A Note from Cottonwood Corners

For a long time the Missouri River was South Dakota’s main highway.  During the 1800s, it was our Interstate 90.  It was compared to a winding stairway that descended all the way from Montana to the Mississippi River at St. Louis.

The steamboats which were used above Sioux City were especially built for service on the Missouri.  Because the river was shallow and narrow in many places between Montana and Sioux City, the steamers had to be smaller in size, lighter in weight, and propelled by one paddle wheel at the stern or back of the boat.  For this reason they were called “stern-wheelers.”

During the mid 1870s, at least thirty-nine steamboats were in constant and regular use above Sioux City.  Yankton was the headquarters for most of these boats and in 1877, sixteen boats remained at Yankton for the winter.

Unfortunately, twenty boats were lost within the boundaries of South Dakota between 1855 and 1881.  Even though the captain of these boats had made numerous trips up and down the river, the river was constantly changing.  Snags (large dead trees) and islands suddenly appeared where earlier there was only clear water.

The Imperial, a stern wheeler of moderate size was destroyed by the ice at Bon Homme Island in 1867.  The vessel was grounded on a sand bar in the fall and destroyed by the ice in the spring.  During the winter, Judge Wilmot W. Brookings had filed a debt against the vessel which he was still owed when it was destroyed.  Out of the wreck he secured the bell, which he presented to the Congregational Church in Yankton.

It was mounted on the Capitol building where the church held services.  It was later taken from the capitol building and moved to Yankton Academy.  The bell was finally passed into the possession of the school board and was still in use at the high school building in 1918.

Some intrepid French voyager, exploring the Missouri River on an early expedition, was probably responsible for the Bon Homme name which became popular in the area.  It was first applied to the large island in the river which was mentioned by Lewis and Clark in their journal.

A town which sprang up near-by took its name from the island; and when the county was created in 1862, the legislature named the county after the town.  An attempt to change the name of the county from “Bon Homme” to “Jefferson” by the legislature was not approved by Gov. Newton Edmunds.

In 1868, the Livingston was sunk at Running Water by ice.  It was later raised and put back into operation without much loss.  The town of Running Water was platted in 1880 at the confluence of the Missouri and Niobrara rivers.  The latter was earlier known as “Running Water River.”  Salt Springs, a place where Indians in the area made salt, was located above the town of Running Water.

Later that year, the Helena No. 1 was sunk at Bon Homme Island on October 31, 1868.  It was owned by Senator Power of Montana and Captain McGarrah was the captain.  It was later raised with only a small loss.

The Antelope, owned by W. R. Massie, a fine boat of 326 tons and valued at $20,000 loaded with $38,000 worth of goods burned at Bon Homme Island on April 12, 1869.  A chambermaid was burned to death in the accident.  The name of the lady who lost her life in the accident was never revealed in any of the news stories describing the accident.  The boat and cargo was a total loss.  The boat was lost below the island near the Bon Homme – Yankton county line.

The Urilda, bound up river loaded with merchandise on April 24 1869 ran onto a snag at the foot of Kate Sweeney bend.  There is a tradition that the vessel had a large cargo of whiskey which connoisseurs considered to be well ripened after being in the Missouri River for a long time.  Several efforts were unsuccessfully made to recover the liquor from the wreck which had been located in the quicksand.  Because of the low water level, the boat was at times visible in the sand and water of the Missouri.

The Bachelor, a stern wheeler struck a rock in the channel of the river at Fort Pierre and sunk in November of 1869 near the end of the boat traffic for that year.  The boat and merchandise on board were lost in the rapid flowing river.  Only those on board were saved.  No further particulars were available.

Joseph LaFramboise was the first to settle at the site of Fort Pierre in 1817 and thus began the first continuous white settlement in South Dakota.  Lewis and Clark named the island between Pierre and Fort Pierre “Bad Humored Island,” because of the difficulty they had at this site with Black Buffalo and his band of Sioux.  At various times the island was called “Rivers Island,” or “Goddard Island,” for its various owners; but the name “LaFramboise Island” is the only one that has persisted.

Although Fort Pierre is the oldest continuous white settlement in the State, Sioux Falls is the site of the State’s first town development.  Established in an Indian inhabited wilderness in 1857, the town was not incorporated until 1877 and so lost the honor of being the first incorporated city to Yankton, which had filed papers in 1862.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on May 22, 2024