A Note from Cottonwood Corners

In May of 1858, a group of men and women from Manitorville, Minnesota, were on their way to Pike’s Peak when they passed Bon Homme Island in the Missouri River below the mouth of the Niobrara River.  They were on their way to Colorado in search of gold.

Although they had seen a number of islands in the river, this unusual island caught their attention.  However, the island was only able to hold their interest for just a short time.  It was the rolling hills to the north upon which they fixated their attention.

These were the hills which Lewis and Clark passed on Sunday, September 2, 1804.  It had rained all day and was very cold when Private Gass wrote:  “We landed on the north side, where there is an extensive prairie.”  They enjoyed a feast of cat fish which were exceedingly plenty and of fine quality.

It was this piece of unsettled prairie which the folks from Minnesota became interested in.  The highlands were covered with a wonderful growth of grass and other vegetation.  On the plains next to the river the native grasses were so high that a man standing was nearly concealed by them.  It was these hills which caused the visitors from Minnesota to change their plans and establish the Bon Homme settlement in 1858.

Bon Homme Island was named for the French mythical patron, Jacques Bon Homme, the Uncle Sam of France.  The first settler on the island was Zephyr Rencontre in 1828.

In the spring of 1860, the settlers at Bon Homme, under the leadership of the energetic John H. Shober, built a little schoolhouse of logs (14 x 15 feet), one window (six panes — 8 x 10), plastered with ordinary frontier plaster, floorless, and dirt roofed.  The desks were made from the lumber of discarded wagon boxes and the seats were three-legged stools.

The school served the community and settlers beyond what they had expected.  Their interest in hastening the beginning of educational facilities was commendable.  In May of 1860, Miss Emma J. Bradford assembled ten children and taught them for three months.  This was the first regular schoolhouse in South Dakota and claimed to have been the first school taught in the territory.  Today, a granite monument marks the location along “Apple Tree Road.”

The original town of Bon Homme was laid out in the summer of 1860 by a group of three surveyors.  The first structure erected on the townsite after the town was surveyed was a hotel.  The town of Wanari (Springfield), about eight miles west of Bon Homme, was laid out at the same time.

Bon Homme County was created and organized in 1862 by the Legislature.  Bon Homme was the county seat and also the seat of the United States Court.  It had a postoffice with Mrs. Francis Rounds as postmistress.  A number of stores were built, a blacksmith shop, and dwellings, until quite a village had sprung up.  The land surrounding for several miles (five or six) was all taken by settlers and much of it was already producing corn, oats, and potatoes.  The first territorial legislature located the penitentiary at the village of Bon Homme, but nothing came of the action.

The village began to decline later, but was not entirely abandoned as a town until 1885, when the county seat was removed to Tyndall.  The building of the Running Water branch of the Milwaukee railroad resulted in the removal of most of the business to new towns on that line.  Bon Homme was cut off from railway facilities, and a number of other towns had grown up in the county and had taken away its trade.

When the town of Bon Homme was settled in 1858, Minnesota was admitted to the Union.  This, however created a problem for those living in what would become Dakota Territory.  Congress failed to provide the citizens with their basic need — safety!

The failure of the government to provide for any jurisdiction over the Dakota region left the settlers in the Sioux and Missouri river valleys in an unusual situation.  They had no means for preserving the peace or for collecting debts.

The settlers at Sioux Falls elected and sent to Washington a representative to urge Congress to create a territorial government for Dakota.  He was contested by a delegate from Minnesota who claimed that the former Territory of Minnesota, without the state boundary, still existed as the Territory of Minnesota.  This point was debated during the entire legislative session.  Nothing was accomplished toward the establishment of a Territory of Dakota by congress!

For the interim, a movement was started in Sioux Falls to provide for a provisional government.  On September 18, 1858, a mass meeting of the citizens was held in Sioux Falls and a legislature for the territory was elected.  A governor and secretary were elected.  The laws of Minnesota were adopted for preserving peace and collecting debts.

In November of 1859, the legislature met in session for one week and its actions were “characterized by conservative deliberation.”  Memorials to Congress were proposed:  one for the creation of the Territory of Dakota; one asking for $6,000 to defray expenses of the provisional government, and another petitioning Congress to legalize the action of the provisional government.

The Dakota citizens lurched along without any help from Washington until 1861 when Dakota Territory was created.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on September 20, 2023