The early historic wagon trails across the Dakota Territory left their deep-rutted imprints on the prairie where countless oxen and other livestock moved supplies, equipment, and citizens into the sunset. Now obliterated by time, only scattered traces of these trails are visible today.
Pioneer travel in what was to become South Dakota followed the easiest and shortest practicable route. Frequently, the early traders, settlers, and miners followed Indian and buffalo trails. With oxen, horses, and mules as a part of the caravan, consideration had to be given for adequate water and grass for the animals along the trail.
The location of springs, fords, streams, steepness of the grade, and natural obstructions were also considered. In the building of the earliest trails, only the most obvious improvements were made. Ferries were provided and some rocks and trees were removed.
Some of these trails were closely linked with the Gold Rush days in the Black Hills. Others were primarily mail and travel routes. Several resulted from military expeditions or responsibilities. There were times when military personnel were on the military road daily on the east side of the Missouri River between Fort Randall and Fort Sully.
The Deadwood Trail was the main artery of travel between the Missouri River and the Black Hills communities during the Gold Rush days. It opened up the western part of South Dakota for homesteaders and spurred on the creation of Deadwood and other communities and Post Offices along the road.
It was considered to be the most wagon-friendly route to the Black Hills. Despite all its difficulties and other travails, the Fort Pierre to Deadwood trail was hands down the most popular and cost-effective way to travel out of the other half dozen routes to the hills. Today, it is probably the most widely recognized route of early travel across the state.
From 1874 to 1908, thousands of tons of freight and hundreds of people arrived in Fort Pierre by riverboat or railroad destined for the Black Hills. From Fort Pierre the freight was loaded on wagons pulled by teams of draft animals, usually oxen. The people rode horses, traveled in stagecoaches, in wagons, or walked. From Fort Pierre, this road followed an old buffalo trail used by Indians and fur traders.
Over this trail passed the huge, slow freight wagons, the stagecoaches with their relays of fast horses, and the colorful, motley throng of adventurers, gold-seekers, cowboys, gamblers, and outlaws. The first successful automobile trip was made over the road in 1905 by Governor Peter Norbeck, later U. S. Senator. All were an important part of our early history.
There were more than 30 scheduled stops along the trail. They were called stage stations, way stations, and road ranches. Each offered different levels of service.
In the spring of 1906, hundreds of settlers were traveling west to locations along the Deadwood trail. On the thirty-eight miles between Fort Pierre and Hayes, as high as 185 loads were counted in one day. They consisted of an assortment of household goods, the family, the father, sometimes the mother and several children and a baby in her arms, and cows, chickens, pigs, and all the accessories of a well-kept farm.
The trail had every appearance of a continuous caravan. In the distance of one mile, a newspaper reporter counted twenty-three loads of settler’s goods, with families along in each case, and more following every day.
Kermit Roosevelt, the second son of President Roosevelt was very familiar with the Deadwood trail. In the early 1900s, he spent a considerable amount of time hunting in various parts of South Dakota during three special trips to the state. His escort was always Seth Bullock. One of Roosevelts’ favorite South Dakota locations was in the west along the Cheyenne River.
In 1908, Bullock remarked to a Sioux Falls newspaper: “We had a successful hunt and the young man is a splendid shot. But he declined to kill any buffalo, notwithstanding that is a rare experience in these days when the buffalo are all but extinct.”
He went on to say, “I found that there were two or three stray buffalo from the old Dupree herd, running wild on the Cheyenne River. Now, it was certain that someone would kill them before the winter is over. They weren’t worth capturing as two of them are old bulls. I arranged with the owner to allow Kermit to kill them if he could find them.”
“When I told the young man,” Bullock said, “that he was about to have some rare sport, that I had made arrangements to allow him to shoot buffalo. Instead of his eagerly accepting the opportunity that any hunter out here would jump at, he quietly but firmly refused. I told him he might as well shoot them as to have someone else do it. But he said that nevertheless he did not want to be one of those to further deplete game that had been made almost extinct by the excesses of hunters. I thought it quite remarkable, for most young men will shoot anything from turtle doves up.”
As the settlers and homesteaders moved farther west from the Missouri River, folks were surprised by the improvements and changes which were made out on the vast prairie. Why they even found barbed wire stretched across the wagon trail from Fort Pierre to Deadwood. For many, that was as bad as raising potatoes on Thomas Jefferson’s grave.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on January 4, 2023