaining part of about 200 yards on my right formes the grandest sight I ever beheld, the hight of the fall is the same of the other but the irregular and somewhat projecting rocks below receives the water in it's passage down and brakes it into a perfect white foam which assumes a thousand forms in a moment sometimes flying up in jets of sparkling foam to the hight of fifteen or twenty feet and are scarcely formed before large roling bodies of the same beaten and foaming water is thrown over and conceals them. in short the rocks seem to be most happily fixed to present a sheet of the whitest beaten froath for 200 yards in length and about 80 feet perpendicular. the water after descending strikes against the butment before mentioned or that on which I stand and seems to reverberate and being met by the more impetuous courant they role and swell into half formed billows of great hight which rise and again disappear in an instant. this butment of rock defends a handsom little bottom of about three acres which is deversified and agreeably shaded with some cottonwood trees; in the lower extremity of the bottom there is a very thick grove of the same kind of trees which are small, in this wood there are several Indian lodges formed of sticks. ... from the reflection of the sun on the spray or mist which arrises from these falls there is a beatifull rainbow produced which adds not a little to the beauty of this majestically grand senery. after wrighting this imperfect discription I again viewed the falls and was so much disgusted with the imperfect idea which it conveyed of the scene that I determined to draw my pen across it and begin agin, but then reflected that I could not perhaps succeed better than pening the first impressions of the mind; I wished for the pencil of Salvator Rosa or the pen of Thompson, that I might be enabled to give to the enlightened world some just idea of this truly magnifficent and sublimely grand object, which has from the commencement of time been concealed from the view of civilized man; but this was fruitless and vain. I most sincerely regreted that I had not brought a crimee obscura with me by the assistance of which even I could have hoped to have done better but alas this was also out of my reach; I therefore with the assistance of my pen only indeavoured to traces some of the stronger features of this seen by the assistance of which and my recollection aided by some able pencil I hope still to give to the world some faint idea of an object which at this moment fills me with such pleasure and astonishment, and which of its kind I will venture to ascert is second to but one in the known world. ...
The Great Falls, or "Big Falls", and Ryan Dam in 1995
The falls which Lewis had seen were the lowest of the five falls, the Great Falls. Exploring the following day, Lewis discovered Crooked Falls, Rainbow Falls, Colter Falls, and Black Eagle Falls. At the final waterfalls, Lewis saw an amazing sight:
I arrived at another cataract of 26 feet. ... below this fall at a little distance a beatifull little Island well timbered is situated about the middle of the river. in this Island on a Cottonwood tree an Eagle has placed her nest; a more inaccessible spot I believe she could not have found; for neither man nor beast dare pass those gulphs which separate her little domain from the shores. the water is also broken in such manner as it descends over this pitch that the mist or sprey rises to a considerable hight. this fall is certainly much the greatest I ever behald except those two which I have mentioned below. it is incomparably a greater cataract and a more noble interesting object than the celibrated falls of Potomac or Soolkiln &c.
Mounting a hill near Black Eagle Falls (probably where the town of Black Eagle is today), Lewis saw that the cataracts ended and that another large river joined the Missouri about two and a half miles further upstream. Although it was very late in the afternoon, Lewis rushed forward to see this river and was attacked by a grizzly bear. He ran more than 80 yards and launched himself into the Missouri River, and luckily the bear did not follow. The Lewis and Clark Expion was forced to portage around the Great Falls, an arduous task that took nearly a month.
York, an African Americanslave owned by William Clark and who had participated in the Expion, was the first black American to see the Great Falls.
Westslope cutthroat trout, a fish written about by the Lewis and Clark Expion at the Great Falls of the Missouri on June 13, 1805.
On June 18, while reconnoitering the series of falls on the south side of the Missouri River with a group of five others, William Clark discovered Giant Springs, which he correctly judged to be the largest spring in the world. He was the first white person to see the springs, and the first white person to see the falls from the south side of the Missouri.
Meriwether Lewis revisited the Great Falls on July 11, 1806, as the Corps of Discovery returned east. Lewis and nine men stopped at the Great Falls with the intention of exploring the Marias River and discovering its source. But during the night, Indians stole half the party's 17 horses, forcing three of the men to stay behind.
Settlement of the area
Great Seal of the State of Montana, depicting the Great Falls of the Missouri
Following the return passage of Lewis and Clark in 1805/06 there is no record of any white man visiting the Great Falls of the Missouri until explorer and trapperJim Bridger reached them in 1822. White people next visited the Great Falls when Bridger and Major Andrew Henry led a fur-trading expion there in April 1823 (and were attacked by Blackfeet Indians while camping at the site). British explorer Alexander Ross trapped around the Great Falls in 1824. In 1838, a mapping expion sent by the U.S. federal government and guided by Bridger spent four years in the area. Margaret Harkness Woodman became first white woman to see the Great Falls in 1862.
Politically, the Great Falls of the Missouri River passed through numerous hands in the 19th century. It was part of the unincorporated frontier until May 30, 1854, when Congress established the Nebraska Territory. Indian attacks on white explorers and settlers dropped significantly after Isaac Stevens negotiated the Treaty of Hellgate in 1855, and white settlement in the area began to occur. On March 2, 1861, it became part of the Dakota Territory. The Great Falls were incorporated into the Idaho Territory on March 4, 1863, and then into the Montana Territory on May 28, 1864. It became part of the state of Montana upon that territory's admission to statehood on November 8, 1889.
Only one of the waterfalls that comprise the Great Falls of the Missouri River, Crooked Falls, exists in its natural state today. Dams built on the falls beginning in the 1880s have significantly altered and even submerged the five waterfalls. Black Eagle Dam was built in 1890, and half of Black Eagle Falls are now submerged in the reservoir behind the dam. This structure was the first hydroelectric dam built in the state.
Rainbow Falls was dammed in 1910 when Rainbow Dam was built. The reservoir behind the dam submerged Colter Falls.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center was built in 1998 on a cliff overlooking the Missouri River near Crooked Falls. It provides an extensive look into Lewis and Clark's discovery of the Great Falls and their portage around them, as well as exhibits on native peoples of the area.
In 1989, the City of Great Falls, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and other public and private bodies established the River's Edge Trail, a 30-mile (48 km) series of paved and unpaved trails that follow the Great Falls as well as the Lewis and Clark Expion portage route (along with other scenic and historic area of the City of Great Falls and town of Black Eagle).
The first known drawing of the Great Falls was entered by Meriwether Lewis in his diary. In 1807, Lewis commissioned the Irish engraver John James Barrelet to make drawings of the Great Falls. After Lewis's death in 1810, William Clark visited his home and found the drawings, but they have since disappeared.
The Great Falls have been depicted in well-known paintings over the years. The waterfalls may be seen in the background of John Mix Stanley's large painting "Barter for a Bride" (originally titled "A Family Group"), which was painted some time between 1854 and 1863 and now hangs in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the United States Department of State in Washington, D.C. The noted Western painter O. C. Seltzer depicted the cataracts in his 1927 work, "Lewis and Clark With Sacajawea at the Great Falls of the Missouri, 1804."
The first known photograph of the Great Falls was taken by noted Western photographer James D. Hutton about 1859 or 1860.
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^Lewis and Clark had been told by the Mandan Indians that there were "great falls" on the Missouri River. Clark adopted this name for the largest set of waterfalls the expion discovered. See: Howard, Lewis & Clark—Exploration of Central Montana, 2000.
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^ abSpelling and grammar are as Meriwether Lewis made them, and remain uncorrected here.
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