A mighty exhibit spanning a great deal of the Mississippi River’s history is now open at the Missouri History Museum. Mighty Mississippi opened Nov. 23 and will remain open until April 2021.
“In many ways, we no longer see our connections to the river so clearly as our ancestors did,” says David Lobbig, curator of environmental life for the Missouri Historical Society. “We notice when it floods, but don’t necessarily think about its importance on a regular basis. The exhibit helps people become more aware of why where we settled is so important.”
The exhibit includes over 230 artifacts throughout four distinct sections: Lifeblood of the Heartland, The First Peoples’ World, Course of Empires andAvenue of Industry.
“In Lifeblood, you see our most recent history with the river, like some of the challenges and interests we have today, especially environmental concerns, water quality, flooding, biodiversity, commerce and transportation,” Lobbig says. “This exhibit section shows the extent of the river system, why it floods and why the water is so important to us today as a source for our municipal water supply. It’s a source of pride and heritage in connection to this central feature for the U.S. It’s one of the most important rivers in the world and drains over 41% of the U.S. We’re at the hub of its confluences, with the Missouri, Illinois and Ohio rivers nearby.”
The First Peoples’ World shows how a culture rose and thrived in this region about 1,000 years ago.
“We have about 60 artifacts in this part, which is where you see the oldest stuff, much of which hasn’t been seen in generations; whole pots and tools are still intact,” he says. “These Native Americans — we aren’t sure what they called themselves, but we call them the Mississippians — lived at Cahokia, but also all around the river valleys and tributaries, including in Forest Park along the River des Peres. They used those rivers for cultivating crops that allowed them to build larger communities, for transportation over thousands of miles along the riverways and for the resources the animals and plants provided.”
Course of Empires delves into the fur trade and colonization of the river valley by Europeans. Artifacts include items used in trade like manufactured goods made of iron, glass, silver and brass.
“There’s this marvelous Missouri war ax, a type that was traded up the Missouri River with mostly Osage Indians; this artifact is very important because of the power and authority it conveys, and it’s from one of the most important tribes in the fur trade,” Lobbig says. “There’s also a bank note from the Bank of St. Louis, which shows the first printed image of St. Louis picturing a river-based trading community.”
The final section, Avenue of Industry, depicts the arrival of the Industrial Age to the river valley by way of steamboats.
“You see a huge modification of the river with the influx of hundreds of steamboats by the 1830s,” he says. “That led to a tremendous increase in immigration and enabled the city to grow as an urban center. We have a rare pilothouse, from the Golden Eagle, that sank near here. It took about four years of conservation and reconstruction, but this large structure helps us appreciate the importance of these boats to river transportation and commerce.”
The exhibit will have many corresponding programs, so be sure to check the website for updates.