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Many early Euroamerican settlers and travelers left vivid - if often unflattering - descriptions of the natural state of the American Bottom. One 19th century traveler described the bottomlands as "often marshy and abounding in stagnant lagoons and backwaters, which are filled, when the river overflows its banks ...., and on the subsidence of waters, are left full of vegetable matter to putrify in an almost tropical sun" (Oliver 1843:127). Bottomland streams were typically seen as "stagnant and pestiferous"(Schoolcraft 1825:225) and lined by "a dark and heavy forest of trees, with rank growth of underbrush"(Schoolcraft 1819:237). Nevertheless, others were struck by the beauty of the bottomland forests and prairie. According to Wild (1841:54) the "wide prairie stretches for miles its carpeting of green, gemmed with the most beautiful flowers, and dotted, at intervals, with clusters of trees". Buckingham (1842:140) described the prairie as a "sea of verdure, spangled with the brightest flowers."

Although often wet and densly vegetated, Euroamerican settlers recognized that the bottomland soils were extraordinarily fertile, excellent for farming. Thus, starting as early as the mid-19th century, Euroamerican settlers began digging ditches, tiling fields, and building levees to drain what had previously been an extensive network of wetlands, swamps, and sloughs. What is now a patchwork of modern economic development was made possible by two attempts (successful at least in the short term) to mold the natural environments of the American Bottom. Around the turn-of-the-century, to facilitate transportation, economic development, and protect residences, urban infrastructure, and agricultural facilities from flooding, considerable efforts were made by both the public and private sectors to control the Mississippi River through a system of levees, boat locks, dams, dikes, and drainage ditches. Thus, it is not surprising that the open, flat, and well-drained agricultural American Bottom we see today is radically different from the environment of 1000 years ago when Native Americans, called Mississippians by archaeologists, lived here.

Aerial photo looking east over St. Louis, Missouri towards East St. Louis and Cahokia, Illinois, 1922 Goddard photo.

Original caption for above Goddard photo, 1922.

As indicated by the above quotes, only 150 - 175 years ago this expansive floodplain appeared far different from the (seemingly) topographically and biologically monotonous agro-urban environment of today. In this not too distant past, the American Bottom, with its many dry, sinuous ridges interspersed within a complex of interconnected shallow sloughs, swamps, and wet prairies, supported a diversity of plant and animal life.

Thus, historical documents suggest, and geological and paleobiological records indicate, that Mississippian society, the most organizationally complex society of pre-Columbian North America, developed, flowered, and declined in an ecologically diverse and productive floodplain.

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