A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The earliest settlers to the Missouri Slope (area on the north side of the Missouri River and close to the river between Sioux City and above Fort Randall) depended a great deal on hunting and fishing for their survival.  It is true that there were limited supplies in Sioux City; however, for many, the cost was more than they could afford.

During the summer and fall of 1859, there were a small number of immigrants who began to move into what would later become the Dakota Territory.  There were two ferry boats and some rope ferries in operation on the Big Sioux River during most of the better part of that season which were kept fairly busy.  These settlers found suitable locations along the Big Sioux River, Brule Creek valleys and as far west as Vermillion.  A few even got into the streams near Yankton.

For those early settlers to the Missouri Slope, one of their main sources of food was one which you might not consider.  Remember, this was long before the time of cattle being predominant on the open prairie.

“Catfish,” was an important and significant factor in the settlement of the Dakota Territory.  In the opinion of many of the early settlers into the area and George W. Kingsbury was “the food problem would have been a very serious one had it not been for the abundant supply of this best of all fish’s right at the threshold of the settlements.  It is occasionally remarked in these later times that people of Dakota are not acquainted with the edible merits of this excellent fish, but send to eastern and western markets for an inferior article while they have such an inexhaustible supply here at home.”

The Lewis and Clark diaries first mention that “Goodrich caught a couple of very fat catfish . . . .” on July 17, 1804, below Nebraska City.  On September 1, 1804, Clark wrote:  “. . . it is not necessary to mention fish as we catch them at any place on the river, Camped at the lower point of Bonhomme Island.”   The next mention of “catfish” in the diaries is more than eight months later when they were in western North Dakota in April of 1805.

The celebrated naturalist James Audubon made an exhaustive investigation of the fishes of the Missouri River about 1858.  It was his opinion that the catfish was a very valuable item of food.  According to him, the catfish “. . . contained in due proportions the constituents that form the very best of food fishes.”

For scores of years the early settlers subsisted almost exclusively on a diet of buffalo meat and catfish.  Vegetables were “. . . seldom a part of their diet and they had a small desire for them.”  This was before the day of canned vegetables.

Early land travel by stage between Sioux City and Fort Randall was confined to the military road on the north side of the river.  Travel on the river was first confined to row boats and the mail was carried by skiffs.  It was reported that those individuals who patronized the boats followed the stage route as near as practicable.  To pass the time, they were known to spear catfish along the way “that weighted from twelve to thirty pounds each, if they told the truth.”

Times were especially bleak during the winter of 1858 – 59 and the provisions available were particularly limited.  Settlers who were on their way to locating a home site in Dakota spent the winter at Green Island opposite Yankton.  They subsisted “through the winter on only corn, potatoes, and Missouri River catfish.”

The first hotel in Yankton opened on Christmas Day, 1859.  The Daily Press and Dakotaian reported that guests were treated to a “meal of catfish and molasses.”  It was said that whenever a weary traveler came to the hotel and asked if they had anything to eat, the reply was always the same.  “Well, I don’t know.  I’ll see.”

Then the owner would go down to his lines which were “set” in the river.  He would reply:   “If any of the lines had a catfish on the further end . . . the traveler could have a square meal.”  But, if no catfish responded to the pull, there was hunger in the hotel that evening.

This was known as “the catfish and corn bread era of southern Dakota.”

In 1877, that same newspaper reported how the citizens of Yankton and the Missouri Slope celebrated the first legislative assembly in the city fifteen years earlier.  “The Yankton of that day was in a very primitive condition, and but little now remains that connects it with its early settlement.  Of the hundreds of homes and scores of business houses that we see today, but ten of the number were standing when the first legislature met, and of the 3,500 souls who now make up the sum total of Yankton’s population, not forty of them, men, women and children, were included in the number who then subsisted here on corn dodgers and catfish.”

The last reference to catfish in a South Dakota newspaper was on June 18, 1879 when it was reported that:  “This is the time when a man pays $5 for a fish pole, $2 for tackle, $1 for bait and $8 for sundries, for the fun of catching two or three squalid emaciated catfish, that are not worth 50 cents.”

JUST A SHORT NOTE ABOUT GEORGE KINGSBURY — Mr. Kingsbury became a citizen of Yankton in 1862 and began publishing the Weekly Dakotan at that time.  He spent his entire lifetime in the newspaper business in Yankton.  In September of 1864 he married Lydia Stone of Lawrence, Kansas.  After their marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Kingsbury lived in the same house in Yankton from 1864 until her death in February of 1898.  After a few years, the home was practically abandoned.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on October 11, 2023