A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Over the years, there were numerous posts and forts established at or near the mouth of the Bad River on the Missouri.  As early as 1832, “Fort Pierre Choteau” was established about three miles above the mouth of the Bad River and about 300 feet back from the Missouri.  There, a stockade was erected.

It included a carpenter shop, saddle shop, blacksmith shop, living quarters for the employees, kitchen, and storerooms for the furs and buffalo robes taken in trade for shipment to St. Louis.  It was located on the west side of the Missouri to accommodate those Indians whose trade was the largest and most profitable.

While it was named “Fort Pierre Choteau” by its founders, use of the last name was soon discontinued.  “Fort Pierre” became more widely known throughout the United States than any other military or trading post.  It became the most prominent landmark in the Northwest for Government expeditions sent out on scientific errands, and in this way it became known throughout the nation.

Intoxicating liquors were used by the fur traders in their dealings with the Indians.  It was discovered that they were fond of it, and were willing to pay, in barter, almost any price the trader asked.  This led the unscrupulous trader to use it freely as a means of him getting a good bargain.

This criminal and general use of intoxicants became a matter of such serious importance that Congress, in 1832 enacted a law prohibiting the carrying of liquors into the Indian country.  All army officers along the Missouri River at the posts and forts regularly inspected the steamboats traveling the river.  They seized all liquors consigned to fur traders or their representatives.

As a result, intoxication among the Indians was materially lessened.  The trader’s loss of his license was one of the mildest penalties for violation of the statute; however, it seemed impossible to stop the traffic altogether.  Some traders began manufacturing their own intoxicants for trading purposes at their posts or they purchased it from bootleggers.

The law of 1832 prohibiting the introduction of intoxicants into the Indian country was still in force in 1915.  During that eighty-three-year period, “moonshine” was the subject of many stories in newspapers printed locally and across America.

It was manufactured in some out-of-the-way and remote location.  Two sites east of the river where moonshine was regularly manufactured were at “Wessington Hills” and “Papineau Bottom.”  Cuthbert Ducharme, better known as “Papineau” settled at Papineau Spring two miles east of Wheeler in 1857.  He opened a store; however, his fame was as a dispenser of hot grades of whiskey.  Rough crowds of steamboat hands, cowboys, and other western rovers often gathered at his store.  He spent his last years at the Yankton State Hospital and died there because of his “alcoholism” and inability to care for himself.

On the west side of the river, remote wooded gullies were often the location of stills.  The February 8, 1901 issue of The Mitchell Capital reported that Maxim Disgarlais had settled in the Whetstone Hills of Gregory County.  There, shut off from practically all civilization other than what passed his sod shanty, he was able to work his trade with very little suspicion that his activities were illegal.  He had come to South Dakota from Kentucky where he had a reputation for making moonshine.

While the fur trade grew to be a profitable industry in this area, it declined because the supply of beaver and buffalo disappeared.  It passed away without leaving much of an imprint on the region.  However, it did aid in bringing together the Indians and those who were involved in the fur industry.  It led the way to the advent of a civilization that was to occupy the land.

The early fur traders, those that engaged in the traffic directly with the Indians, were men of no ordinary mold.  In many instances they were heroes, at all times resolute, self-reliant, and often self-sacrificing.  As a rule no obstacle discouraged them, and they were appalled by no threatened calamity.  These folks have disappeared from the Dakotas and the buffalo almost disappeared with them.  Civilization had no place for them.  But their memory has been preserved on history’s page, in stories, and song.  They were the first to travel up the Missouri to establish a home in Dakota.

After the incident at Ash Hollow, General Harney set out for the Missouri River.  He blazed the first trail from the head of the North Platte by way of the White River and south fork of the Cheyenne River to the Bad River, striking the Missouri River at Fort Pierre late in the fall of 1855.

The war department had considered that the army’s operations would be confined to the country north of the Platte River in Nebraska, east of the Black Hills, south of the Cheyenne River, and west of the Missouri River in Dakota.  The department had no reliable information regarding Fort Pierre

Fort Pierre had recently been purchased from the American Fur Company by the war department.  It was soon determined that it was not a suitable place for a fort of any size.  Recognizing the impossibility of wintering his forces at Fort Pierre, Harney established winter camps above and below the fort on the Missouri River where adequate wood and forage was available.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on August 9, 2023