We do not know when the first traders and trappers visited this region. However, we do know that the rivers and other points of interest were named and identified long before their diaries were published.
The first house for which we have record being erected by a white man in what was to become South Dakota was the Trudeau House. It was constructed on the east side of the river near where White Swan and Fort Randall would later be located. On November 11, 1794, Jean Batiste Trudeau began construction on what was to be a trading post. He departed from the area on March 25, 1795. His life that winter was anything but enjoyable!
He was a French fur trader and this was the oldest known trading post on the upper Missouri River. His notes and diary which he prepared for his employer back in St. Louis was the first written record of South Dakota. He was a school teacher who at the moment was more interested in wealth and adventure than knowledge.
The Trudeau cabin was built near a bend in a stream which flowed into the river. It was called Handy’s Point. Some say it was named after an early trapper named Handy.
Fort Randall was established in 1856 on the west side of the Missouri about 110 miles by the river above Yankton. It had quarters for four companies, six buildings for officers’ quarters, a hospital, guard house, bakery, and other required facilities. The horses were allowed to graze in a large area southeast of the fort.
The Indian Agency at Greenwood was established in 1859. It was one of the earliest settlements in the territory.
There were also a few other frontier settlements which predated the influx of the earliest homesteaders to this area. One of these communities was White Swan which was developed concurrently with the establishment of the military post at Fort Randall. With White Swan and Fort Randall being separated by the Missouri River, the two communities were serviced by a ferry which operated between them.
Records show that in 1861, there were about fifty white persons in Charles Mix County. They were nearly all contractors and their employees, who furnished supplies and services to the garrison at Fort Randall.
In the autumn of 1862 a battalion of troops was temporarily stationed at White Swan for the winter. There, they built quarters and stables and passed the winter on the east side of the river. During their time at White Swan, they carried the mail and dispatches up and down the river.
Over the years, White Swan was identified as a post office, stage station, soldier station, and Indian settlement. In the beginning, it featured a stage stop and a few buildings on the line that followed the east bank of the river north from Sioux City to Fort Pierre. Its chief importance was that of a post office serving the Fort Randall area and stage station.
By 1874 there were few towns and post offices in the Dakota Territory. In Charles Mix County, there were three post offices: Platte Creek, White Swan, and Greenwood.
The first post office was established at White Swan on December 7, 1869, and was discontinued on August 10, 1875. The second post office was established on December 10, 1875 and it was discontinued on October 31, 1892. When the services were discontinued, the mail was forwarded to Fort Randall.
White Swan was an Indian community situated on the east side of the river, less than a mile upstream from Fort Randall. It was a traditional, self-sustaining community named after White Swan, a prominent Yankton Sioux Chief. It was one of the tribe’s four major settlement areas.
Those living in the settlement took advantage of the Missouri River bottomland’s natural benefits. The abundant trees provided lumber for building and wood for fuel, as well as shade and shelter for the residents and their livestock. They were protected from South Dakota’s hot summers and frigid winters.
The lands adjacent to the river provided shelter for the feeding and watering of their many livestock (cattle, horses, pigs) and chicken operations. This was an area in which they had made their greatest strides toward economic self-sufficiency in the twentieth century.
The forested area also provided them with berries, roots, herbs, and plums. The area provided them with plenty of wild game. Native plants along the river were used for medicinal purposes and in their cultural ceremonies.
Being next to the river, they had easy access to water which was regularly distributed throughout the community. Everyone had several barrels in which to store water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. The rapid current and sands purified the water.
We do not know exactly when the Sioux moved into the White Swan area. We do know however, that during the last half of the 1800’s and the first half of the 1900’s it provided them with all that they needed.
For them, this would all change with the construction of the Fort Randall Dam in the late 1940s. Their lives would then be radically transformed forever!
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on April 28, 2021