Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2000


Published in Great Plains Research 10 (Spring 2000). Copyright © 2000 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Used by permission.


With renewed discomfort, I return to my September 1997 issue of National Geographic, reading of China's grandiose Three Gorges Project. Construction of this immense concrete dam across the Yangtze River is well underway. When complete in 2009, the dam and reservoir will displace two million people and inundate four hundred miles of beautiful river and riparian lands. I want to lease a cargo plane, fly to China, and dump thousands of copies of Robert Kelley Schneiders's Unruly River on the cloistered leadership in Beijing, yelling at the top of my lungs, "Don't you see?"

Unruly River: Two Centuries of Change Along the Missouri should be required reading for anyone in the world who considers large dams the solution for some perceived social problem. Schneiders chronicles EuroAmerican contact with the Missouri since 1800, including the Corps of Engineers' prolonged struggle to tame the wild Missouri-even when it has been difficult to identify who the victim and the perpetrator of harm along the river has been.

The book begins by describing the contemporary river, from its headwaters in Montana to its confluence with the Mississippi upstream of St. Louis, accentuating the half-dozen mainstern dams in the upper basin and the dikes, narrowed and deepened channels, and other navigation features in the lower basin. Schneiders then recounts the flora and fauna of the predevelopment Missouri, accompanied by a series of black-and-white reproductions of early river paintings including those of Swiss artist Karl Bodmer who made his way up the Missouri in 1833. The reader yearning for color reproductions of these paintings will easily find them in Karl Bodmer's America, issued by the Smithsonian Institute in 1985. Even these diminished illustrations, along with Schneiders's understated style, convince the reader that the predevelopment river was an intensely beautiful and vibrant place.