Pioneer travel most generally followed the easiest and shortest practicable routes. Frequently, the early traders, trappers, settlers, and miners followed Indian trails or the game trails that wild animals had followed for many years.
When I worked with the Smokejumpers during the summers for the U. S. Forest Service in the Rocky Mountains of the northwest, getting to the fire was simple. An old Douglas DC-3 took us to the fire and we jumped! It was the experience of getting out of the wilderness later which none of us cherished. We all quickly learned to find a well-traveled deer or elk trail and just follow it. We sometimes didn’t know where it would take us; however, it was always on a contour, the walking was easy, and it would eventually lead us to a stream for water and civilization.
Travel on those pioneer trails when oxen, horses, and mules were used regularly, consideration had to be given to water and grass for the animals and the steepness of the grade. Whenever a road was built, only the most obviously needed improvements were made.
Those pioneer roads were rough, and the gullies, stumps, and boulders made travel by wheeled vehicles slow and bumpy. Loaded wagons seldom averaged more than 15 miles a day. Draft animals had to be given plenty of time to graze and rest.
In the spring of 1876, the hordes of those seeking to find their “Eldorado” in the gold fields of the Black Hills found a trail which led them to Deadwood. Within months of the discovery of gold, trails to the Black Hills were carved across the prairie from all four directions.
At the beginning, there were four jumping-off points to begin the journey to Deadwood. They were Sidney, Nebraska; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Bismarck, North Dakota; and Fort Pierre. Later, Chamberlain, a fifth would be added to the list.
The Fort Pierre to Deadwood trail was the route followed by the majority of those going to the Black Hills and became the principal freight trail used in getting equipment and supplies to Deadwood. After 1880, the trails from Sidney, Cheyenne, and Bismarck saw little use.
In 1881, the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail suffered a severe setback. An unusually large spring flood swept away tons of freight and drowned hundreds of oxen and mules. Dozens of steamboats were destroyed and much of Fort Pierre floated down the river.
Officials began looking for a new route to the west. They turned to Chamberlain, fifty miles downriver. It was there that another trail to the Black Hills was possible, at least on paper. It had been tried earlier; however, success was sporadic. The construction of “The Nobles Trail” west of the river from Crow Creek along the north side of the White River to South Pass and California perhaps would have made this the most utilized trail.
The Chamberlain to Deadwood trail along the White River route was practically forgotten until February 1877, when Congress ratified what became known as the Black Hills Agreement. That agreement provided for three trails to the Hills across the Great Sioux Reservation. Bismarck, Fort Pierre, and a site across the Missouri from Brule City were designated trail heads.
The territorial legislature followed with the Black Hills Wagon Road Act, which allocated money to survey the routes and improve each trail. Governor John Pennington appointed a Brule City resident and promotor to develop the White River Trail. Records reveal that whatever he did, if he did anything, is difficult to determine. The trail was not widely used, and the bulk of the freight continued to be shipped from Yankton to Fort Pierre by boat and overland to Deadwood.
The Chamberlain/Oacoma wagon road was the shortest-lived route out of all the trails leading to Deadwood. It lasted only two years. The wagon trail itself was a heavily enforced, 200-yard right of way.
Investors in the trail thought that because it was flatter than the other trails, had easier crossings, plenty of wood, and grass that it would be a huge success. However, the Chamberlain/Oacoma Trail fell short of its expectations, mostly because of unfit roads in the badlands, looters and poor water supplies throughout the route. One year after its inception, the majority of freighters had returned to using the Fort Pierre wagon trail.
An unusually wet year produced miserable freighting conditions throughout the entire region. The Black Hills Daily Times of Deadwood reported that the first train of the season, one from Fort Pierre, did not arrive until May 24, after thirty-four days on the trail.
From about June 15th to the 30th, the Cheyenne River was often too high to cross. This forced the freighters to delay or detour. The soggy and sloppy trails made progress slow and difficult well into July. It was predicted that the freighting season would not begin in earnest until at least August, two-months late.
Traveling across the prairie on those wagon roads was always an adventure; however, there was one thing that could stop any traveler in their tracks: gumbo. It is not your average mud. Gumbo sticks to everything and with each step forward, your feet double in size and weight. It is terrible!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on November 23, 2022