Steam boats made regular trips up the Missouri in South Dakota until about 1880. By 1910 very few steamers passed Pierre, though local traffic was extensive, especially in Gregory and Charles Mix counties. Once the railroads crossed the state, they were able to move larger quantities of supplies and equipment faster and at a lower rate.
Before the railroads, everyone relied upon steamers and freighters to deliver their materials and supplies. Once the steamers had unloaded their cargo at one of the landings along the river, it was hauled inland by wagon trains pulled by mules or oxen. Horses were used in some cases; however, the heaviest loads required mules or oxen.
If two or more of these heavy high-wheeled wagons were chained together, they were drawn by six to twenty animals. The oxen were called “Bulls” and those who drove them were called “Bullwhackers.” When the roads were good, they could travel about twenty miles a day. When the “gumbo” was wet there was little or no travel.
When you study the early history and development of the area you hear about those who established the ranches, farms, livery stables, and stores. You read about the lawmen, outlaws, doctors, teachers, ministers, and cowboys. You don’t hear as much about the mercantile contingent — the freighters. This is the institution and colorful characters who supplied those living on the frontier with the necessities and luxuries needed to survive.
The bullwhacker and mule skinner walked alongside their team as the freight wagon had no seat. When it rained they got drenched and where there was mud they sloshed through it. These “drovers” were the original “teamsters.” They were folks who drove the teams and hauled the freight long before we had highways and eighteen wheelers.
The bullwhip was one other thing which they had in common. It was their badge of rawhide with a “popper” on the end to make it crack. There are stories of whackers flicking a fly off the ear of an animal without touching it. Those who challenged the teamster learned that the bullwhip could be more feared than the revolver or knife.
The life of the drover was not easy. They usually occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder, slightly below buffalo skinners. They were never in the mainstream of frontier life. Their clothing was generally soaked with sweat and vermin usually infested their hair and clothes. Also, their vile language helped earn them this low position.
Even though they were responsible for the transportation of all necessary supplies and materials needed by the settlers, from the start there was severe hostility between the freighters and pioneer. The peaceable settler failed to appreciate the picturesque qualities of the bullwhacker. They did not desire close and constant intimacy with them. When possible they withdrew some distance from the wagon roads to raise their crops and family. When a team of bullwhackers was about to enter a town, folks would get the children off the street and away from the store. Once the bullwhackers had left, those same parents and children rushed to see what had been delivered.
The huge rugged covered wagons used for the movement of freight across the prairie required that they be strong and well built. Each would be loaded with about three tons of freight and the roads were rough which made travel difficult.
Flour, bacon, coffee, sugar, salt, condensed and dried foods, clothing, shoes, guns, and ammunition all needed to be hauled from the landings along the river into the interior. Building supplies, farm equipment, barb wire, and later coal were also often transported across vast distances. Not all freighters were permitted to carry liquor.
A passenger and mail stagecoach left Pierre and Chamberlain daily for the Black Hills. They traveled day and night and made the round trip in four days. Horses were changed at stations along the route and these facilities provided some comfort for the passengers.
The Press and Daily Dakotan at Yankton in May of 1880 reported “. . . that business never was as lively as now on the Pierre route. Between the middle of April and the middle of May 1,500 yoke of cattle left Pierre for Deadwood, hauling freight. . . . they represent a freighting capacity of 2,000,000 pounds per trip, and in addition there are horses and mules enough on the route to haul 1,000,000 pounds more, making it possible for the stock on the road to transport three million pounds each trip.”
In February of 1885 freighters on the Fort Pierre to Deadwood road found the intense cold winter weather anything but pleasant or profitable. Travel was slow and laborious. One outfit was forty days from Fort Pierre to Deadwood.
In 1890 the town of Lyman was the headquarters for a large number of freighters, stages, and mail contracts running west to Rapid City. It was also the distribution point for the nearby reservation.
The June 15, 1916, issue of The Mitchell Capital reported that William Nolan, a freighter from Hamill was struck by lightning and killed. He was three miles from Winner.
In the spring of 1918, it cost $16 a ton to have soft coal delivered by freighter to Wood from Winner where the railroad ended. That coal cost $13.50 a ton in Winner and $29.50 in Wood, a distance of 38 miles.
The Omaha Daily Bee made this editorial comment in 1886: “The farmer and the freighter together make prices on produce. The freighter gets the bulk of the profits and the farmer gets what is left.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on October 23, 2019.