In December of 1944 the United States Congress passed a Rivers and Harbors Bill which authorized the construction of the Pick-Sloan plan for Missouri River Development. From 1946 to 1966, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers implemented much of that plan.
In that twenty-year period, five of the world’s largest earthen dams were built across the main-stem of the Missouri River in North and South Dakota. Fort Randall Dam was the first dam completed by the Corps on the river. The 150-mile-long reservoir behind the dam extends to the Big Bend area above Chamberlain.
Because of Fort Randall’s importance for future flood prevention in the downstream states, the Corps requested congressional funding for this structure before any of the other dams. Once Congress had allocated the money, the Corps began construction.
After a number of dignitaries had spoken, a handle was pushed and a surge of electricity set-off a charge of dynamite that blew away the side of a bluff where the future spillway of the dam would be built. The construction of Fort Randall Dam had begun. It was estimated that there were 6,000 spectators to witness this event on August 1, 1946.
One can only wonder how many residents of the small Native American village of White Swan, established in the mid 1800’s located on the east side of the river, witnessed this event. Did they realize that their historic community would be inundated and that most of their community would be covered with the concrete spillway?
The development of White Swan was concurrent with the establishment of the military post at Fort Randall. It was named for White Swan, a prominent Yankton Sioux Chief.
It featured a post office which served the Fort Randall area, as well as a stage stop on the route which followed the Missouri River north from Sioux City to Fort Pierre. The community had a ferry service, several churches, and schools.
Tribal members from the beginning were involved in agriculture and were so successful that they were self-sufficient and would barter for whatever they needed. At the beginning of World War II, a cannery operated nearby where community members processed peas, corn, and other vegetables. During the war years, they donated a percentage of the canned goods to the war effort.
None of the homes had electricity or indoor plumbing. Candles and kerosene lamps provided lighting. A few homes enjoyed the luxury of having oil stoves, but most depended on wood from the bottomlands for their fuel.
They raised horses, cows, hogs, chickens, and turkeys. Some let their livestock take shelter in the timbered bottomlands, while others maintained barns, hen houses, and other out-buildings. Money from surplus milk and eggs sold in Lake Andes or Wagner paid for coffee, sugar, salt, spices, and other staples that could not be grown or harvested. They butchered livestock as needed.
When the dams in North and South Dakota were completed, nearly 700 miles of Missouri River bottom land was inundated between Yankton, South Dakota and Williston, North Dakota. This was some of the most fertile agricultural land in the Dakotas.
The inundation of such a vast stretch of the Missouri River Valley caused tremendous changes in the lifestyles of the people who lived within or near the valley. Many ranchers and farmers had to relocate their families and agricultural enterprises to other areas. Complete towns and their residents had to be re-located to higher ground.
The Indians in the Dakotas and Nebraska were most affected by the inundation of their reservation lands. All of the Missouri Valley bottom-lands located on the Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River Sioux, Standing Rock, and Fort Berthold reservations were flooded. Indians on these reservations, and on the Yankton, Rosebud, and Santee reservations lost a total of 353,313 acres for reservoir water storage.
In the Summer/Fall 1997 issue of Great Plains Quarterly, Robert Schneiders, a Professor of History at Texas Tech University wrote: “I conclude . . . that the sites of the Pick-Sloan Plan dams were chosen primarily for political reasons rather than because of geological or engineering considerations.”
He also pointed out that the Missouri River States Committee (MRSC) which was organized in December of 1941 to discuss and coordinate the plans for Missouri River development, did not have one Indian representative. As a matter of fact, the MRSC did not seek to include the Indians of the Missouri Valley within the organization.
On the distant and remote reservations of the upper Missouri River, the Indian population had little or no idea that plans and policies were being formulated that would dramatically affect their lives forever.
The BIA declined to mount legal challenges on the tribes’ behalf. The Pick-Sloan Plan contained no language protecting tribal interests. The BIA did not tell tribes of the damage that would accompany the dam-building project until 1949.
In 1998, Louie Archambeau, a former resident of White Swan, observed: “We lost more than our homes. We lost our way of living, a part of our culture. That is something we will never get back.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on June 17, 2020.