A Note from Cottonwood Corners

As soon as the courier arrived at Fort Laramie with the news that gold had been discovered in the Black Hills, the information was telegraphed to the world and the mad rush to the Dakota Territory was on.  They first explored the streams in the southern hills for gold.  Slim pickings caused them to move north and their fortunes took a turn when significant amounts of gold were found in Deadwood Gulch.

Deadwood was founded in 1876 and it quickly gained a reputation as one of the roughest and orneriest towns in the entire country.  They came from all directions and it seemed as though all trails led to Deadwood.  The Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood Trail was the main line of transportation between central and western Dakota Territory in the later part of the 19th century.

Fort Pierre was the nearest river landing to Deadwood.  From 1876 to 1908, thousands of tons of freight and hundreds of people arrived in Fort Pierre by riverboat or railroad destined for Deadwood.  From Fort Pierre the freight was loaded on wagons usually pulled by oxen.  They followed what had earlier been an old buffalo trail used by Indians and later by fur traders who had come to trap beaver.

In 1876, years before South Dakota would become a state, the Daily Press and Dakotaian in Yankton reported:  “A. F. Gray’s party will leave Yankton for the Black Hills on Monday, Feb. 21st.  This will be one of the largest parties that has yet left.  All persons who wish to join this expedition will make it known by addressing A. F. Gray, D. T., at an early day, as his train will leave without fail the day mentioned.”

The paper went on to explain that a large party had arrived in Yankton the night before via the Dakota Southern Railroad, from Michigan, Chicago, and other eastern cities, bound for the Black Hills.  They planned to leave Yankton in a few days.

Horse, mule, and ox teams carried passengers, supplies, and cargo across the vast prairie to supply the needs of the miners.  A number of stage companies were created to meet the demand for regular transportation to and from the Black Hills.

The stage lines began offering round-trip passage between Fort Pierre and Deadwood.  A $30 ticket purchased in Yankton provided for a five-day steamboat ride to Fort Pierre and included two meals per day, plus, a 36-to-48 hour stagecoach ride to Deadwood.  In those days, riding a stagecoach was considered, “Going 1st Class.”  However, this “luxury” included when necessary — pushing the coach up steep hills or through deep, muddy ruts, help ford swollen streams, and rounding up run-away teams.  In wet weather, passengers were required to help the teamsters dig gumbo out of the wheels.

In the development of South Dakota the ox was an important and indispensable component.  With a patience and fortitude only exceeded by that of his master, he transported the pioneers and their household goods into the wilderness, where he logged the land, broke the sod, planted the crop, and lugged it to market.  And for the most part he provided for his subsistence, grazing whatever wild foliage was available.

Literally, the great human wave was assisted in traveling west to the tread of the ox-team.  Contrary to tradition, the ox was an intelligent animal who did his work with understanding.  If his master were equally intelligent and handled his cattle with respect and sympathy, the results were substantial and most satisfactory.

The “bullwhackers” became remarkably expert in driving the cattle and handling the loads.  In Dakota Territory the system was employed from 1876 to about 1906.  The heavy machinery for the mines and a locomotive for a narrow gauge railroad were among the freight consignments handled by this transportation system.

The “bullwhacker” walked along the left side of the wagon where he steered up to twenty bulls, a yoke of ten.  In some cases there were more; however, generally twenty was the maximum.  There were no reins to guide the team.  The “bullwhacker” relied on the whip and his voice to drive and control the animals.  Whenever he cracked the whip, the pistol-like sound made by the popper at the end of the whip could be heard for over a mile.

These bull-whips were vicious affairs and if not used properly were ineffective.  Managing the whip was an art which every “bullwhacker” took great pride in.  They were so skilled with their whips that they could flick a fly from an ox’s ear and not touch the flesh.

The Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood Trail was about 200 miles long and there were more than 30 stops — called stage stations, way stations, and road ranches, with different levels of services available.    Roadhouses and stage stations were established about every fifteen miles along the trail.

Most stage stations consisted of a blacksmith shop, corral, outhouse, granary, hand dug well, three or four teams, and a low profile barn and living quarters.  The operator’s daily chores were caring for the teams, gathering hay, handling mail, and in certain stations preparing meals.  The stagecoaches carried mail for 10 to 25 cents per letter, and although there were no Post Offices or any handling regulations, people managed to get their precious mail.

During the last quarter of the 19th century, the Fort Pierre-to-Deadwood Trail became the Interstate 90 of that time.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on October 5, 2022