Great Rivers 3: Great Rivers, Great Givers

What You Need

Great Rivers 3: Great Rivers, Great Givers


To help students understand that great rivers have had enormous influence on human history, from the dawn of civilization through the present.


This lesson was developed by Dr. Penny Firth, a scientist, Dr. Richard Sparks, of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Milton Muldrow, Jr., a scientist, as part of a set of interdisciplinary Science NetLinks lessons aimed at improved understanding of environmental phenomena and events. Some of the lessons integrate topics that cross biological, ecological, and physical concepts. Others involve elements of economics, history, anthropology, and art. Each lesson is framed by plain-language background information for the teacher.

This is the third lesson of a three-part series entitled Great Rivers: Where Ecology Meets History. These lessons address the concept of large rivers as dynamic, ecological systems that have had vital influences on human history. In Great Rivers 1: The Nature of Great Rivers, students are shown the basics of the water cycle. They are introduced to the concept that flowing water carries materials such as silt, plankton, leaves, and wood. They also learn how rivers and the materials that they carry define how they look and act.

Great Rivers 2: The Ups and Downs of River Flooding focuses on flooding, both because of its importance to human history and because it is often misunderstood. Key to this lesson is the concept that while some floods may be predictable in a general way (i.e., in the springtime), floods do not occur on a schedule.

Great Rivers 3: Great Rivers, Great Givers consists of a variety of brief sketches that illustrate for students how rivers have influenced human history from the dawn of civilization.

Students should know that rivers have multiple uses for humans that include fishing (commercial and recreational), transportation, and hydropower energy.

Students very likely will be concerned about pollution in local or regional rivers, and the class can be introduced to the sources of most pollution and how clean, or dirty, their river is.

Contact Dr. Firth at pfirth@nsf.gov.

Planning Ahead

You will want to look through the different exercises described below and decide which are feasible for your class.


To help get your students motivated for this lesson, ask them: "Why are rivers important to you personally? What do they give you?" Once you have gotten their responses, discuss the true meaning of the word give and how this relates to the role rivers play in their lives. Give is from the Old English giefan, meaning "to make a present of." The important thing about gifts is that they do not require payment or compensation. This is certainly true of the "gifts" provided by rivers, the goods and services that have benefited humans throughout history.

Have the students in your class study the table on the Rivers as Givers student sheet to get an idea of how rivers are givers. Assign (or have students select) the different topics and ask the students to bring in a representation of that topic for inclusion in a Rivers as Givers Display. The representations might be magazine or newspaper articles, drawings or photographs, advertisements, commercial products, bits of nature (i.e., freshwater clam shell, duck feather), bits of culture (i.e., golf ball, fishing lure), or other items that the creative young minds come up with.

The Rivers as Givers Display can be three dimensional: try hanging small items from the ceiling with dental floss. The display can involve a bulletin board or wall, and can even include computer animations if you have students who are so inclined.


In the previous lesson, students learned about floods, both seasonal and great, and how they have influenced the fertility of the floodplain—and hence the origins of agriculture and civilization. In this lesson, students will learn about some of the other goods and services provided to humans by rivers, notably food, transportation, and energy.

To start, have your students use their Rivers as Givers student esheet to go to Spear Fishing, from the Minnesota State University, where they should read about one of the earlier approaches of fishing used by native Americans.

Artisanal fishing came next. Artisanal fishers build their own boats and gear, and they sell or trade in local markets. Once students have finished reading about spear fishing, they should use their esheet to go to Fishing Technologies, which describes various artisanal fishing technologies. Some of these were depicted in art. Students should then use their esheet to go to Etruscan boat-based line fishing to view an ancient depiction of this type of fishing.

After students go through the resources, introduce them to: The Mississippians: A Great North American Chiefdom. Students should use their esheet to go to the American Bottom Landing site of the Illinois State Museum's RiverWeb. This site examines the Mississippian culture of Native Americans living in the American Bottom, a large floodplain located near modern-day St. Louis, Missouri.

After students study this resource, they should be able to discuss these questions as a class:

  • How important was fishing to this culture?
      (Fish, in addition to maize, was a major item in the Mississippian food basket.)
  • What other products of the river and floodplain were important to their everyday existence?
      (The other products important to their existence included goosefoot, knotweed, tobacco, bottle gourd, squash,  may grass, little barley, sunflower, bean, and marsh elder.)
  • Compare your daily lives to the daily lives of Mississippian children. What do you suppose they did instead of going to school? Instead of watching TV or playing video games? Where did their food come from and what part might they have played in collecting, catching, or preparing it?
      (Answers will vary. Encourage students to explain their answers.)

Commercial fishing has become globally important quite recently compared with subsistence and artisanal fishing. By some estimates, fish—much of it from the sea—provides almost a fifth of the world's animal protein. Refrigeration, highly efficient catch methods, and modern boats and equipment allow fishers to supply distant markets. Of course, there is a large capital investment required and the risk of overfishing is great.

Next, students should use their esheet to go to the Illinois State Museum Harvesting the River website. Here, students will find a discussion of early commercial fishing on the Illinois River, including a narrative, images of fishers and their tools, and essentials of the ecology and fish of the river.

Students should think about these questions as they study the site:

  • Are any of the kinds of fish mentioned on the site found in your local grocery stores?
      (Answers may vary.)
  • Between the 1880s and 1930s, what were the four main products harvested from the river?
      (They were waterfowl, fish, freshwater mussels, and natural ice.)
  • The Illinois River is known as having a slow fall, which means that it is a slow-moving river. How did this slow fall affect the habitat and the kinds of fish found in the river?
      (These characteristics provided habitat for bottom-feeding fish such as the channel catfish, the common carp, and the smallmouth buffalo. These fish also survived some of the increasing pollution from upstream that took place in the twentieth century.)
  • How did the changes along the river in the 20th century affect the supply of these products and the people who lived along the river?
      (The changes included the building of levees and industrialization. These changes increased siltation, loss of wildlife habitat, and pollution from human and industrial waste.)

What's All the Fuss about Salmon?
Public decisions that affect how natural resources may be used are often controversial. Choices are usually governed by a mix of local, county, state, tribal and federal laws, regulations, and customs. Your students may have heard of the controversy surrounding saving Pacific salmon, and the economic trade-offs that it might entail. Have the students use their esheet to read Why try to save wild salmon?, on page 4 of the Snapshot of Salmon in Oregon publication, for different views on saving the salmon.

Once students have read the article, discuss these questions with them:

  • Where is the balance between human needs and environmental protection now?
      (Answers will vary.)
  • How does this compare with where the balance was 50 or 100 years ago?
      (Answers will vary.)

There are some awesome fish in large rivers. Sturgeons, little changed since the time of the dinosaurs, are the behemoths of great rivers, growing to more than a half ton. Fish of this size were caught by people along the Mississippi, but required mules to be taken out because they were so heavy. Sturgeon can live more than half a century, and are shaped to use the current to keep them on the bottom, where they eat benthic (bottom-living) invertebrates.

Another river fish that can get quite large is the catfish. Using their esheet, students should view a picture of the blue catfish. Found worldwide, in the Mississippi River the catfish can get up to 200 lbs. Students should then use their esheet to observe a picture of a flathead catfish, which is an ambush predator.

Using their esheet, students will then be directed to observe the alligator gar, one of the most fearsome river predators and a fish that can reach 10 feet in length and has a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. The villain in Little Orphan Annie was eaten by an alligator gar. The record alligator gar caught on a line was caught in Rio Grande, Texas in 1951. It weighed 279 lbs. Larger ones have been caught by other methods. Unfortunately, these fish are considered nuisances by some fishers because they prey on game fish, and many have been cruelly destroyed.

In addition to fish, rivers have long been sources of other food animals. Rivers are migratory corridors for birds and wildlife, and the regular seasonal flooding cycle of rivers provides excellent habitat and food for these animals. Humans living along rivers hunt these animals, especially during their migrations in spring and fall.

Next, have your students go on a fact-finding mission tailored to their individual interests. Some questions that they might research include:

  • What is your state fish?
  • What are the biggest fish found in your state?
  • What are the most numerous fish?
  • What is your favorite fish? Does it live in rivers?
  • What is the most interesting thing you have learned about river fish?

(Answers will vary. Encourage students to explain their responses.)

Two-hundred years ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were sent by President Thomas Jefferson on an expedition to "extend the external commerce" of the United States. Jefferson wanted a trade route, preferably a water route, to the West coast. He also had just finished doubling the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase (at 4 cents an acre, it was a pretty good deal) and was interested in the political, military, and economic uses of the West, as well as its indigenous occupants. Jefferson was a citizen scientist, and besides their other charges, Lewis and Clark were ordered to collect scientific information about the land and waterways.

Next, discuss with the class how rivers have always provided transportation and communication corridors for people. Many cities have developed at strategic points along rivers. For example, on the East coast of the United States, there are numerous towns and cities located at the fall line. The fall line is just what you might expect; it is the point along the edge of the continent where the hilly Piedmont gives way to the flat Coastal Plain. There are rapids and waterfalls at this point, and ocean vessels cannot sail any farther upstream. Since ships were how people got their crops to market in historical times, trading points at the fall line—as far inland as navigation was possible—were common. As a class, discuss how many cities and towns students can name that are located at the fall line.

The amount of freight carried over the 26,000 miles of commercially navigable channels in the U.S. is now dwarfed by other transportation systems such as roads and railroads. But the tonnage has more than doubled, to over 600 million tons per year, in just the last 40 years. Display to the class the Bureau of Transportation table U.S. Ton-Miles of Freight to observe these changes. There are now well over 30,000 working cargo barges in the U.S., compared with about 12 million recreational boats. Also display and briefly review the Water Transport Profile to the class.

There is a lot of energy in rivers. Discuss with the class this question:

  • Where does this energy come from?
      (The solar-powered hydrologic cycle. Lifting water to the heights of the planet is a job that the sun performs. Water moving downhill puts this energy at the disposal of humans—who have exploited it for millennia.)

The earliest use of waterpower was probably for turning stone mill wheels to grind grain into meal and flour. Such mills were often built on small rivers, where a dam held water that was fed to a waterwheel. The turning waterwheel turned an axle that moved the heavy stone milling wheels around to grind whatever grain was put on them.

Presently, the hydropower facilities in the U.S. can generate enough power to supply 28 million households with electricity. This is the very clean equivalent of nearly 500 million barrels of oil. But clean does not necessarily mean environmentally benign. Dams that are not equipped with fish-passage ladders or similar devices will keep migrating fish from reaching their spawning grounds. Fish also are injured or killed if they pass through the turbines used to generate the power. The water quality and timing of flows downstream of dams also may be affected, and can cause major changes in downstream ecosystems.

Read More


Malcolm Gladwell, staff writer for the New York Times, in his much-read book The Tipping Point, makes the case that ideas and messages spread just like viruses do. In describing how such message epidemics are "tipped" (started), he invokes several agents of change, one of which he calls the Stickiness Factor. Gladwell points out that much of what we are told or read or watch, we simply don't remember. He argues that this has less to do with stimulation-boredom than with understanding-confusion. Stickiness means that a message makes an impact by connecting with existing understanding.

Students now should be familiar with the services that rivers give to humans. They also should understand some of the ways that rivers have influenced human history. In order to bring this lesson to closure, have your class develop a set of "sticky" messages that illustrate what they have learned. These could be in the form of catchy phrases or jingles, or they could be drawings or other images. Messages that make people laugh are sometimes very successful. So are messages that combine several of the senses (hearing and vision; touch and smell; etc.). We do not suggest that you "grade" the messages, but you might consider bringing them back out at the end of the term to see which ones stuck.


The Foundation for Water and Energy Education provides The Nature of Water Power site with activities to explore the scientific and social links between the hydrologic cycle, rivers, and electricity.

The Hamline University Center for Global Environmental Education Rivers of Life series chronicles the history of Mississippi River transportation.


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