The creation of the River Basin Surveys (RBS) grew out of preliminary work by the Committee for the Recovery of Archaeological Remains, an ad hoc group of anthropologists sponsored by the American Anthropological Association, Society for American Archaeology, and the American Council of Learned Societies, with liaison members from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Research Council. The committee's concern was the preservation of archaeological evidence threatened by public works programs, especially the construction of dams and reservoirs, that were carried out after World War II.
The result of the committee's work was a cooperative arrangement, called the Inter-Agency Salvage Program, among the Smithsonian, the National Park Service, the Corps of Engineers, many universities, and other public and private organizations to exchange information and finance and carry out salvage archeological work throughout the United States. The RBS was organized in 1946 to carry out the Smithsonian's part of the program. It was particularly active in field work in the Missouri Basin, states of the West Coast, Texas, and southeastern states. Initially, the arrangement was for the National Park Service to handle the financing of the work, using its own funds and requesting additional funds from other agencies. In time, the Park Service bore virtually all direct costs in its own budget, providing the RBS with funds and making contracts with state and other organizations to carry out part of the archeological work. In the mid-1950s, the Park Service became increasingly involved in field work and took over some of the field offices of the RBS.
Through most of its existence, the RBS was an autonomous unit of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Headquarters were in Washington, D. C. and from that office were carried out many of the projects not within areas of field offices. There was a major field office in Lincoln, Nebraska, that directed work in the Missouri Basin, and there were also field offices for relatively short periods of time in Austin, Texas, and Eugene, Oregon, that directed work in Texas and parts of the West Coast. When the Bureau was disbanded in 1965, the RBS became a unit of the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology (Department of Anthropology since 1968). In 1966, the headquarters were moved to Lincoln and, in 1968, the RBS was placed administratively under the director of the National Museum of Natural History. In 1969, the RBS was transferred to the National Park Service, but provision was made for the deposit of its records and manuscripts in the Smithsonian.