A Note from Cottonwood Corners

For about the last six months, I have been making an extensive search of maps, documents, diaries, books, and letters which tell the story of the development of the Missouri River from Nebraska to Fort Pierre.  Eventually, I will put together a series of columns on the historic sites and events which will tell in detail the history of our area.

In the process of reading the earliest editions of the Daily Press and Dakota (Yankton), I came across a detailed story about the construction of the facilities at Rosebud Landing.  The title of the story was “Colonel O’Bierne” and was written by the Traveling Correspondent for the P&D.  It was written on September 25, 1879.

“As Colonel O’Bierne,” the story began, “is becoming as noted a character on the wilderness plains as was General Hammond of investigation notoriety, I have taken some pains to find out what are the peculiar characteristics which render him of such transcendent importance.”

“While at Rosebud Landing,” the story continued, “and later at Rosebud Agency, I made it a specialty to nose around and pick up odd items upon the subject and now that I have halted for a few hours mid-way between the camps of the two great Sioux bands I find that I can kill a little time by noting down my discoveries for the benefit of you readers.”  In his work for the government, O’Bierne did not make any mistakes in favor of the Native Americans!

The discoveries and secrets which the reporter, known only as “C” to his readers, identified were totally unexpected.

The story continued:  “I learn that O’Bierne is the creation, officially of Commissioner Hayt (Commissioner of Indian Affairs), and that, next to himself, he believes Hayt is the greatest man living.  This opinion may have been a part of the inducement for his appointment, or perhaps all of it, for I cannot conceive that he is of any special value to the Indian service.”

“He is known on the books at Washington as special agent for the construction of Indian buildings, and here upon the plains as a puffed up Englishman of very little practical utility.”

The report went on to illustrate the basis for his conclusions:

  1. He had expended five thousand dollars in ‘improvements,’ at Rosebud Landing and as a result has:
  • One rough board warehouse 200 x 31 feet, built of old lumber brought over from the old Red Cloud agency, already the property of the government.
  1. One well containing a supply of worthless alkali water.
  2. One hole intended for an ice house, but never finished.

These were the architectural achievements of Col. O’Bierne, who in his capacity of special agent for the construction of Indian facilities drew his pay with utmost regularity.  The question was did the government need such ornamental appendages on its pay roll?

The final question which Mr. “C” asked was shall we be giving employment to a man of no practical experience in the line for which his services are designated?

That situation back in 1879 reminds me of some of our problems in Washington today.  In 2023, the Gallup Poll reported that Americans’ faith in major societal institutions hasn’t improved over the past year following a slump in public confidence in 2022.  The Gallup organization recorded significant declines in public confidence in 11 of the 16 institutions which it tracks annually.

Overall, the Gallup Poll finds small business enjoying the most public confidence, with 65% of Americans having a great deal or fair amount of confidence.  A majority, 60%, also have high confidence in the military.

The five worst-rated institutions – newspapers, the criminal justice system, television news, big business and Congress – stir confidence in less than 20% of Americans.  Only 8% have confidence in Congress – the lowest approval of all institutions studied!

Americans have long been critical of politicians and skeptical of the federal government.  But today, American’s views of politics and elected officials are unrelentingly negative with little hope of improvement on the horizon.  There is widespread criticism of all three branches of government, both political parties, as well as politicians especially at the national level.

A 2023 Pew Research Center report shows that only 4% of U. S. adults say the political system is working extremely or very well.  Another 23% say it is working somewhat well.  Six-in-ten (63%) express not much or no confidence in the system.

Thankfully, that Yankton paper 145 years ago was doing what it was supposed to do – report the news honestly and report waste at every level.  The story which appeared in September of 1879 did result in an employment change.  In the December 24, 1879 edition, the Press and Dakotan reported that A. J. Hallenback, Colonel O’Bierne’s successor at Rosebud Landing, was in Yankton on his way up the river to his new job.

That $5,000 which O’Bierne spent in 1879 represents $155,163 today!


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on March 17, 2024