Books I’ve Read on the Missouri

Book and canoe.

I am enjoying reading great books on our Missouri River Expedition!

One of the rewards of paddling the Missouri River is that we have a great deal of mostly uninterrupted reading time. Turning pages is just as satisfying as covering miles down the river. Sometimes there is an opportunity to do both together.

When possible, I prefer reading books more or less “on location,” so this year’s adventure is the perfect setting for catching up on some Lewis and Clark-themed books that have been on my reading list for a long time. Now, having read everything I brought, I’ve started buying a book in every town, trying to stay in theme with the area we are paddling through. Here are the books I’ve read so far, mostly in the order I read them:

Colter’s Run by Steven T. Gough (2008)

The author gave me a signed copy of the book nearly ten years ago, and I finally had the opportunity to give it the attention it deserves. Colter’s Run is a work of historical fiction about the life of John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who spent the next several years trapping beaver in what later became Montana. He was the first westerner to see the thermal features of what later became Yellowstone National Park, and he had several harrowing encounters with the Piegan Blackfeet near present-day Three Forks, Montana. I read this book first because we launched from Three Forks. It was a good read, written in first-person narrative form. It is challenging to get into the mind of someone who has been dead for two centuries, so I was occasionally distracted with debating whether or not it was an accurate portrayal of Colter’s character. I think it would be difficult to write a book of historical fiction like this that is 100% convincing, but Steven Gough did exceptionally well. Ever since he published the book he has been working to get the story picked up as a motion picture. It may yet happen!

John Colter: His Years in the Rockies by Burton Harris (1952)

There are very few historical references about John Colter’s life, but this book compiles the available information into one comprehensive work. This text was obviously the source for much of the factual information behind the narrative in Stephen Gough’s Colter’s Run. Gough’s book is easier to read, and I probably would have gotten lost with Harris’s book if I hadn’t read the other first. It was enlightening to see the connections between fiction and nonfiction.

This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back by Ken Ilgunas (2018)

I learned of this book shortly before our launch. Freedom to Roam is a topic I am very passionate about, and I’ve written some essays about it as well, so the book jumped to the top of my reading pile. It was the best read of the expedition so far, and I wish it were required reading for all Americans to better understand how we all formerly owned the right to roam the open countryside. I could easily buy this book by the case to gift to friends and family. In any case, I just started reading it a second time.

William Clark and the Shaping of the West by Landon Jones (2004)

This was an exceptional and riveting book, which introduced the backdrop of William Clark’s life  through the exploits of his older brother George Rogers Clark. While I am fairly well versed in the history of the West, I feel more ignorant of American history east of the Missouri River. In particular, Landon Jones details the many act of Indian removal to systematically displace Native Americans from eastern states, sending them West of the Missouri. Jones shows how William Clark the Clark family were deeply involved in Indian removal, even when William was otherwise friendly to the natives. The book lays out the facts without judgement right up to the very end where Jones simply points out that in today’s world, William Clark’s actions would be considered ethnic cleansing. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but an essential one to better understand American history and the dark side of some of our greatest heroes.

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo (2014)

As the author of Botany in a Day, I am always picking up plant books. Although there were a few interesting tidbits about unusual plants, I wasn’t greatly impressed by it, and I concluded that the author doesn’t have a botanical background.

The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend By Bob Drury and Tom Calvin (2014)

This was the first book I bought on our journey, having picked it up in Fort Union. It is a fascinating read about Red Cloud and how he defeated the U.S. Army and made the United States abandon the Bozeman Trail and all the military forts along it, which Red Cloud burned to the ground. The book deals more with Wyoming history and the Powder River Basin, than the Missouri, but it was a really great read.

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn (2015)

I bought this book at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in North Dakota. Elizabeth Fenn wrote of the confluence of the Heart River with the Missouri as the heartland of the Mandan people, which happened to be about one hundred feet from my tent when I started reading. That was very location relevant, and the book greatly helped fill out my understanding of the Mandan people. It was very helpful to be in the midst of the earthlodge villages referred to in the book to help fit it all together. I thought it was an excellent read.

Eclipse: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Richard S. Wheeler (2002)

Richard S. Wheeler was a Montana author who died just this year. I was unaware of his work until Norman Miller suggested it to me. Eclipse is a work of historical fiction about Lewis and Clark. I brought the book from home, but didn’t crack it open right away because I’ve heard the Lewis and Clark story so many times that I wasn’t ready to go through it again until I ran out of other books to read. Then came the pleasant surprise, the story actually starts right at the end of their expedition to the Pacific Coast and back. I found it immediately entrancing, and read the entire book in a couple days. The book is written in first person narrative form, switching back and forth between Lewis and Clark. Like all historical fiction, I found myself debating the accuracy of the portrayal, but still considered it a great read.

Sister to the Sioux by Elaine Goodale Eastman (1930s)

I bought this book at the Klein Museum in Mobridge, South Dakota, opposite from the Standing Rock Reservation. Written in the 1930s, Elaine Goodale recounts her experiences as a young woman when she left home in the northeast on a mission to educate the Sioux people to western ideology. Unlike other reformers who advocated taking children away from their parents to go to distant boarding schools, Goodale believed in bringing schools to the people. She embraced the Sioux people, lived with them, learned to speak Dakota, and preferred wearing moccasins. She and a similarly young gal worked among the Sioux largely unchaperoned right at the close of the frontier when the West was still truly wild. Goodale later married a western-educated Sioux named Charles Eastman, leading to multiple collaborative books between them, which I would also like to read.


That’s all so far. I just picked up a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, so that’s my next read! To learn more about my own books, please visit: Thank you!

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Filed under Missouri River Expedition, Reviews: Books & Videos

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