A Note from Cottonwood Corners

While Fort Pierre, as it existed from 1832 to 1858, had been demolished, its name remained and has continued up to this day.  But its local habitation has been changed.  The site of the old fort was abandoned when its buildings were finally demolished.  However, the name was attached to another facility downstream where Joseph La Fromboise had built a trading post.  It was later called Fort Pierre.

What is now known as the City of Yankton in 1857 was an Indian village occupied by the Yankton tribe of the Dahkotah Indians.  It was the residence of the most influential chief, Pe-la-ne-a-pa-pe, which translated into English reads, “Man that was struck by the Ree.”  He was the most influential chief and Yankton was the principal village, or capital, of the Yankton Sioux tribe.

It was known among the whites at and before this time as “Struck by the Ree Camp.”  It had been designated by traders and steamboat men as the “Yankton Valley.”  The great majority of the Indians, when not away on the hunt or trapping, remained along the banks of the Big Sioux, Vermillion, and James rivers.  Their lodges were sheltered by the heavy timber.  Abundant fuel and water were conveniently available.  Their burial ground occupied a tract about midway between Yankton and the James River.

They claimed complete ownership of the land in Southern Dakota west of the Big Sioux River.  Whenever an important council was to be held, it was always located just west of the James River.  At least once a year, a delegation from the “Great Father” at Washington visited them by steamboat.

The plains and streams of this area abounded in fur-bearing animals and the traffic in this merchandise brought independent traders among them.  For more than forty years, a number of trading posts had been maintained in the area.

Strike the Ree, or “Old Strike,” as he was called by the pioneers, was a very able leader.  He had many leadership qualities and he was a consistent and lifelong friend of the white people.  He was esteemed more for his peaceful victories than as a warrior.

On May 12, 1857, William P. Lyman came down from Fort Randall and established a ferry on the James River, near the military road (trail) from Sioux City to Fort Randall.  Before the ferry was put into operation, the military road crossed the James at a fording place north of the ferry site.

Up to this time, May 12, 1857, there was not a “pale face” known to be living in what is now Yankton County.  Lyman is credited with being the first white settler, because he continued to reside near the James River with his Indian family.  The James River settlement was the sum total of “civilized encroachment” in what is known as the Missouri Slope counties west of the Big Sioux at the end of 1857.

The first attempt at settlement of the Yankton site was made in March of 1858.  Spring floods were heavy in 1858 and the bottom lands between the Missouri and James rivers below Yankton were partially covered with water and ice about four to five feet deep.

Settlers entered South Dakota from the Nebraska side of the river by boat.  When they got to the South Dakota side, their provisions and equipment were carried on their backs.  They finally reached dry land on the first bench west of the James River.  The present townsite of Yankton was found to be vacant — not a vestige of human habitation, Indian or white.  They pitched a tent near the foot of Pine Street on about March 20, 1858.

Later, they were told by a delegation of Indians that they were trespassers and would not be permitted to remain on the Dakota side of the river.  They quickly withdrew to the Nebraska side.

The firm of Frost and Company had been operating several licensed trading posts among the Yankton Sioux above Sioux City.  John Todd had become a partner and their main post was on the James River.  Those who had a trading post were permitted to occupy prospective town sites before the Treaty of 1858 was signed.

Less than two months after the treaty was signed, a visiting surveyor platted the grants awarded to Charles Picotte and the Frost-Todd Company.  They later managed to stake out most of what was to be the basic unofficial townsite of Yankton.

There was considerable dispute over ownership of much of the property in the Yankton townsite until binding titles were granted in 1868.  One such incident over property involved Jim Witherspoon and John Todd.  A dispute resulted in which Witherspoon was credited with the marathon achievement of walking to Washington, D. C., to protect his rights.   He ultimately won his case and was declared to be the owner of the property in Yankton!

The Treaty of 1858 led to the establishment of settlements along the Missouri River at Springfield, Bon Homme, Yankton, and Vermillion.  This coincided with similar efforts to establish townsites along the Big Sioux.  Settlements also began to appear all along the Missouri slope farther back from the river.

In 1858, building a structure west of the James River was not a simple matter.  A sawmill had not yet been erected in the area, so lumber had to be hauled in from a considerable distance, or cottonwood logs were used.  Yankton’s first buildings, then, were necessarily crude and unpretentious, with dirt floors and sod roofs.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on August 23, 2023