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What Lies Beneath the Lakes of North Dakota


Sixty-four years ago, the federal government anticipated a great series of floods to occur over the next few decades-floods that threatened to sweep away thousands of years of North Dakota history. Only these floods were not natural disasters. They were a planned part of federal water resource development programs. In 1945, the federal government began planning the construction of a series of dams that would provide flood control, hydroelectric power, irrigation, and recreation.

In addition to the hardships and loss experienced in the relocation of communities like Independence, Sanish, and Vanhook, it was also a shame to see many archaeological sites disappear. So, in the late summer of 1945, the Interagency Archaeological Salvage Program was created to evaluate the historic value of archaeological sites, and to remove and preserve items from these sites before the water rose.

Significant sites in North Dakota were included in the Missouri River Basin Project, a branch of the Archaeological Salvage Program River Basin Surveys. This project encompassed a vast array of sites extending from Missouri all the way to northern Montana. In North Dakota, water control projects like the Garrison Dam and the Oahe Dam threatened to submerge many historic sites like Ft. Stevenson, which disappeared under water when the gates of the Garrison Dam closed in 1953. Thankfully, the Smithsonian Institute came to the rescue of these sites, removing many of their treasures before they were lost forever.

On this date in 1966, the Bismarck Tribune reported that Smithsonian archeologists were excavating a prehistoric site near Cannonball. Since the start of the dig, the archaeologists had unearthed an entire house dating to prehistoric times. As the archaeologists sifted through the ruins, they slowly pieced together the story of the ancient people who lived there. These prehistoric inhabitants left behind three neat rows of rectangular houses that revealed a high level of community organization. Even the garbage, once discarded by the village people, revealed important information about their lives. These people were gardeners who raised such crops as corn and squash. The Cannonball site is just one of the many examples of the artifacts and history that were saved by the Interagency Archaeological Salvage Program.

It's ironic that the very dams created to control flooding in the Missouri River Basin, nearly washed away many artifacts that held the key to North Dakota's prehistoric past. Today, the sites of old villages, forts, and houses lay deep beneath the still waters of man-made lakes, and no doubt these sites still hold a great many secrets left undiscovered by archaeologists.

Dakota Datebook written by Carol Wilson




Bismarck Tribune, August 10, 1966.