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Missouri law and the rivers

Let the river run
Let all the dreamers
Wake the nation

— Carly Simon – Let The River Run.

It seems like the whole genealogical world has converged on St. Charles, Missouri, for the 2015 National Genealogical Society conference.

mo.riverNot quite, of course… but certainly a goodly number of U.S. genealogists are here as the conference gets underway this morning with J. Mark Lowe’s keynote, “The Tales of Pioneer Paths: Rivers, Roads, & Rails.”

And given that keynote, it’s only right that The Legal Genealogist was looking for laws about rivers in old Missouri statutes last night and came across a number of provisions that could well have impacted any ancestors in the Show-Me State.

Start with the fact that folks were allowed to dam a river or creek if needed for a mill, but only with the permission of a court and compensation to anyone damaged. And:

any person or persons who shall hereafter build or raise any dam or any leave of other stoppage, on any river, creek or run, within this state, without first obtaining leave from the court of the proper county, according to the provisions of this act, and shall thereby work an injury to any other person or persons, shall forfeit and pay to the party injured, double damages for every such offence…. and all mills and dams so built without complying with the provisions and requisitions of this act, shall be deemed to be nuisances, and dealt with as such.1

Tells us a thing or two about the value placed by early Missouri law on letting the river run, doesn’t it?

Go on to the statute of 17 December 1822 — “An Act declaring a part of the River aux Cuivre, a public highway”:

all that part of the river aux Cuivre, lying in and dividing the counties of St. Charles and Lincoln in the state of Missouri, from its junction with the Mississippi river to the town of Moscow or Ross’ Mills on said river, is hereby declared a public highway for the passage of all boats, rafts or other vessels ; and it shall and may be lawful for the inhabitants of the counties aforesaid and all others desirous of using the navigation of said river, to remove all natural obstructions in the same, between the aforesaid points.2

Couldn’t get much more direct in terms of letting the river run, could they?

Or how about the fact that the law expressly provided for rights of salvage for “any boat, barge, craft, vessel, raft or other property, … lost, wrecked or adrift… upon any river or navigable water course in this state”?3

Are we getting the idea here?

Missouri is a state much blessed — and occasionally ravaged — by rivers and their waters: the Mississippi; the Missouri; the Osage; the Meramec; the White, and more.

And its earliest laws reflect the importance of those rivers to our earliest ancestors — and how the view of the law was to let the river run.


  1. §10, Mills, Chapter I, in Laws of the State of Missouri … in Two Volumes … 1825 (St. Louis: State of Missouri, 1825), II: 590; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 12 May 2015).
  2. “An Act declaring a part of the River aux Cuivre, a public highway,” Navigation, in ibid., II: 597.
  3. Act of 18 Dec 1824, Salvage, in ibid., II: 704.
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