Located in northeast Kansas, the Kansas River is named for the Kansa or Kaw people who lived in the area. The name for the state of Kansas was chosen to honor the people and their river. It is slightly more than 60,000 square miles. The river begins at the confluence of the Republican and Smoky Hill rivers to the west and flows about 148 miles to the east into the Missouri River. Today there are numerous public access points along the Kansas River for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and rowing.
On June 26, 1804, the U.S. Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, reached the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers. For three days, they camped at Kaw Point, the location today of Kansas City, Kansas. Their journals noted features of the river, wildlife, elevations, and sandbars.
(From Clark’s journal)
at the mouth of the River Kansies
June 26" 27" & 29th-
This river is 366 miles above the mouth of the Missouri it is in Lattitude 38° 31' 13" North
it is 230 yds. wide at its mouth & wider above from the point up the Missourie for about 3 ms. N. 21° W, Down the Middle of the Missourie is S. 32° E, up the upper bank of the Kansais, is S. 54° E the river turns to the East above a pt. of high land, well Situated for a fort & in view of the Missouris one mile up & on the upper Side, the width of the Missouris at this place is about 500 yds.
Among the early maps showing the area of Kansas, is one drawn by the French explorer Jacques Marquette in 1673-1674. The map does not mark the Kansas River, but it does locate the Kansa and other Plains tribes. Marquette communicated with the tribes in sign language to place the Kansa on the 39th parallel, directly south of the Omaha and Pawnee tribes and west of the Osage. This helped to indicate that the Kansa were living on the Kansas River. Another French explorer, Louis Joliet, created a map at about the same time showing a similar placement for the Kansa: a little more to the south, between the 36th and 37th parallels.
Two other French explorers mapped and documented the river. Guillaume de l'Isle was the first to map the Kansas River. Carte de la Louisiane, created in about 1718, shows the Grande Riv[iere] des Cansez flowing into the Missouri at about the 40th parallel. Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville in 1722 wrote of "las riviere des Canzes, qui afflue dans celle du Missouri," (the Kansas river that flows into the Missouri.)
An agent for the Spanish, James Mackay, compiled a table in 1797 to document points along the Missouri river. He noted the "Rivre des Cances" was 100.75 leagues from the mouth of the Missouri. "Beautiful river upon the south bank [of the Missouri],” Mackay wrote, “width of 100 fathoms at the mouth, navigable for canoes for more than 60 leagues at all times; but not for more than 20 leagues for large boats in the autumn when waters are low; the village of the Kansas is 80 leagues from this river." Francois Marie Perrin du Lac, noted in 1802 that the river of the "Kanees" was "navigable at all seasons to the extent of 500 miles." He spent 12 days trading with the "Kanees" Indians near the confluence.
Entry: Kansas River
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: February 2014
Date Modified: September 2015
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.