The Sioux made up a large part of the Great Plains Indian population in the late 1700s. In 1780 it was estimated they were one-sixth (about seventeen percent) of the inhabitants in this region of what would become the United States of America.
The Teton Sioux made up the largest part of this number. Their expansive area began at the Republican River in Kansas and Nebraska, west to the Rocky Mountains, and north to the Canadian border. Inside this vast prairie, stretch the major buffalo ranges.
Even though the fur companies employed trappers and hunters who were paid a fixed wage to trap beaver and hunt the buffalo, the majority of furs and hides taken in the Sioux Indian country were secured in trade with the tribes. They traded the furs and hides for a wide variety of merchandise, ranging from firearms and ammunition to utensils and other various items (brass kettles, tobacco, blankets, needles, etc.).
The pelts were gathered at the wilderness posts along the rivers and streams and floated down the river to St. Louis. The furs and hides were collected for later shipment to New York and London for processing.
On Sunday, September 9, 1804, Lewis and Clark and “The Corps of Discovery” were spending their second day in Gregory County. For that day, William Clark wrote in his diary: “I saw at one view near the river at least 500 Buffalow, those animals have been in view all day feeding in the Plains on the (west side of the river).”
In his diary, Sargent Ordway wrote: “The plains were almost covered with Bufffalow the most of this day.” That day, they traveled fourteen and one-half miles and at sunset camped on the west shore at the mouth of Whetstone Creek.
Bull Creek, located in Gregory, Tripp, and Lyman counties, is a translation of the Sioux name for the creek. Apparently, as the buffalo migrated from the north to the south and then back north, the Bull Creek area was one of their main migratory routes. This became a good location for the Sioux to regularly secure their needed food and buffalo robes. They utilized the entire animal which was in stark contrast to the white hunters who often took only the hide and tongue.
For the fur trader, the prime time on the Upper Missouri was from about 1825 to 1840. During that time, the area above the Big Sioux River was the source of unprecedented quantity and quality of fur and pelts.
By 1850, the fur trade was on the decline in Sioux country. The beaver had all but disappeared and it was becoming more difficult to acquire buffalo hides. For the Sioux, the fur trading period had come to an end.
The earliest earnings of the first homesteaders on the northern plains came from the collecting of the bones of buffalo which littered the prairie and were found below cliffs from which they had been driven. It was not uncommon for the first out-bound train from a new town headed east to have aboard a load of bones and horns. There was a ready market in Chicago and other eastern cities for the processing of these items into fertilizer.
By the 1870s, the story of raising cattle on the open range became one of the most colorful, vibrant, and best remembered chapters in northern plains history. It lasted until the early 1900s when the arrival of homesteaders resulted in the closing of the open range.
Professional buffalo hunters, by 1880 were involved in the removal of the buffalo from the northern prairie which included the large open range around the Black Hills. It is estimated that there were 5,000 white hunters and skinners who participated in the ruthless slaughter and near extinction of the last free-ranging buffalo in America.
Their hides were the principal freight for the Northern Pacific in what is now North Dakota. The line had been extended west from Bismarck to the Powder River country in 1881 and 1882. Dickinson then became the main shipping point.
Much of the area west of the Missouri River was well-suited for the grazing of cattle and horses. The native grama and western wheat grass provided lush forage on an extensive range which included western South Dakota and portions of Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota.
By 1883, the large herds of buffalo on the Great Plains had been eliminated. The slaughter of the buffalo had been relentless. Soldiers killed the 2,000 pound critters at an alarming rate. Many were shot simply for target practice. This changed the life of the Sioux forever.
In 1883, Frederick Dupree, a well-known French Canadian pioneer, and his sons were able to capture five buffalo caves on the Grand River. These were brought back to his ranch on the Cheyenne River where they were domesticated and raised. By 1898, the year he died, the size of the herd had grown to 83.
When Dupree died, James “Scotty” Philip purchased the herd from the Dupree estate. Later, buffalo from this herd were used to stock national and state parks throughout the United States. In 1914, South Dakota purchased thirty-six from Philip to begin the herd which is found in Custer State Park today.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on August 24, 2022