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‘Mighty Mississippi’ exhibit opens at history museum

FOREST PARK  – “The Mighty Mississippi,” a 6,000-square-foot exhibit that explores the cultures and legacies that grew and prospered around the Mississippi River, opened on Nov 23. at the Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd. in Forest Park. The free exhibit will run through April 18, 2021. 

“We have objects here that go back 1,000 years to the Mississippian period culture, to the builders of Cahokia Mounds, to Native Americans who built mounds; and communities over here, on this side of the river, did too,” David Lobbig, Curator of Environmental Life at the Missouri History Museum, said. “Right here in Forest Park there used to be some of those communities around the River des Peres when it was flowing through here.”

Lobbig explained that because we have no records of any of those people’s languages, the names they used for their groups have not survived. He also noted that because of the colonization of the river valley, few of today’s residents are likely to be descendants of those early groups.

Of the exhibit’s more than 200 artifacts, some date back 1,000 years and were made and used by the people living near the river before it was known as the Mississippi.

“The river has been called many different names by the various tribal groups in the region,” Lobbig said. “The Osage called it ‘Ni Ton-ga’; the Choctaw called it ‘Mish Sipokni.'”

Eventually, he said, the French began to call the river the Mississippi, derived from “Misi-zibi” from the Ojibwe or Algonquin people.  

The Ohio, Arkansas and Tennessee rivers link up to the Mississippi on its 1,100-mile journey below the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico. River travel helped spread artifacts across the continent.

Arrowheads, stone blades and 26 beads made of freshwater snail shell are among the items in the exhibit. More unusual items include a Canada goose leg bone whistle; a water monster effigy bowl; a shell buried for about 500 years, believed used in ceremonies; an engraved gorget or shell pendant; and a carving of a mountain lion in a huge rock.

Lobbig then picked up the history at a new era.

“When fur trading started and the French and others were colonizing this area, they built St. Louis as a trading post, a fur trading post; and some of those people were descendants from the Mississippian people,” he said. “We have a section in the exhibit that shows that period of time when the fur trade was a very, very important thing to St. Louis, during the 1700s and 1800s.” 

Some of the artifacts from that era and later include a cannon used by the American Fur Company about 1835; a Missouri war ax from 1800-1840; and the pilothouse from the Golden Eagle Steamboat. The steamboat, built in 1904 and sunk in 1947, is one of only a handful left in the U.S. It’s one of the single largest artifacts in the Missouri Historical Society’s collection.  

Lobbig emphasized the river’s role in shaping both our history and our current lives.

“We really rely on the river in ways we are hardly aware of today,” he said. He stressed the need to care for that resource, and he noted recent progress.

“The river is much cleaner now than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “It was highly polluted in the 1960s.” Plastic bottles, wrappers and other trash found in the river now hang from the museum ceiling as reminders.

During the Industrial period, which included the building of Eads Bridge in 1867-1874 by James Eads, St. Louis was the biggest city in the west and the fourth largest city in the United States. A large picture of the bridge, which is still in use today, is also part of the exhibit, as well as a scaled-down model of a paddlewheel steamboat.

 “The Missouri Historical Society has been around for 153 years, and in all that long time there is a lot of collecting going on,” Lobbig said. “Early on, people were collecting a lot of things dug out of the ground. What’s unusual is to have objects intact after such a long period of time.”

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