When construction began on the Fort Randall Reservoir August 1, 1946, little was known archeologically speaking of the area. The earliest survey work was done by the W. H. Over Museum at the University of South Dakota and the Works Projects Administration in 1941 at Scalp Creek and Ellis Creek, on the west bank of the river. They represented the two largest Woodland villages known at that time in South Dakota.
The selection of this area to examine and document is remarkable in view of the strategic location of the site on the natural line of Indian travel between the Arikara-Mandan habitat on the upper Missouri above Pierre, and the Central Plains area of Nebraska and Kansas to the south.
Migration legends link with the Fort Randall area not only the early Arikara and Mandan, prior to their movement upstream, but also the Iowa, Omaha, and Ponca, who later migrated downstream, and the Teton and Yankton Dakota on their movements from east to west across the Missouri.
During the latter decades of the eighteenth and early half of the nineteenth centuries — there were no permanent Native towns in the area, then dominated by the Teton on the west and Yankton on the east.
When the construction of the Fort Randall Dam across the Missouri River commenced during the latter half of 1946, within a few years the water would be impounded and the bottomlands flooded.
From the days of Lewis and Clark until the advent of railroad bridges, the Missouri River was a major route of transcendental travel and an effective dividing line between East and West. The camps of explorers, trading posts, military posts, steamboat landings, Indian agencies, and other phenomena of the Western frontier were strung along the busy waterway during the eighteenth century.
It was obvious that many sites and features of deep historical interest would disappear as the reservoir area was flooded. This realization pointed to the need for a survey or inventory of historic sites existing along the river above the dam for a permanent record and possible salvage of artifacts. There was also the cemeteries and graves which must be relocated. There is no record of the countless graves which were not located in a cemetery that are now covered with water.
Merrill Mattes, historian for the National Park Service and U. S. Department of Interior with headquarters in Omaha, submitted a one-hundred and seven page report to the Omaha District of the Corps of Engineers on June 1, 1948. He reported that there were one-hundred and nineteen historic sites and features in the reservoir area which would be lost forever. In his report, Mattes, listed one site that would be below the dam which would not be destroyed by the reservoir, four sites that would be completely covered with the dam structure, and one-hundred and fifteen above the dam that would be flooded.
Compiling the list involved three field trips to the reservoir area (1946, 1947, 1948) for twenty-two days, intensive research of historical diaries, and countless maps. All were obtained primarily from libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, Vermillion and Pierre, South Dakota.
The history of the Fort Randall Reservoir area is unified by the Missouri River itself. It was the primary approach to the western wilderness for almost one-hundred years beginning in 1794 with the journey of the French trader from St. Louis, Jean Baptiste Trudeau.
Bijou’s trading post below Bijou Hills across from Rosebud Landing (Landing Creek) in 1812 may have been the earliest white establishment, but the heyday of the traders in the area was in the 1820’s and 1830’s.
The nomadic buffalo-hunting Indians made the white man’s trading posts their headquarters. They were particularly fond of camping in the vicinity of White River, American Crow Creek, and the Big Bend.
Its history is that of a waterway, a route of travel, the continental importance of which dwindled with the advent of the transcontinental railroad in the 1870’s.
Private fur trappers and traders out of St. Louis were the first white men to visit the Upper Missouri (which historians generally agree begins at present Sioux City), arriving in South Dakota in the late 18th century.
William Clark and Meriwether Lewis led their famous exploring expedition up the river in 1804 and returned triumphantly in 1806. Fifteen of their camp sites are located under the water backed up by the dam.
Fort Randall was established in 1856 and later became a major base of operations in the area.
Mattes concludes the introduction of his report with this statement: “The trading posts, forts, steamboats — all are gone. That is why Missouri River nomenclature is historically interesting and herein recorded. The geographical features to which they are affixed (allowing of course for the shiftiness of the river channel) constitute the historical setting. Every island, creek, and knob has a story to tell.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on June 24, 2020.