A Note from Cottonwood Corners

When Jean Baptiste Trudeau built the “Trudeau House” on the east side of the Missouri River from where Fort Randall would later be established, he hoped that the winter of 1794 – 95 would be a peaceful one for him.  It was not, in fact, it was everything but peaceful.  At the time, he was forty-five years old.

According to South Dakota Place Names, this was the site of the first house built by a white man in what is now South Dakota.  It was known as the “Trudeau House” and also the “Pawnee House.”  According to South Dakota Place Names, it was called the “Pawnee House” because it was the headquarters for fur trade with the Pawnee Indians.  It burned in 1816.

When Trudeau left St. Louis in June of 1794, he did not have the capacity or ability for conducting the enterprise for which he was sent up the Missouri to what would later become central Dakota Territory.  His only earlier experience was accompanying a party to the Sioux on the upper Des Moines River.  He was brought along only because he understood their language.

After he met a party of Teton Sioux in the vicinity of Fort Thompson (Crow Creek Agency) in the later part of August, 1794, his troubles began.  They greeted and treated him cordially while indicating that they wanted to trade.  He refused to trade with them because he had been directed by the officials in St. Louis to trade only with the Rees.

The Sioux who were much displeased, took possession of his goods, selected those things which they needed and paid him in fur for what they thought the goods were worth.  Because of his treatment, he was bitter and through deception he managed to escape.  He cached his goods at about the Lower Brule Agency, sank his boat in the river, and went on foot to the Ree Village at Little Bend, only to find the place deserted.

He then returned down river, dug up his goods, raised his boat, and was determined to find a safe and peaceful place below the Sioux and above the Omaha where things would be peaceful for him that winter.  He believed he had found such a place in a cottonwood grove on the east side of the river, in what would become Charles Mix County, directly opposite the future site of Fort Randall.

He had just completed the “Trudeau House” when Blackbird, the notable Omaha, with his band came and located beside him to pass a pleasant winter.  Trudeau wrote:  “I experienced a sharp grief over their arrival.”

The Omaha had furs to trade, Trudeau had the goods to trade and his business was to make money.  He resisted at every step until the Omaha, like the Sioux helped themselves.  He was honestly payed in fur for what they deemed the stuff was worth.

Trudeau passed the winter in mortal horror and his daily diary recorded every tremor.  It had been an open winter, only four inches of snow fell during the entire season.  Early in the spring he pulled out for the Arikara, whom he found at Ashley Island above the mouth of the Grand River.  He reported that another trader, Jacques D’Eglise, had already visited the area and departed for St. Louis on May 24th, taking with him “all the fur in the country.”

Trudeau appears to have remained with the Rees until sometime in August.  It is not known what he did during that time.  His stay was not especially eventful or profitable to his employers.  When he finally returned to St. Louis, he had lost one man by drowning earlier that summer.

Joseph Chorette, a member of a well-known St. Louis family had persisted in taking a weekly bath in the Missouri, despite the warnings of Trudeau.  Trudeau said:  “He had warned him against taking such an unnecessary hazard, but he persisted and so came to his tragic end.”

For nearly the whole distance below Fort Benton (Montana), the Missouri flowed through a valley built up from alluvial deposits, with nothing like a hard or rocky bed to hold it in place.  The fall was rapid, the current swift, and the soft banks were therefore always undergoing erosion.

The shoreline was receded and advanced as the earth which fell into the river in one place was dropped in extensive sand bars in another.  At certain seasons this action was rapid and destructive and hundreds of acres in a single locality were frequently washed away in the course of several days.

The river naturally developed a succession of bends which were often very pronounced.  In many instances the opposite portions of these bends approached very close to each other, so that while the river distance around might be several miles, the distance across was only a few hundred feet.  In time this narrow neck was cut through, a large body of land was transferred to the other shore, and the old bend become another of those crescent shaped lakes which abounded though the valley.  Thus the channel was ever migrating from one side of the river to the other, changing its length, readjusting its slopes, destroying extensive and fertile bottoms, building up new land, and giving rise to never-ending disputes in ownership and jurisdiction of property.

After the decline of the regular fur trade along the upper Missouri, some of the smaller fur-bearing animals, especially the muskrat, mink, and skunk, increased in numbers.  Those furs helped many pioneer farmers to become established in the territory.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on June 14, 2023