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Well before Lewis and Clark, Native Americans traveled on the Missouri River, crossing it to visit friends and family members, shipping supplies downriver, and conducting visitors toward their villages. Their mobility on the upper Missouri River, an imposing and dangerous continental divide, granted them the power to define rights of passage across the midcontinent. Following the collapse of New Cahokia, Arikara and Mandan settlers pressed up the river valley and established expansive transportation and communication networks that stretched across the Missouri watershed. By 1650 their villages were influential centers of Native North America and places where river crossings held not only economic costs but also political and religious meanings. A century later, equestrianism had revolutionized indigenous travel in the Plains and transformed how Native peoples retrieved power from the Missouri corridor. Cottonwood became an essential fuel source, and fording sites in the river valley gained strategic importance. In the late eighteenth century, the Lakota people asserted their new control of the Great Plains by freely crossing the Missouri. Even as equestrianism was accelerating indigenous networks in the Missouri watershed, Spanish and American officials were inviting Native leaders to make long trips downriver to St. Louis—voyages that tested indigenous protocols of border crossing. The expansion of the American fur trade in the 1820s threatened indigenous mobility networks on the upper Missouri River and led to the introduction of epidemics, including the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1837. By the 1870s, reservations lined the Missouri, and American officials hoped it would serve as a place of confinement. Yet Native Americans continued to travel on the river, defining their own rights of passage along it.

Level of Degree


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Department Name


First Committee Member (Chair)

Ball, Durwood

Second Committee Member

Connell-Szasz, Margaret

Third Committee Member

Barr, Juliana



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