A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The Kate Swinney was the first steamboat to be wrecked in the Missouri River within the borders of South Dakota.  The accident occurred August 1, 1855, at what has since become known as “Kate Sweeney Bend,” between Vermillion and Elkpoint.  The boat was returning to St. Louis from Fort Pierre.

In October of 1864, the Peoria Belle was grounded on a sand bar five miles above the mouth of the Cheyenne River.  She sat there until the next spring when she was destroyed by the breakup of the ice.  It had been employed the previous summer in transporting supplies for Sully’s army.  She was for a long time grounded near their camp on the river bottom north of Pierre.  It was from the boat that Peoria Bottom took its name.

Sergeant Drips, historian of the expedition says:  “The Peoria Belle went down today and took our mail.  The boat brought provisions for 2500 men for thirty days.”  When it was discovered that the boat could not be rescued, a messenger was dispatched at once to Fort Rice for help.  A company of soldiers were sent, each with a shovel.

It was thought that the sand could be dug away and the boat floated off the sand bar.  However, the diligent efforts of 80 men were not successful and the vessel was left in  the care of one guard in the hope that a late rise in the water might float her.  The rise did not come and the gallant Belle still lies on that sand bar under the waters of Lake Oahe.

In 1865, the Tempest was snagged at Bon Homme Island below Springfield.  No particulars to the fate of that boat were apparently ever recorded.  As we go through the loss of the 20 boats in South Dakota, you will note an unusually large number of steam boats which met with disaster at Bon Homme Island.

In 1894, the states of Nebraska and South Dakota had established a joint commission to define the boundary between the two states.  Two years later they came to an agreement and decided that Nebraska would control Bon Home Island, which was over ten miles long and contained at least 300,000 feet of timber.  Nebraska would cede to South Dakota a worthless strip of sand opposite Vermillion, South Dakota.

The Pocahontis No. 2 was snagged and lost at Pocahontis Island, opposite Academy in Charles Mix County on August 10, 1866.  It is the first of four steamboats to be wrecked in the waters of Gregory County.  At the time it was carrying Indian supplies to Fort Benton in Montana.  No other information was found on this incident.

Pocahontas Island was earlier referred to on maps as Towhead Island.  It was an alluvial island (dune, embankment, ridge, bank, shoal) covered with large cottonwood trees and thick vegetation.  The name of the island was descriptive of the formation of the island.

Historically, Pocahontas Island is best remembered as the residence of Jack Sully and his family before he moved to Sully Flats near Lucas.  The March 20, 1903, issue of The Mitchell Capital reported:

“The much advertised Jack Sully had been seen the past two weeks in Gregory County, South Dakota, on Whetstone Creek . . .”

Sully had just escaped from the jail in Mitchell and had walked for thirty miles before he was able to locate a friend who would help him escape back to Pocahontas Island.  Near Lake Andes he secured a saddle horse and the third night after his escape reached the island where he had lived for years.  That same newspaper article reported “. . . that about February 27 Al Fulwider and Harry Ham saw Sully at Pocahontas Island.”

During the early years of their marriage, Jack and Mary lived in Charles Mix County for a short period of time.  From there they moved to Pocahontas Island which was a part of Gregory County and the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

During the time that Jack lived on the island, it was an ideal spot in which to hide the cattle before being driven out of the area and sold.  Officials went to the island often and after viewing the situation decided that it would be impossible to do anything with the small posse available.  The cattle thieves were strongly guarded and well provided with guns and ammunition to ward off any attack that might be made by law officials.

Earlier, in 1901, a posse from Chamberlain was sent to the island to recover 300 head of cattle that had been stolen and hidden on the island.  They returned to Chamberlain with only 30 head of cattle.

From Pocahontas Island the Sully’s eventually moved to Sully Flats and continued to live there up to the time when he was killed on May 16, 1904.

Jack and his family who was home at the time, his daughter, Eva, and two younger boys, George and John, had just finished enjoying a pancake breakfast when Ben Diamond rode up to the ranch.  He told Jack that a posse of twenty or more men had surrounded the home with high powered, large caliber rifles.

One historian wrote:

“To this day, the Gregory County Legend states that the fatal shot was fired by Harry Ham, as he was the only one who could shot straight (heavy drinking  was on the menu the night before) and had a reason to silence Sully.”


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on May 15, 2024