A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Doane Robinson, who had investigated the pre-settlement history of the Upper Missouri Valley thoroughly and intelligently had this to say in his History of Dakota, regarding the fur trade in the Northwest and how it influenced settlement of the area:

“From 1764 the French of St. Louis begun trading up the Missouri.  There is very little of record indicating how far up the river this trade extended, but it is certain that long before 1800 they were trading within the South Dakota Territory.  Loisell’s Post, a strong fortified trading house was built on Cedar Island in the Missouri River, thirty-five miles below Pierre, in 1796.  In the fall of 1796, Treaudeau, a St. Louis trader, established, a house for trade with the Pawnees on the east bank of the Missouri, and a little above the site of Fort Randall . . . . it may be said that it is highly improbable that South Dakota was explored by the Spaniards in the early portion of the sixteenth century; or that any white man saw the territory during the sixteenth century at all.”

As the French colors came down in 1803 at the mouth of the Mississippi, and the Stars and Stripes of the American Republic went up, the trumpets sounded, the troops saluted, and cheerful voices were heard.  Loud hurrahs gave a jubilant welcome to the greatest of the young republic’s triumphs.  It ranked in importance next to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

In 1806, Manuel Lisa of St. Louis formed a partnership with George Druillard, an interpreter with Lewis and Clark and a member of the “Corps of Discovery.”  They made a trading trip to the mouth of the Yellowstone River in far western North Dakota.  “Fort Manuel” was built on the west bank of the Missouri, ten miles below the Canadian border in 1807.  It was established to hold the Missouri River Indians loyal to the American cause in the War of 1812.  It is estimated that Lisa traveled more than twenty-five thousand miles up and down the river.

It was in the early 1830s that a comparatively minor and unimportant incident occurred on the north fork of the Platte River near Fort Laramie which resulted in tragedy to every resident (Native Americans, settlers, and explorers) in America and especially in Nebraska and Dakota.

Two young Sioux who had visited the fort were detained at the ferry crossing for some trivial reason. To show their displeasure they discharged their guns into the air and returned to their village. The commander of the fort determined that they had committed an offense for which it was necessary that they be called to account. At that time, the commander of a fort on the western plains embodied all authority.

A Lieutenant and a squad of soldiers, were sent over to the Indian village to demand the two young braves. The chief told them that the young men were not there at the time; however, the Lieutenant refused to believe him. He became so incensed because they were not immediately delivered up. He ordered his soldiers to fire upon the Indians and three were killed. There were a hundred Indians in the camp at the time, but they refrained from retaliating. Fleming seized two young Indians and took them back to the fort as prisoners.

This laid the foundation for “bad blood.” It also incited a desire to emulate the uncalled for brutal assault in the breast of a young Lieutenant who had just graduated from West Point. He expressed a wish for a special assignment to lead an expedition against the Sioux, and it came all too soon.

He and thirty-one well-armed men, supported by two howitzers, arrived at the camp along the Platte.  When arriving at the Indian camp, he should have realized the danger when he found that they were confronted by over one thousand Sioux warriors.

The Chief urged the Indians not to fire on the whites. The next minute, the chief fell mortally wounded. In five minutes, the Lieutenant, with every man in his command, lay dead on the ground. This event started a conflagration of great proportions. The war department reported that the Indians had treacherously turned murderers and without provocation had massacred a company of United States troops while in the performance of their duty.

Dispatches were sent to the Secretary of War and he called upon Congress for authority to raise four regiments of cavalry. Exaggerated and grossly incorrect accounts of the terrible occurrence were printed in the newspapers, and suddenly without warning a war against the Sioux of Western Nebraska was inaugurated.

The Indians realized that they would be punished as soon as troops could be sent against them. Some of them abandoned the Platte and fled to the headwaters of the White River and the south fork of the Cheyenne. They donned their war paint and committed some depredations upon exposed settlers.

The following summer (1855), General Harney was ordered to lead an expedition against the hostiles.  He assembled a strong force and defeated the Sioux on the north fork of the Platte. He killed eighty-six of the Indians and wounded seventy others. His loss was five soldiers.

The conflict was known as the “Battle of Ash Hollow.”

Just think what might have been if those two young Sioux had not been detained at the ferry crossing near Fort Laramie and discharged their guns into the air?


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on August 2, 2023