Human societies evolved alongside rivers, but how has the relationship between human settlement locations and water resources evolved over time? We conducted a dynamic analysis in the conterminous US to assess the coevolution of humans and water resources from 1790 to 2010. Here we show that humans moved closer to major rivers in pre-industrial periods but have moved farther from major rivers after 1870, demonstrating the dynamics of human reliance on rivers for trade and transport. We show that humans were preferentially attracted to areas overlying major aquifers since industrialization due to the emergent accessibility of groundwater in the 20th century. Regional heterogeneity resulted in diverse trajectories of settlement proximity to major rivers, with the attractiveness of rivers increasing in arid regions and decreasing in humid areas. Our results reveal a historical coevolution of human-water systems, which could inform water management and contribute to societal adaptation to future climate change.