The Missouri River was a major route of transcontinental travel as explorers, mountain men, trappers, and adventurers wondered what was “on the other side of the hill” or “just around the next bend.”
During the 1700s, trading posts, military posts, steamboat landings, Indian agencies, towns, and other phenomena of the Western frontier appeared along this busy waterway.
Obviously, many of these sites and features of deep historical interest disappeared as the bottomland was flooded.
The Missouri River flowed through a narrow valley in South Dakota, usually less than three miles in width, broadening below Springfield and Yankton to six to fifteen miles. Before the construction of the dams, the Missouri River dropped in elevation about one foot per mile.
It tributaries from the west also have narrow valleys. The larger ones, the Grand, Moreau, Cheyenne, and White rivers have broad, high terraces considerably lower than the adjacent country. These terraces are a feature peculiar to the Missouri and its western tributaries. They furnish many square miles of level ground suitable for agriculture.
Along all these streams are quite extensive flood plains or “bottom lands.” This highly desirable farm land was the property which the earliest homesteaders and ranchers hoped to acquire as they began their new life in South Dakota.
There are no mountains in the state east of the Black Hills. Among the prominent hills and buttes east of the Missouri are the Bijou Hills in southern Brule County and the Wessington Hills in Jerauld, Beadle, and Hand countries. The latter was a favorite place used by rustlers between 1880 and 1910 to hide the horses and cattle they had stolen.
Immediately west of the Missouri River, opposite the Bijou Hills, are the Iona Hills which you pass through on your way to the Interstate. Medicine Butte, the site of the KELO tower is just north of Reliance.
Along the river and surrounding territory, travel on dirt roads after a rain was often impossible. The Pierre shales and clays cover the region west of the Missouri River not included in the Black Hills and the region especially south of the White River. The soil is thin, devoid of sand or grit, and when moist forms the well-known “gumbo” of the range country. After a rain it cakes to the wheels of vehicles and your size thirteen shoe suddenly doubles in size.
The bottomless character of this “gumbo” tested the patience of citizens who already had plenty of problems to deal with. In 1900, there were 2,211 folks living in Gregory County who would have to deal with the dilemma of getting “stuck” going downhill!
In 1904, the bottoms along the Missouri River in Gregory County were narrow or entirely absent, and today the land extending back from the river for several miles is rough and broken. There are flat plateaus that rise to the level of the prairie back from the river.
The hills along the Ponca, Bull, and Willow creeks are less pronounced, and in many places almost imperceptible. At the north line of the county, the Bull Creek bluffs become higher and rougher.
The general level of the uplands is 700 to 800 feet above the Missouri River, or approximately 1,900 to 2,000 feet above sea level. The rough “breaks” are always lower, due entirely to the erosion of this part of the prairie.
Close to the top of the “breaks” or bluffs is a loose, fragile sandstone or quartzite which is exposed at numerous points and probably extends over a large part of the county some distance below the surface. It is quite extensively exposed on the Burnt Rock Creek to the northwest of Bonesteel. It is the only stone found in that region and was used for the foundations of early homes and other buildings.
The soil on the uplands is a deep black and sometimes yellowish or reddish loam, with a very porous subsoil. The porous nature of the soil enables it to retain moisture so well that crops flourish there when destroyed by drought in neighboring areas. This fact caused early settlers to claim that they had received more rain than those nearby, which is doubtful.
Toward the southwest part of the county, near and south of Ponca Creek, the soil is sandier, and in some places very sandy. Small sandy patches also occur near Bonesteel.
The rough breaks consist of a mixture of soil, clay, shale, and other material resembling a fine ash. However, erosion goes on so rapidly that much soil cannot be formed except in the bottoms of the valleys.
All the land in the settled part of the county in 1904 suitable for farming was cultivated. Corn was the principal crop, diversified by mixed farming. The rough portions were suitable for pasture only. Therefore, the raising of livestock was the leading industry in the county.
In 1904, only about six townships in the southeast corner of the county near the river had been opened for settlement. The western portion of the county was still part of the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on June 23, 2021