A Secret History of American River People 14

An Anthro-Historical Research Journey Through the History of a River

Lead Artist: Wes Modes

Visit the Secret History website at PEOPLESRIVERHISTORY.US


A Secret History of American River People is an artist’s journey through the history of a river. It is a project to recreate a 1940s shantyboat for a series of epic river voyages to build a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on the river. The collection and shantyboat will be featured in a touring installation as well as an interactive web documentary. It features a growing archive of over a dozen river people, including shantyboaters, scientists, historians, adventurer, artists, and locals who live and work on the river. Visitors to the shantyboat or its online proxy can explore issues faced by individuals and communities on the river, navigating individual stories, multiple histories, and thematic paths. Secret History seeks to step into the past to bring something forward to inform our present, our thoughts about the fringe edges of society and our own forgotten histories.

Mississippi River Punk Raft Journey (courtesy of Gerty Tonjum)

Mississippi River Punk Raft Journey (courtesy of Gerty Tonjum)


A rustic recreated 1940s shantyboat, a daring river voyage, and a meticulous archive of river stories are all part of a multi-year art and history project, A Secret History of American River People.

The project is a participatory installation, an interactive web documentary, and a research archive, all near-term outcomes of the project. In the installation, visitors step onto the recreated shantyboat, pick up the banjo or a book from the library, sit awhile and overhear the hidden stories of shantyboaters, scientists, historians, and locals who live and work on the river. The web doc allows visitors to experience the journey and get to know its subjects from afar. The research archive makes available these stories to future generations of scholars.

Secret History Shantyboat near Lake Pepin 3

Secret History Shantyboat at the mouth of the Chippewa River


Secret History is the culmination of an artist’s dream to build an authentic early 20th century shantyboat from scratch and float down the great Mississippi River, listening to the stories of river people. It is an attempt to step into the river of history. Swimming through narrative, immersed in personal histories, the project travels through the conflicting and complementary stories of river people and the landscape in which they live.

Last summer, I set out on a journey in an untested boat I built from scratch on one of the largest rivers on the continent to gather the lost narratives of people who live and work on the river. Inspired by historical accounts of shantyboaters on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, I floated Huck Finn-style for a summer, listening to the stories of those I met.

Ws Modes and Jennifer Bushard on a homemade raft on the Willamette River

Wes Modes and Jennifer Bushard on a homemade raft on the Willamette River

In ten years of DIY boating experience we found these rivers, the former commercial arteries of the nation, largely overlooked, so forgotten that the people who lived in the towns from which we launched often argued with us about where the river went, whether it was navigable, and even what direction it flowed.

Historically, working-class and impoverished people were a critical part of the wealth and history of river valleys and waterways: the people who brought the fish, who built the ships, who picked the crops. For more than a century, shantyboat communities sprung up in poor areas in the rural bottomlands and the industrial towns, places for itinerant workers, miners, fishermen, displaced farmers. The bootleggers, the sex workers, the undesirables.

Now these riverside districts, bottomland slums, and long-gone shantyboat communities are either abandoned or displaced, all going or gone. Whole communities written out of the history books, their stories all but forgotten. In the tradition of Howard Zinn’s People’s History projects, Secret History of American River People uncovers these hidden stories and brings them to life.

Statement of Need

I found references to the common sight of shantyboats lining the banks of cities before the mid-1950s and was inspired to research the history of these communities. Though part of the American landscape for more than a century, there is very little written about the history of shantyboats and boathouse communities. Outside of various river memoirs and autobiographical fiction, these histories don’t exist. As people struggling through modern capitalism search for meaningful and sustainable ways of existing — simplifying their lives, downsizing their possessions, and exploring tiny homes — the lost history of river people becomes critical to conceptualizing alternatives to modern life.

During its initial phases, the Secret History project used an extensive website, blog, and social media to share stories, photographs, and video to connect river people with those far from the river. Nearly a thousand people follow the Secret History project online through various social media. In spring 2014, I launched a successful crowdfunding campaign and were successfully funded by nearly a hundred backers. I used the statistical analysis tools available on these networks to understand our online audience and spot trends.

Interactive map on Secret History Website


I introduced the project through social media. Overwhelmingly, the largest engagement was from three groups: those whose activities are centered on the river, those connected to the non-profit world including museums and universities, and people who worked in the high-tech sector. As the project enjoys greater publicity, the audience for the project grows more diverse. I aim to attract new audiences by creating a fascinating and interactive experience that draws people in.

An area of concern within the project is a lack of diversity in the pool of interviewees. Ideally, oral history interviewees represent people from diverse ethnic, racial, religious, socioeconomic groups, and cross-generational experiences. Well-meaning researchers without a formal interviewee selection plan, tend to engage those within their social sphere. In the summer fieldwork, extensive interviews were conducted with 14 people. Though they represent a range of socioeconomic levels, all of them appear to be white European ancestry with only four of them female. I intend to confront this directly with a formal interviewee selection plan for further fieldwork in winter and summer.

Interview Portraits

I informally polled supporters of our crowdfunding campaign, asking their reasons for supporting the project. Their comments closely aligned with our goals. As I further develop the project, I plan to play to these strengths. Nearly all mentioned an appreciation of understanding the history of the river and its people. More than half pointed out that traveling on the river in an authentic shantyboat made this project stand out. “What makes it so special is that you and your crew were actually on the river, talking with people, recording contemporary life on the Mississippi, the main artery of the American body politic, Mark Twain’s symbol of freedom and possibility” Another theme that emerged was an appreciation of the people’s history approach — historical narrative told from the bottom-up rather than the top down. Finally, supporters appreciated the depiction of alternative ways of living and surviving in the world: “​I supported this project because I was interested in encouraging exploration of different ways of living and of thinking about some perfectly reasonable approaches that are different from the norm.”

Additional fieldwork and additional audience outreach is critical to the long term success of the project.

Secret History Shantyboat in Minneapolis



Using research from fieldwork on the Upper Mississippi River and experiences from a variety of rivers in the midwest and West Coast, my goal is to create a powerful tool to reexamine the issues currently and historically faced by people living or working on the river, with particular attention to the invisible stories of native people, working people, people of color, and women, to create a multi-perspective and multi-path take on historical narrative, and to challenge assumptions about the importance of the commons and the role in society of people living at the fringe. Most of all, I want to inspire audiences to take river history and draw parallels in addressing challenges in their own time and place.

Wes Modes interviews Calie Arline on Latsch Island, Winona, MN


To achieve our goals, I plan to create a touring shantyboat installation, an interactive web documentary, and a research archive. Each are detailed below:

Art Installation: A touring art installation to be sited at galleries, museums, and educational institutions is intended to reach our non-profit audience that includes artists, museum-goers, and university people. The shantyboat serves as the primary artistic focus of the project, serving not only as the expedition vessel but the project library and archive.

Interactive Documentary: An interactive web documentary will reach our online audience and provide an opportunity to experience Secret History outside of a gallery. The web version of Secret History strives to educate and inspire visitors about the history of and contemporary issues facing people who make the river their work and home.

Research archive: A research archive seeks to address the dearth of material on the subject of the lives of river people. The archive will reach future audiences indirectly through scholarly articles and books that may use Secret History as a primary source.

Wes Modes Relaxing on Secret History Shantyboat



In order to accomplish our project objectives I will use the following methods:

Gather oral histories: Meeting people who work and live on the river, we collected digital video archives of people telling their own stories — the lost stories of river people, river communities, and the river itself, including the personal chronicle of the artist’s adventure. In order to compile archives useful as primary documents for future scholars, the artist carefully studied and strove for consistence with OHA methodologies and best practices for compiling oral history interviews. I interviewed Upper Mississippi artists, boathouse residents, scientists, researchers, historians, business owners, and adventurers. While the first collection of interviews was gathered during fieldwork on the Upper Mississippi in summer of 2014, additional fieldwork in winter and the following summer will broaden the pool of interviewees.

Exhibit the shantyboat installation: Visitors to the Secret History shantyboat can explore the digital archives, see excerpts of interviews, explore the physical library of river-related books and materials, explore the boat, and talk with the artist. Additionally, a short documentary feature is available to be screened inside the hosting institution. The shantyboat was completed in summer of 2014 and outfitting it for exhibition is ongoing. The Secret History installation is already scheduled to exhibit at regional museums and art events throughout the winter and spring. Funding is being sought to bring the shantyboat to the Upper Midwest for a series of exhibitions at river-connected institutions. Opportunities to exhibit the shantyboat and the Secret History project in the region are currently being discussed with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, MN, and the National Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, IA.

Create a web documentary: The web doc combines personal portraits, interactive data, participatory elements, and user-generated content on an evocative HTML5 website offering multiple branching thematic paths and perspectives. The first phase of the web documentary launched during this academic year will serve as a framework for future expansion and will be designed with this in mind. Designing, programming, editing, and implementing the interactive web documentary may be the most ambitious aspect of the project’s winter/spring objectives. A project team including the artist and up to a half dozen research assistants will make this their primary goal with an expected launch date of April 2015.

Create a research archive: The Secret History archive features long form interviews with people encountered during the Secret History expeditions. The project team will enlist the aid of university archivists in the Midwest and West Coast to find permanent hosting for the archive, transcribe and index the interviews, create finding aids for the archive, and catalog the contents in an online public access catalog such as OCLC WorldCat. Rick Prelinger suggested that Internet Archive may be an ideal location for permanent hosting.

Do further fieldwork: This December, I will return to the Upper Mississippi — without the Shantyboat this time — for an additional series of interviews with people who could not be interviewed on the previous trip. And in early summer 2015 in conjunction with exhibitions in the region, the shantyboat will return to the Upper Mississippi for a summer-long research voyage starting near La Crosse, Wisconsin where the previous year’s journey left off. Funding is currently being sought to support this fieldwork.

Secret History Shantyboat near Lake Pepin 1

Secret History Shantyboat near the mouth of the Chippewa River



The project is expected to have the following outcomes corresponding to the project objectives:

Art Installation:

  • At least two regional exhibitions from October to December, 2014 (already scheduled)
  • At least one regional exhibitions from January to March, 2015
  • MFA exhibition, April, 2015 (already scheduled)
  • At least two Upper Midwest exhibition at river-connected institutions from June to August, 2015

Interactive Documentary:

  • Current website reorganized as platform for web doc, March 2015
  • Soft launch, April 2015
  • Public launch of Secret History web documentary, April 2015

Research archive:

  • Transcriptions complete by November 2014
  • Archive edited and ready for hosting by January 2015
  • Metadata and indexing complete by February 2015
  • Archive hosted at permanent host, April 2015
  • Records in online public access catalog, August 2015
  • Finding aids created, September 2015
  • Public launch of Secret History research archive, September 2015

Hazel on Secret History Shantyboat


Future Directions

A Secret History of American River People is the basis of my MFA thesis work, but the project is expected to continue beyond graduation. At the end of April 2015, my MFA show will be at the UC Santa Cruz Digital Art Research Center. Two months later, I leave for the Midwest for another fieldwork expedition down the Upper Mississippi. I expect this fieldwork and the subsequent processing of the resulting archive to be funding by a combination of grants and crowdsourcing.

One of the goals of the project is to tell the story of river people on American rivers to inform our present time and place. While I chose to start with the Mississippi River, a waterway that looms large in the American consciousness, Secret History is not merely a regional project. Other rivers have different but complementary histories, critical pieces in the college of people’s river history. Plans to gather oral histories from river people on the Ohio, Missouri, and Tennessee Rivers are gestating.

Partnerships with river-connected institutions may provide additional resources. I am currently in contact with the Minnesota Historical Society, the National Mississippi River Museum, and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum.

By design, each of the components of the project are built as a platform upon which future content can be contained comfortably. New thematic paths and protagonists can be added to the web documentary. The research archive can be expanded. The history aboard the shantyboat exhibit grows richer and deeper each year.

With time I expect A Secret History of American River People to reflect the extraordinary depth and breadth of the people who call the river their life and work, and to create a place within American history for the lost stories of these river people.

14 thoughts on “A Secret History of American River People

  1. Reply Jeanne Henzel Apr 29,2014 6:10 pm

    I like this a lot, Wes! Was not aware of the grander scope of this iteration of shantyboat.

  2. Reply Curt Aug 11,2014 2:38 am

    Hey Wes,

    Just stumbled across your website and found it fascinating. Being from the “old south,” I understand the secret world and lifestyles of certain economic, social and racial groups. I have seen them on and around the water and in the wide open spaces of American West…living in old school buses, cars and sometimes, under the stars.

    How is your project progressing? Where are you in the timeline from above?


  3. Reply Delta King Oct 11,2014 8:43 am

    Excellence is at work here.

    The Mississippi, or the father of a rivers, has got.to be.greatest untold story of.American hostory.
    Have you.seen a copy of “Old Man River” by Paul Schneider?

    Why stop at St Louis?
    Come on down to New Orleans, store the shanty here and stay in town for a few days.
    Retrieve it when ready, meanwhile I’ve got some interesting video of the late David “Honey-boy” Edwards, from Shaw Mississippi, describing the Great Flood of 1927!

  4. Reply Skippy Jan 17,2015 11:27 am

    Wes & shanty boat fans – I’m a law student & I’m taking Water Law this semester. I’m actively working with my professor to see how this project can be discussed in relation to some aspect of water law. Keep up the good work, Wes. It must continue after graduation!

    • Reply Wes Modes Jan 17,2015 6:36 pm

      Skippy, what university are you at? if you’d like to contribute to the project and meet your project requirements this semester, I would love to understand more about what changes happened in US law that forbid people living on US waterways in the 1950s. That’s the era when we went from shantyboats living the banks of every river in US cities to virtually no one living on any waterways. Feel free to write at wmodes@gmail.com

  5. Reply tim mason` May 31,2015 7:02 am

    Skippy we must also talk? Water law! Wife & I live on shantyboat on Upper Mississippi. I’m a shantyboat culture lover. Tim (aka Fishgutts)

  6. Reply Boxcarro Guitarro Aug 4,2015 2:19 am

    Yes, the People in Shanty Boats fell victim to the same Thinking that Outlawed Freak Shows, Sword Swallowers (Like Toni Del Rio, a Hermorphidite I worked for as a Tattoo Artist in the 1960,s when I first got Married. She lived in a Shanty Boat below Thibadoux Louisinan. Urban Renewal put Poor Working People from $15.00 a month Community Camps (Like where My Mexican Wife & I Lived in in Oklahoma City, in 1970) to living in Hobo Jungles! I remember the Fort Worth, Vickery Yards “HOBO JUNGLE” where a Tramp lived in a Home Built DOME and Skillets,Pots & Pans were Hung from Trees by the Creek! “The Treaties signed with the United Nations over rule Federal laws, the Constitution nonwithstanding” according to the Constitution. People who do not Read the TREATY POWER that TUMPS Constitutional Laws should read it. Any Legal Representive of the United States who Signs a TREATY then The Treaty become TH LAW OF THE LAND…constitution.

    so the best way to LIVE in a BOAT is a GOOD HEAVY RUBBER RAFT and Build It as a Simple Home.
    It is also Illegal to Live in the USA without a DOMICILE as a PERMINANT ADDRESS, even to obtain Postal Boc you MUST have a LEGAL STREET ADDRESS, BANK ACCOUNT and Legal State ID.

    Exposing ALEC: How Conservative-Backed State Laws Are All Connected pushed through Universal Laws titled “Illegal Lodging and Camping” some years ago..every state has them, Remember the New Mexico Tent Guy being Shot Dead? I used to live in a TENT by the Rio Grande just outside of HATCH, New Mexico. where I Played the Harmonica to “Charm” the Rattle Snakes & Water Moccasins into Coexistence.
    I was considered a :Hell of a Man!” by Locals at the Greasy Spoon! I walked from DEMING new mexico, where I bailed off a Union Pacific east bound, to Visit a Friend. He had moved to Hatch…tracks went there, but Trains were a seldom seen.

    Sleeping in Rattle Snake country was a Art I Develouped…Sleep in a Tent with No Entru, pread Salt & Mint Leaves, USE OIL of EUCALYPISIS as a After Shave…of course I DO NOt SHAVE!

    and a 13 Foot Cotton or Flax Rope looped around the Perimitor is Acient knowledge.

    Happt Happy, I am now 66 Retired Hobo in Housing in San Francisco…I remember in 2000 your Dead Train Bums…Boxcar Johnny the Arkansas Minstrial.

  7. Reply Boxcarro Guitarro Aug 4,2015 2:32 am

    Wes do you remember the Billiards Hall in Clinton Iowa? It was a Low Cost Transient Hotel I stayed in about 2000.

  8. Reply Bunker Nov 23,2015 7:47 pm

    Read the novel Suttree.

  9. Reply sigrid trumpy Jan 5,2016 5:30 am

    This is a wonderful project! I would like to know if you are still working on it and if and how it might travel in some form to other parts of the country? Please let me know! Thanks for your hard work and creativity.

  10. Reply Rick Claussen Mar 11,2019 10:27 am

    My Grandmother was born on a shantyboat on the banks of the Mississippi at Ste. Genevieve MO. I have one old photo of the boat with my GreatGrandmother and GreatGrandfather sitting on the porch. He fished and harvested wild herbs on the riverbanks. I can send you a copy of the photo if you are interested.

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