Like A Mighty River: The Role of Rivers In American History

painting Washington crossing the Deleware main

Since desperate American rebels led by George Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night to surprise the British, rivers played a major role in American life.  Rivers are freshwater bodies of water that flow downhill. Rivers are an important natural resource, serving a major role in our culture. They were its original highways, moving goods and people.  Rivers provide food and entertainment as well as a source of power.  Major U.S. rivers are the Missouri, Mississippi, Yukon, Rio Grande, and Arkansas.

What Exactly Is A River? 

A river is a body of water that flows downhill due to gravity.  

The source of a river is called a headwater.  Headwaters can come from rain, snow melting, and from groundwater. The other end of a river is called a mouth, where the river empties into.  

A river flows downstream to the mouth while upstream is in the direction of its source.  A river can empty into various things, including another river, a lake, an ocean, or a wetland.  


Why Are Rivers Important?

Natural resources are those things that are found in nature that provide various benefits.  Rivers are an important natural resource and are used in a variety of ways.  

Over our history, rivers were the original national highways. They provided a cheap and convenient means to transport goods and people.  On Christmas night in 1776, for instance, General George Washington crossed the Delaware River with his troops to surprise Hessian mercenaries who were fighting for the British.  They continue to serve these purposes.  

Unlike oceans, rivers are freshwater, which means they have very little salt.  This provides an important source of fresh water, including for irrigation.  Irrigation involves the use of manmade channels to carry water for agricultural use.  Very dry places a long distance away can thrive.  

They contain precious salts and nutrients that are important to plant and animal life.  They have freshwater fish.  Fishing and river-based activities are very popular today.  

Rivers also are used for hydropower (water power) and waste disposal.  

Longest Rivers

The top ten longest rivers in the United States are Missouri (2540 miles), Mississippi (2350), Yukon (1980 in the U.S.), Rio Grande (1900), Arkansas (1460), Colorado (1450), Red (1290), Columbia  (1240), Snake (1078), and Ohio (981).  

(You might find somewhat different lists.  Don’t let this confuse you.  There are different ways to measure the length of rivers.  Also, certain rivers cross international borders, so only part of the river is in the United States.  This factors into the “longest American river” measurement.)

American rivers have a lot of history.  Let us look at the top five more closely.  

Missouri (Big Muddy) 

The Missouri River is the longest in the United States and among the longest in the world.  So much sediment (dirt) passes through it that the Missouri River is nicknamed the “Big Muddy.” 

This meandering body of water starts in Montana and travels through four states until it reaches St. Louis, Missouri.  Big Muddy for thousands of years has been important to the Great Plains (its “center of life”) as a means of food, travel, and trade.  It flows into the Mississippi River.  


The Mighty Mississippi 

The Mississippi River was for the longest time the most important of them all.  Spain’s interference with free navigation in the 1780s was an important reminder that there needed to be a strong central government backed up by a new constitution.  

The Mississippi plays a vital role in Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The river symbolizes freedom for the main characters, including Huck Finn who fled being “civilized,” and his best friend Jim, a slave.  

The Union obtaining control of the Mississippi River during the Civil War, including after the capture of Vicksburg, was a major turning point.  The Confederacy was split into two, or to be more poetic about it, “split in twain.”  

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States.  The Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico.  

The “Great River”  

The Yukon River (which means “Great River”) is the largest river on this list but only about sixty percent of it flows in the United States.  

The Alaskan natives fished the river, including for its salmon, for thousands of years.  Russians explored it in the 19th Century, using it for fur trade.  In the 1890s, gold was found in the area, leading to the great Klondike Gold Rush.  

The river was very important for transportation until air and road transportation replaced it in the 1950s. And, dinosaurs’ footprints were found in the area!  

The river flows into the Bering Sea.  

Rio Grande (The Big River)

Everything is big in Texas, so of course, the biggest river in Texas is named the “Rio Grande.”  

Native Americans first explored the river over 10,000 years ago.  The Spanish came in the 16th Century.   The river’s cultural significance includes giving its name to a major John Wayne film.  

The river starts in the Colorado Rockies and flows into the Gulf of Mexico.  Its water is used for irrigation, hydropower, municipal uses, and recreation.  

The river serves as a border between the United States and Mexico.  Many people try to cross it to avoid official border crossings.  

Arkansas (Insert Good Nickname Here)

Early French explorers named the Arkansas River after Native Americans who lived at its mouth.  Many Native American nations have lived in the region for thousands of years.

The river originates in the Rocky Mountains and flows into the Mississippi River.  It was very important to the exploration and development of the Great Plains and the Southwest. 

In 1819, the Arkansas River was the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. The river was important to the steamboat trade in the mid-19th Century.  The Santa Fe Trail that guided people who migrated west followed the Arkansas River.  

The river is filled with wildlife and aquatic life.  It is a popular fishing, camping, and kayaking location.  The only thing it really needs is a good nickname.  

Other Important Rivers 

The St. Lawrence River that originates in the Great Lakes is often considered part of a wider river system, part of which is in Canada.  It played an important role in French exploration. 

The Hudson River is small at 315 miles but played an important role in United States history.  The Erie Canal in the 1820s connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, opening up an important trade route.  The river played an important role in New York City’s history.  

The Hoover Dam was built on the Colorado River, playing an important role in the development of Las Vegas.  The Colorado River is also important to why so many people like Arizona.  

Rivers Continue To Be Important 

Rivers have been a very important part of human civilization from early times. The great rivers of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India played a central role in ancient history.

Rivers also played a major role in the history of the United States.  A basic sign of this is their importance in culture, including the great works of Mark Twain.  

Rivers great and small continue to play an important role in our nation’s life.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.