A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The military post, Fort Randall, stood along the west bank of the Missouri River in southeastern Gregory County for thirty-six years and five months between June 1856 and November 1892.  During that time, it was one of the most important military posts on the Upper Missouri River and had quarters for five companies.

It was strategically located near the Nebraska border on the west side of the Missouri.  Its tenure coincided with the opening of the vast territory to the west and northwest.  This was much of what was referred to as the “Trans-Mississippi West,” especially that enormous region embracing the northern Great Plains and the country drained by the many tributaries of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Fort Randall began as an important outpost on the American frontier – at the very demarcation of prairie and plains – and ended as a common garrison surrounded by the settlement of homesteaders.  Its usefulness then became superseded by other forts.

Because Fort Randall stood as a symbol of national policy, soldiers stationed at the fort operated at the direction of the United States government.  Much of their time was directed towards relations with the Native Americans and maintaining peace among the white settlers.  Squatters were a frequent and troublesome nuisance.

The soldiers stationed at Fort Randall also supported and participated in various federally sponsored exploring expeditions throughout the northern plains.  During its existence, Fort Randall stood as a beacon of government authority, a fortress of law and order to Indians and whites alike.

When Fort Randall was established in 1856, it was supplied with goods which were freighted from Sioux City.  The “Military Road” followed the Missouri River on the Dakota side and became the first regularly used road in South Dakota.  At the same time, a telegraph line was established and a mail service was started between Sioux City and Fort Randall.  These were later extended to the northwest on the east side of the Missouri all the way to the North Dakota border.

The first mail route in Dakota Territory ran from Sioux City to Fort Randall and served all the early settlements along the Missouri River.  At first the mail was carried by horseback.  The stagecoach, however, soon replaced the horse.  A regular stage line from Sioux City to Fort Randall was established in July of 1860.  By 1868, business was so heavy that a daily service was started between Sioux City and Yankton.  Passengers and freight were also carried.

Explorers had a strong foothold on the lands along the Missouri River in South Dakota well before the 1858 treaty between the Yankton Sioux and the U.S. Government authorized white settlement.  What is now Bon Homme County was one of the more significant trading locations on the river well before Lewis and Clark visited the area in 1804.  In fact, the county name, “Bon Homme,” is the French translation of an honorary name given by the Yankton Sioux to a white fur trader working in the area during the 1700s.  Its English translation is “good man.”  That fur trader’s first-given name and remains have been lost to history.

Up to about the time Fort Randall was established, no white man had made this area their home except for a few fur traders who had Indian wives.  Near the end of the 1850’s, steamers began to ply the river between places to the east and the forts up stream.  Suddenly, the wood yard business sprang up along the river.

In the early 1860’s, the number of steamers that carried freight had vastly increased and reached its zenith in 1878 when the Northern Pacific reached Bismarck.  This put an end to the greater part of the steamboat and wood yard business in Dakota; although for a few years it was revived when the Black Hills began to be settled.

The Black Hills gold rush was of tremendous influence upon the rest of Dakota Territory.  Mining laws had to be passed by the legislature, and county governments had to be created.  Many of the miners passed through Yankton and other towns, making purchases of various kinds on their way to the Hills.  The farmers in the agricultural settlements found a profitable market in the mining camps.

Yankton derived the greatest benefit from the miners who came from Sioux City.  A large portion of the goods sent into the Black Hills were shipped by steamboat from Yankton to Fort Pierre.  Once the goods and miners reached Fort Pierre, they traveled by freighter or coach on the “Deadwood Trail.”  This was the main artery of travel between the Missouri River and the Black Hills towns during the Gold Rush days.

In 1870, a member of the Dakota territorial legislature, Henry Brooks, established a homestead at what became Running Water, South Dakota.  He established a ferry which transported thousands of cattle from Niobrara to Running Water.  The ferry was replaced in 1984 by the Standing Bear Memorial Bridge.

It was in 1859 that the first white families settled in the counties of Union, Clay, and Yankton.  In 1866 and 1867 the government graded and improved the Sioux City – Fort Randall road and built bridges over the Big Sioux, Vermillion, and James rivers.  These were the first bridges built in the state.  Before that time, ferries were used.

In 1875 there were 485 officers and men stationed at the post and by 1886 it housed only a skeleton garrison.  In 1892, only 60 men were at the fort and it was abandoned.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on February 21, 2024