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Long before Europeans first arrived in the New World, the twisting course of the Missouri River was the home of a varied group of Indian farmers, a numerous people who lived in strong fortified towns, cultivated fields of corn in the well-watered bottomlands and hunted bison on the plains beyond. With the coming of the explorers and the inevitable expansion of the American frontier, the Indian cultures began the long decline that ended only with their near extinction. At first the Missouri served as a highway for fur traders, then for a growing number of trapping parties and explorers, and still later for a surge of gold seekers and settlers heading for the nearest northwest. At the same time, the main stem, as it has come to be called, formed part of a chain of military posts designed to protect and pacify the hostile frontier.

An important part of this long history is centered in the area that is now the Oahe Reservoir. The remains of Indian villages and camps, trading posts and military establishments were once to be found here in great numbers. Now most are submerged, gone forever except for stray fragments exposed by changing water levels of the reservoir. Before they disappeared many of the prehistoric sites and places of historical significance were carefully studied and excavated by archeologists and historians representing many federal, state and private agencies. This was accomplished as part of a unique program, a salvage effort, sponsored by the federal government, to sample, record, and document important parts of our national heritage before they are destroyed.

The construction of dams and reservoirs, the stabilizing of river banks, and a host of additional water control and hydroelectric projects are bringing great changes to many of our major river systems. Valleys have been transformed into lakes, and meandering streams brought into controlled channels. The river valleys hold a key to electric power, and the periodic floods that have inundated so many of our cities and towns must be prevented at all costs. Unfortunately, it is precisely along our rivers that much of the record of our Indian forerunners and of our own historic past is to be found.

The Inter-Agency Archeological Salvage Program was organized to preserve and to interpret the paleontological, archeological, and historic remains threatened with destruction by federal water control and hydroelectric projects. The program is administered by the U. S. National Park Service with the advice and active field participation of the Smithsonian Institution. Federal funds provide support for much of the work, but state, local, and even private contributions have been used.

The excavation and recording of historic and prehistoric sites is but one aspect of the program. The material objects recovered, artifacts, such as arrow points, pottery, military insignia, and the like are preserved in the U. S. National Museum, in specialized museums of the National Park Service, or in the repositories of the participating states. Here they are reminders of the past — public property, equally available to all.

There is still another consideration, and in the long run a more important one. Objects are not gathered for their own sake. True, many of them, even the commonplace things, of a century past, are interesting in themselves, but the archeologist and the historian see them in a very different light. Artifacts are tools, tools which can be used to amplify the written history of books and records—tools which can be used to write history where no written history exists. This then is the ultimate purpose of the program, to extend man's knowledge of himself—to interpret the past, making it meaningful for today.

The Inter-Agency Archeological Salvage Program operates over the entire United States. The Oahe Dam and Reservoir are a part of the Missouri Basin, the largest single geographic unit within the program. The Missouri Basin includes approximately one-sixth of the land area of the United States, exclusive of Alaska. Ten states — Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, fall partially or wholly within the boundaries of the basin. Six major dams have been built along the main stem, and innumerable smaller projects have affected tributary streams.

The basic stimulus for the Salvage Program is provided by the Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains, an independent group of private citizens, composed of representatives of the Society for American Archaeology, the American Anthropological Association, and the American Council of Learned Societies. The committee was formed in response to the threatened destruction of important paleontological, archeological, and historic sites by public construction projects within the United States. The U. S. National Park Service, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, agreed to administer the program on a national scale. Actual field investigations are carried out by units of the Smithsonian Institution and by a large group of state and private agencies. The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U. S. Bureau of Reclamation have provided support from the beginning. Without their recognition of the peculiar archeological and historical problems involved, the salvage effort would have been impossible.

Despite setbacks and temporary retrenchments the program has been highly successful. Paleontological, archeological, and historic sites have been destroyed by the construction of dams and the flooding of reservoirs, but this has not been a total disaster. Archeological research in particular has received an important stimulus. The construction programs have made possible a comprehensive, integrated program of archeological work, which would not have been practical under ordinary circumstances. No single institution or foundation could have borne the burden alone.

Although irreparable losses have occurred, this has been inevitable since even under ideal conditions it would never have been possible to excavate every site of importance. An effort has been made, however, to secure a sample from the remains represented in each endangered area. This has resulted in the accumulation of a vast amount of information helping to clarify the story of the aboriginal peoples of North America. The Salvage Program has been a particularly successful effort aimed at the reconstruction of important parts of the American past.


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Last Updated: 08-Sep-2008