Major Rivers of the United States

Trivia question:  What state is the origin of the most major rivers in the United States?

Answer: Colorado is the origin of the most major U.S. rivers.  The Rio Grande, Arkansas and Colorado rivers all originate in Colorado.  Two major rivers begin in Texas, the Red River and the Brazos River.  The only other states in which the headwaters of a major river occurs are Montana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.  The rivers are, respectively, the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Snake.

Perhaps New York should be added to the list since both the Hudson River and the Susquehanna river headwaters are in New York. Surely the Hudson is a major river and the Susquehanna is the longer of the two, flowing 464 miles to the Hudson’s 315 miles. The Hudson gave its name to a major movement in 19th Century American landscape painting, the Hudson River School. One might argue that the Mississippi River gave its name to a major 19th Century literary movement, the one called Mark Twain.

Let me digress, just for a moment: The Mississippi River made Mark Twain, or did he make it? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that every living soul in America can read some of the best of American literature by reading Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, [Chapter Five, “I Want to Be a Cub Pilot” is the most delightful thing you’ll ever read], and of course, Huckleberry Finn, easily the best 19th Century novel in he English language. It’s not one jot racist, don’t be misled. It’s a scathing satire on entrenched attitudes, specifically those associated with slavery, the time-period which is setting for the story. It’s a story of the bond between a young white boy and an escaped slave in the Antebellum South. I recommend it at a young age and then reading it again at an old age.

Together with the Erie Canal the Susquehanna has long been a major water navigation route. The Conestoga river in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, sometimes called Conestoga Creek because it isn’t navigable all times of the year, is a 61-mile long waterway that was once the main transportation route for getting goods from that county into the Susquehanna river at its confluence in Maryland. The point where the Conestoga joins with the Susquehanna came to be known as Port Deposit, Maryland. If you were a producer of goods in Lancaster County you needed to get your goods to Port Deposit to get them into the stream of commerce.

During the times of oceanic sailing ships travelers could board a ship bound for England in Lancaster. The only way the ship could get from Port Deposit to Lancaster was to be dragged through the muddy Conestoga by a line of mules on each bank. Of course, the ship could not turn around and had to be dragged backwards back to Port Deposit. The distance from Port Deposit to Lancaster along the Conestoga is only 18 miles. Overland travel between the two points is about 38 miles, an uncomfortable 3-day trip in the 17th-19th Century.

[normally only flat-bottomed sailing ships navigated rivers, but apparently the Susquehanna channel was (is) deep enough to accommodate an ocean-going sailing ship]

The Susquehanna and the Hudson both drain into the Atlantic ocean, further indicia of a major river. The Yellowstone is a long river at 692 miles but it drains into the Upper Missouri river so it fails the test of a major river.

The Columbia is a major river but its headwaters are in British Columbia.

UPDATE: It’s been suggested that the Green River which originates in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, is also a major river. Actually, it isn’t. The Green empties into the Colorado River just above Cataract Canyon, so it’s not counted as a Major River. All major rivers empty into the the Pacific, Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico. Below is a photo of the confluence of the Green and the Colorado. By the way, there is a terrific hiking trail in CanyonLands Park that leads to the overlook of the confluence. It’s about 5 miles each way and worth every bit of it.

Click photo to enlarge:


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