About the Project

An Anthro-Historical Artist’s Journey Through the History of a River

A Secret History of American River People is a project to build a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on the river from the deck of a recreated 1940s-era shantyboat over a series of epic river voyages. The project explores the issues facing current river communities, the long history of people who have lived on and adjacent to the river, and basic river ecology.

Who are we? Meet the artists and crew behind the project. If you want to help, there are lots of ways you can support the project.

This is the fourth year of the project. The shantyboat has traveled over 1000 river miles and 20,000 miles by land. We’ve conducted 85 oral history interviews spanning 100 hours of video, exhibited a dozen times all over the country and talked to thousands of people about the river.

Using material from fieldwork on a growing list of other American rivers, Secret History is a dialogic and participatory art piece, firmly rooted in a People’s History tradition, that reexamine the issues currently and historically faced by people living or working on the river. Particular attention is given to the invisible stories of women, native people, working people, and people of color, to create a multi-perspective and multi-path take on historical narrative, exploring the importance of a public commons and to challenge dominant cultural assumptions about the role in society of people living at the fringe.

Outcomes of the project are a research archive, short and feature documentaries, and a series of books. Look for the first volume of the book series in 2018 or early 2019. These archives telling otherwise untold personal narratives are a significant cultural artifact with wide-reaching significance to people living and searching for solutions to shared challenges in river communities elsewhere on the continent.

This summer our fieldwork takes us to the Sacramento River. Check out how you can help support the project

Secret History: The Story So Far

In 2012, California artist Wes Modes began building the Secret History shantyboat. Inspired by historical accounts of shantyboaters on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, he lovingly recreated a traditional wooden-hulled barge-bottom houseboat with friends over two years out of largely rustic reclaimed materials.

In the summers of 2014 and 2015, Wes embarked on epic journeys to discover, present, and connect the personal narratives of river people from the deck of the shantyboat on the Mississippi River. The project combines his experience as a sculptor and digital artist, his enduring interest in people’s history, personal narrative, and river life, and his thirst for adventure.

Meeting people who work and live on the river, Wes collected a digital archive of personal histories — the lost stories of river people, river communities, and the river itself, including the personal chronicle of the artist’s adventure. Wes conducted oral-history interviews with Upper Mississippi artists, boathouse residents, scientists, researchers, historians, business owners, and adventurers. On the journey, he used the project website and social media to share stories, photographs, and video to connect river people with those far from the river.

shantyboat stormy skies pano

In summer 2016 in conjunction with exhibitions in the region, Wes re-launched the shantyboat on the Tennessee River. A summer-long research voyage started in Knoxville, Tennessee and traveled 658 river miles through northern Alabama and Mississippi, ending in Paducah, Kentucky where the Tennessee meets the Ohio River. The project exhibited at a half dozen locations.

The shantyboat serves as the primary artistic focus of the project, serving not only as the expedition vessel but the project library and archive. Visitors to the Secret History exhibition can explore the archives, see excerpts of interviews, explore the physical library of river-related books and materials, explore the boat, and talk with the artist. Secret History continues to show at art and history institutions nationwide.

In the winter months, Wes returns home to the mountains of coastal California to teach and to work on the Secret History archive and book projects. He is currently working on the first volume of a series of books about the project.

In 2017, summer fieldwork takes us to California’s Sacramento River running through the Central Valley with interviews and exhibitions along the way.

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Secret History: What It Is

Secret History is an interdisciplinary and multi-dimensional art and history project that has three interlocking parts:

  1. An academic research archive of long form interviews with river people.
  2. An extensive project website introducing and connecting a wider audience to those who live and work on the river.
  3. The shantyboat as a central art piece is a physical archive and library of the Secret History project temporarily sited at museums and galleries.
  4. A series of books about the experience, the people we meet, and the places we visit.

img_7497The first years of fieldwork for the project gathered the narratives of lost river communities on an archetypal American journey along the upper Mississippi River from St. Paul, Minnesota toward St. Louis, Missouri.

About the Artist

Wes Modes is a California artist focused on social practice, sculpture, performance and new media work. He holds an MFA from the Digital Art and New Media program at UCSC. He has exhibited his art and performed regionally since 1996. He is also a UCSC art lecturer and curator for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. In other lives, he is a high-tech runaway, writer, community organizer, geek, and mischief-maker.


Special thanks to those who made the project possible, particularly our friends and supporters who gave their time, energy and money to make this happen, those who generously shared their stories for the archive, and the organizations who sponsored or awarded us grants. These include:

See who helps make this project possible: Our acknowledgments.