A Note from Cottonwood Corners

By the end of October in 1803, federal officials and legislators in Washington had enacted legislation which established local government in the newly acquired territory west of the Mississippi River.  The legislation also provided for the sending of military units into the region and plans had been made to explore and map the territory.

The annexation of the Louisiana Territory to the United States was the greatest triumph of Thomas Jefferson’s career.  It seems inexplicable that he did not include it in his epitaph, which mentions but three of his achievements.  It was without question the greatest benefit he conferred upon this country.  It contributed more to his honor than any other incident or public act with which he was connected.

At the same time it was the first instance in which a president of the United States ever used his personal and political influence to push through Congress, under a gag law, an act which he himself declared unconstitutional.  He was confident that the wisdom of his actions would be recognized and approved by all generations — as it has been.

It should be pointed out that he did not originate the project of securing the Louisiana Territory, nor was he the author of the scheme.  As far back as the Revolutionary War, the necessity of owning a trading-post at the mouth of the Mississippi River became apparent.  Until 1800, when the Territory was relinquished to France by Spain, our diplomats to Spain were endeavoring to secure the land.

Fortunately for the United States, Napoleon was faced with some most embarrassing complications and he also desperately needed lots of money.  That resulted in his willingness to offer the entire Louisiana Territory to President Jefferson for 15 million.  Earlier, Jefferson had offered Napoleon 10 million for New Orleans and West Florida.  Lucky for us, our officials accepted Napoleon’s offer, even though it exceeded what Jefferson had expected to spend.

Jefferson was a far-signed man, and comprehensive in his ideas of the future wealth and power of this country.  On the future greatness of the United States he said:  “I do believe we will continue to grow, to multiply and prosper until we exhibit an association, powerful, wise and happy, beyond what has yet been seen by men.”

His pride in his country appeared in a letter to an English lady, Mrs. Cosway, in which he said:  “There is not a country on earth where there is greater tranquility; where the laws are milder, or better obeyed; where everyone is more attentive to his own business or meddles less with that of others; where strangers are better received, more hospitably treated and with more sacred respect.”

In a confidential message to Congress Jefferson proposed that an expedition to the Pacific Ocean be made.  He asked for an appropriation of two thousand five hundred dollars “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States.”  The selection of Lewis and Clark to lead the “Corps of Discovery” by Jefferson was a stroke of genius.  Lewis was his private secretary and the son of a neighbor living nearby.

Lucky for us, not all of Jefferson’s recommendations regarding the Louisiana Territory were carried out.  Perhaps his most bizarre suggestion was a list of absurd classical names which he developed from Greek derivation for the names of the States which would be carved out of the new territory.  Had his proposal been accepted, these are the names which would appear on the map of the United States today:  Sylvania, Michigania, Chersonesus, Assenisipia, Metropotamia, Illinoia, Saratoga, Polypotamia, Pelispia, instead of the present names in the Louisiana Territory.

In 1804, the territory was divided into the Territory of Orleans administered from New Orleans and the northern Louisiana Territory with its capital at St. Louis, MO.  Less than a decade after acquiring the Louisiana Territory from France, the United States admitted Louisiana to the Union on April 30, 1812.

The “Corps of Discovery” started up the Missouri from St. Louis on May 14, 1804.  They first entered what would later become South Dakota on Tuesday, August 21, 1804.  It was a beautiful warm day and in the morning there was a gentle wind from the southeast.

On August 22nd they broke camp at daylight and with a strong south wind made the three miles to Ponca Landing.  It was there that they ate breakfast and the scientists in the group set out to discover the character of the material in Dixon’s Bluff.  Clark wrote:  “By examination this Bluff contained Alum, Copperas, Cobalt, Pyrites, an Alum Rock Soft and Sand Stone.”  Lewis wrote:  “Near poisoning self by the fumes and tast of the Cobalt which had the appearance of Soft Ison-glass.  Copperas and alum is very pisen.”

Very quickly, the entire party showed signs of stomach and bowel ailments.  They then determined that the minerals from the bluff were in the water that they drank so they dipped deeper below the surface for their drinking water.

Earlier, the death of Sergeant Floyd had disorganized the party to some extent.  The Captains recognized the need to select a replacement for Floyd and the Second Squad.  They wisely decided to leave the choice to the men themselves.  Three individuals were selected by the Captains from the squad and the privates were permitted to elect one as their leader.  This was the first primary election held in Dakota.

So, on Wednesday, August 22, 1804, politics and medical science first came to what would later be South Dakota.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on July 26, 2023