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The twisting course of the Missouri River was the home of varied groups of Indian farmers long before Europeans first arrived in the New World. Here were a numerous people living in strong fortified towns, cultivating fields of corn in the well-watered bottomlands and hunting bison on the plains beyond. With the coming of the explorers and the inevitable expansion of the American frontier, the Indian cultures began a 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 northwest. At the same time, forts along the main stem, as the river 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 Big Bend Reservoir (Lake Sharpe). The remains of numerous Indian villages and camps, trading posts and military establishments were once to be found here. Now most are submerged, but before they disappeared, many of the prehistoric sites and places of historical significance were carefully studied by archeologists and historians representing a number of federal, state and private agencies. The program was a part of a unique salvage effort, sponsored by the federal government, to sample, record, and document important parts of our national heritage before these remains were 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. Unfortunately, it is precisely along our rivers that most of the records of our Indian predecessors and of our own historic past is to be found.

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

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 compose a record where no written history exists. This then is the ultimate purpose of the program, to extend man's knowledge of himself—to discover and interpret the past, making it meaningful for today.

The Inter-Agency Archeological Salvage Program operates over the entire United States. The Missouri Basin includes approximately one-sixth of the land area of the continental United States, exclusive of Alaska. Ten states—Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, fall 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 was 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 in all parts of 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 number 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. 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.

Irreparable losses have occurred, but this has been inevitable and even under ideal conditions it would never have been possible to excavate every site of importance. Recognizing these problems from the outset, an effort has been made to secure a sample from the various kinds of 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.

A typical landscape in the Big Bend country; this view to the northwest shows a part of the Big Bend itself. Photo: Courtesy of the Missouri Basin Project, Smithsonian Institution

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Last Updated: 08-Sep-2008