The project is located in an area of southeast Kansas now referred to as the "Little Ozarks" that was first described by Washington Irving in 1832 as a "vast prairie without a tree or shrub in sight with the exception of the protected areas such as the hills and along the streams." The absence of trees was not entirely due to natural causes; many prairie fires started by nature and those started by man destroyed much vegetation. The Indians were known to have set fires to drive game animals onto the open prairie.
Archaeological investigations conducted in the lake area prior to impoundment included three sites that were thoroughly excavated. The excavated sites produced four Cuesta Indian lodges where many artifacts such as knives, a grinding stone and pottery were found.
A band of Osage Indians known as the Big Hill band moved from Missouri and settled in an area between the Neosho and Verdigris Rivers during the period between 1822 and 1839. Their leader was Pa-In-No-Pa-She (Not Afraid of Longhairs), or Big Hill Joe as he was known by the white men. Their village, known as Big Hill, was located a few miles northwest of the project. The Indians lived in the area peaceably until 1872 when the United States government purchased their land. The Indians then moved their homes south to Indian Territory which is now a part of Oklahoma.
Seven white families were the first to homestead an area near the lake known as the Mount Zion Area. Their co-habitation along the banks of Big Hill Creek with the Osage Indians continued until the Indians moved to the Oklahoma reservations. The first Mt. Zion school, a log building constructed in 1868, was moved in 1869 and became the center of the Mt. Zion community life as well as a combination church and school. The church was moved several times until it came to its present location one mile west and one-fourth mile north of the project office. The church was sold in 1930 to the members of the community, and it flourished until 1963 when the doors closed. In 1975, the Mount Zion Church Association was formed to rebuild the church on its present day site. The project was completed, and the church was rededicated by members of the community in May 1982. The Labette County Commissioners declared the church a county historical site in 1977, and it was recognized as a Kansas Historical Site in July of 1979.