A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The earliest known map revealing the Dakota country is the DeL’lsle map of 1701.  On that map, a trail (early highway of the time) is shown leading from the mouth of the Wisconsin River along the northern boundary of the present Iowa, via Spirit Lake, to Sioux Falls.  It is identified as “Chemin des Voyageurs” (Track of the voyagers).  It is witness to the thought that South Dakota was visited by white men prior to the year 1700.

The Verendryes (Verdendrye Plate, 7 x 8 inch lead plate, buried on bluff west of Fort Pierre on March 30, 1743) visited in region in 1742 – 3; however, they never mentioned any established trails.  Lewis and Clark (1804 – 6) did not mention any trails or indicate any on the maps accompanying their diaries.

From time immemorial, the Indians trailed from the Missouri River at Fort Pierre to the headwaters of the Platte River to the west and the higher plateau of western Wyoming.  That area became known as South Pass.  In March of 1824, Jedediah Smith and a small group of trappers looking for food and water had crossed South Pass, the first known westward passage by trappers.

The route to the west, long established by the natives was adopted by the fur traders throughout the long period from 1800 to 1855.  The army followed that trail from Laramie to Fort Pierre in October of 1855.  John Todd, who later represented Dakota Territory in Congress, was topographer on that trip and made a map of the route.

The first known effort of road building on our soil was in 1857.  It was a dream of the St. Paul pioneers that it should be the eastern terminus of a Pacific railroad.  With a wholly inadequate concept of the physical conditions, they secured from Congress $30,000 for the building of the wagon road.  That would be $1,023,476 today.

They had anticipated on starting to build the road on May 26th; however, they were delayed for two weeks because of an unusually cold and severe spring.  This delayed the normal growth of grass which was needed for the oxen, mules, and horses.

That road was to begin at the capital of St. Paul (Minnesota), go past Fort Ridgely, pass through South Dakota south of the Black Hills, into Wyoming, and on to the broad high plateau (known as the Wyoming Basin).  That plateau was discovered early in the nineteenth century by the fur traders who named it South Pass.

It was the hope of the early St Paul settlers to get a wagon road over this route which would later become the route of a trans-continental railway to the Pacific Ocean.  At the time, St. Paul had an enterprising group of politicians with a broad vision and a firm grip on the affairs of the Northwest.  They also had unusual influence on Congress and the leaders in Washington.

Col. William H. Nobles was placed in charge of building what came to be called “The Nobles Trail.”  The final act of Congress was passed on March 3, 1857.  Before November of that year, the road was completed to the east bank of the Missouri River above the mouth of the White River.

The road entered Dakota through “The Hole in the Mountain” near Elkton, then to Lake Campbell, trailing along the north borders of Lake, Miner, and Sanborn counties to the Jim River.  From there it went southwesterly through Wessington Springs to Gann Valley.

From Gann Valley it bent more southerly to the Missouri River and ended at Crow Creek.  The line was well marked, some grading was done, and the streams were made passable at good fords.  The bad places were graded, and the fords in the streams were paved with boulders and gravel.  As prairie roads of the late 1850s go, it was pretty fair.

Wood, water, and grass were essential for the road builders.  The natural flowing spring in the city park at Wessington Springs was discovered by a teamster on the construction crew.  At the time, the engineer on the project wrote:  “These springs furnish the only continually running water between the Big Sioux and Missouri, except for the James.”

The road was not used regularly or often.  It was really intended by its promoters as the line for a railroad from St. Paul to California and the Pacific Ocean.  Congress failed to provide additional funds for construction of this road beyond Crow Creek.  Today, I think we would call it a “white elephant!”

Over this trail, the “Expedition to Moscow” took place in November of 1863.  That was one of the driest seasons in the history of the Northwest.  That season the Sioux Indians of Minnesota had been brought out and located at Fort Thompson on the Missouri.  It was expected to supply them by steamboat, but the river fell to so low a level that it was impossible to navigate the river.  The agency was without supplies and people starved.

Minnesota was the nearest source of food and supplies.  General Pope, in command of the Northwest, outfitted an expedition from Mankato, on November 5, consisting of one-hundred thirty-six ox wagons.  They were escorted by three companies of the 6th Minnesota.  The country had been burned over and water could only be obtained at long intervals.  The distance from Mankato to Fort Thompson was a little more than three hundred miles and the weather was terrible.

They arrived at Fort Thompson on December 2.  They suffered so severely that the risky undertaking was likened to the hardships of Napoleon’s soldiers escaping from Moscow in 1812.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on November 16, 2022

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