A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The first effort at road building by white men in what would later become Dakota Territory was in 1857.  One of the dreams of the pioneers at St. Paul, Minnesota, was that it should become the eastern terminus of a wagon road which took early settlers to the far west (Minnesota Territory was created in 1849 with St. Paul as its capital).  It was planned that the road would go west by way of Fort Ridgely, to the South Pass which is a route across the Continental Divide in southwestern Wyoming.

It was hoped first to get a wagon road over this route and then later make it the line for a trans-continental railway.  Col. William H. Nobles was placed in charge of this project.  He moved promptly and the final approval from Congress was dated March 3, 1857.  Before November of that year, the road was completed to the Missouri River, at a point opposite the mouth of the White River.

It entered the state through “The Hole in the Mountain” near Elkton, then to Lake Campbell, trailing along the north lines of Lake, Miner, and Sanborn counties to the Jim River, thence southwesterly through Wessington Springs to Gann Valley.  It then bent more southerly to the river.

The road was well marked, the bad places were graded, and the streams where forded and paved with boulders.  As a newly constructed prairie road of that time, it was fair.  It was really intended by its promoters as the line for a railroad from St. Paul to the Pacific Ocean.

In the twenty-five years after the Civil War, the northern Great Plains was transformed from a frontier with limited transportation into a settled region with a complex transportation infrastructure.  In any assessment of this landscape modification, the military presence deserved consideration as an agent of change.

In this period, 1866 to 1891, the army organized the territories of Dakota and Montana into the Military Department of Dakota and established a network of forts that extended from the Red River to the Rockies and from the Canadian border to the Platte River.  The isolation and vast distances between the individual forts on the northern Great Plains, and between this network and supply depots in the East, necessitated a complex transportation system to move men and materials.

In order to facilitate these logistical operations, the military built a system of roads while protecting and utilizing established trails, waterways, and rail networks.  Although the army had its own means of transport, for reasons of economy it preferred to employ civilian carriers to move men and supplies on a contractual basis.  Various modes of commercial transportation were used, including freight wagons, stage coaches, riverboats, and railroads.

The military road system performed important logistical functions.  It connected the forts, integrated the fort network, provided feeder lines to link the forts to the rivers and, later, to the railroads.  It supplied access for the wagons and stage coaches of civilians who hauled military and civilian goods.  In doing so, it unified the region by connecting widely scattered and distant areas.

The roads themselves varied from Indian traces to more permanent routes etched by the movement of heavy wagons.  Most of them were laid out along the shortest distance between the forts.  A good day’s travel for a wagon with a heavy load was fifteen to twenty miles.  The roads between the forts were in constant use by the army for over twenty years, from the 1860s to the 1890s.  Even after the forts were abandoned, the roads served the farmers who had settled along them.

In southern Dakota, six of the military posts were located along the Missouri River to take advantage of steamboat transportation.  However, each of these forts was also connected to each of the others and to some civilian settlements in an intricate road network.  River transports carried the large bulk shipments, but road connections often provided shorter travel times and distances than did the Missouri, especially for the expected daily mail service.

One important military road in southern Dakota connected Fort Randall, established in 1857, with Sioux City.  The federal government spent twenty-five thousand dollars to construct the road between these two points and then built a number of bridges across the Big Sioux, Vermillion, and James rivers.  Fort Randall was to become an important transportation center, with other roads extending from the post to various forts and civilian communities in Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana.

Only a few roads crossed the largely empty area between the Missouri and the Tongue River, where the Montana fort system began.  Because navigation on the Missouri and Yellowstone was seasonal and unreliable, direct overland routes were needed to ensure year-round transportation to Fort Keogh on the Yellowstone River.

As the railroads were extended across the plains, wagons and stage coaches were still needed.  Wagons were slow and expensive, but they could go almost anywhere at any season of the year.  Wagon transportation continued to be important in the late 1880s.

The many military roads that crisscrossed the Dakota Territory also provided convenient routes for ranchers and homesteaders who settled along them.  The military roads also attracted commercial ventures such as the trading posts and other businesses, hoping to establish a profitable business with travelers on the road.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on October 25, 2023