A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Early in the settlement of White Swan, two missionary churches and two government schools were established.

Saint Francis Church was established by Roman Catholic missionaries near the eastern edge of the White Swan community that extended for about ten miles along the river. The age of his church is not known, but it does not appear in river survey maps of 1892.  It was a feature of the old Yankton Indian Reservation, originally established in 1858, which then comprised the eastern half of Charles Mix County until 1895.

A 1931 map of landowners in Charles Mix County does show a Catholic Mission at the site where it is thought the original Saint Francis Church was built.  This is at or below the shoreline west of the highway between Lake Andes and Pickstown north of the Fort Randall Dam Visitor Center at the east end of the dam.  Documents locate the site down to forty acres on a map; however, an extensive search reveals no date when built.

Saint Philips Church was established in 1869 as an Episcopal mission.  It was later moved a little over a half-mile to the north on higher ground.  The original graveyard was moved with the church.   Early on, two government schools, Little Bird School and White Swan School #5, also served the community.

The Daily Press and Dakotan at Yankton on August 11, 1879, made this editorial comment:  “White Swan, a hamlet in the woods upon the Missouri bottom — a place of all sorts of fame, but still holding its own as an important point on the traveled route through the Indian domain.  Scourged by fire, it has risen from its ashes and stands again a thing of beauty and joy to the wearied traveler.”

It was about this time that a few Indians began farming along the river.  At first they raised some corn and put up a little hay for their livestock.  They began building log homes for themselves and sheds for the protection of their animals during the severe winter months.

During the 80s and 90s many of them took their allotments and settled on new farms.  From the inception of the allotment policy, the hope was to establish most, if not all, of the Indians on their own land and that they would become self-supporting farmers and ranchers.

Commenting on the early farms, the 1906 Charles Mix County Atlas reported:  “Some of these are now well improved with fine houses, good barns, and other conveniences.”  By 1930, the expertise in family farming was well established along the river at White Swan.

White Swan families raised horses, cows, hogs, chickens, and turkeys.  Some of these folks allowed their livestock to take shelter in the fertile timbered bottomlands which provided feeding and watering areas.  This is where the Sioux made their greatest progress toward economic self-sufficiency in the twentieth century.  Others maintained barns, hen houses, and other out-buildings to protect their livestock and poultry.  One family on the bottomlands kept a herd of up to forty horses.

Surplus milk and eggs were sold regularly in Lake Andes and Wagner.  The money which they received from their surplus was used to purchase coffee, sugar, salt, spices, and other supplies which could not be grown or harvested.  Livestock was butchered as needed and shared with the entire community.

Each year, community members planted and harvested corn, oats, hay, and alfalfa.  Outdated horse-drawn farming equipment was used to accomplish these tasks.  Large gardens were planted each spring.  They grew potatoes, carrots, peas, peanuts, and watermelon.  What they raised was supplemented with wild game from the area.

The rich river bottom land produced a bountiful supply of wild fruit, vegetables, herbs, and other desirable plants which thrived along the river.  Randall Island was particularly generous in its supply of produce.

Michael Lawson, in an article entitled “’We lost our way of living’: The Inundation of the White Swan Community” wrote:  “Depending on the season, they could take their choice among strawberries, cherries, plums, buffalo berries, chokecherries, gooseberries, and crab apples.  They could also gather mushrooms and wild turnips.”

The island became well known for its wild grapes.  Blue and about the size of a pea, they were delicious.  A large group from the Hutterite Colony near Platte came every summer to harvest grapes.  Their arrival was eagerly anticipated by the local citizens.

In 1915, the first and only strictly Indian farmers’ organization in the northwest was formed and was known as the White Swan Indian Farmers’ Association.  Their object was to arouse renewed interest among its members in all branches of modern farming.

At the beginning of World War II, a cannery operated in White Swan where community members processed peas, corn, and other vegetables.  During the duration of the war, they donated a portion of their canned goods to the war effort.

Corn, as we all know but most of us often forget, was a gift to us from the American Indian when we stepped ashore on the east coast.

The lands adjacent to the river had for generations been a vital source of all that the Sioux needed to survive.  In the middle of the twentieth century their most fertile and productive land — the very basis for their economy — was to be flooded.



Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on May 5, 2021