The Missouri River was always commercially the most important waterway in the area. Steamers never ventured on any other South Dakota river. Each of the other larger steams floated the canoes and row boats of the earliest explorers and trappers.
The river was of great importance to the fur trade and many posts were located along its banks. In the 1760’s, the French merchants in St. Louis began trading up the Missouri; however, they left no record of their early entrance into the territory.
In 1796 at least two trading houses were built in what is now South Dakota. The first upon “Cedar Island”, about thirty-five miles below Pierre. It was established by Regis Loisel and was known as “Loisel’s Post.” It is considered the oldest establishment in the state. It was a strong fortified trading house which he called “Fort Aux Cedres.” It was burned along with a large stock of furs in 1810. Capt. Henry M. Chittenden, the well-known authority on the history of the Missouri River, considers this the earliest trading house in the Sioux country. The exact date of its establishment is not known.
In the fall of 1796, Trudeau, a St. Louis trader, established the second trading post on the east bank of the Missouri and a little above the site of Fort Randall. This was also a strongly palisaded post and trade was continued in it for twenty years. It was known as “Trudeau’s House” or “Pawnee House.”
Both of these trading posts were established in what is now South Dakota just twenty years after our Declaration of Independence was signed by fifty-six men in Philadelphia.
“Fort Mitchell,” a fur trading post between 1833 and 1837 was reported by Chittenden to be located “somewhere in what is now Gregory County.” However, no record of the exact location has been found.
Many trading posts were maintained at one time or another in this region. Some were called forts, although the first fort garrisoned with troops was established in 1855. By this time the fur trade had nearly disappeared.
Before the coming of the steamboat to this area, navigation of the Missouri does not appear to be extensive. It was associated chiefly with the fur trade.
The river was of great importance to the fur trade. Because of the many posts located along it banks, most of the furs obtained before 1865 in the northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountains found their way to market down its channel. The total value of the fur trade of St. Louis in 1860 was $529,000. Nearly all of which came down the Missouri River by boat, from beyond the limits of South Dakota. Today, the value of those furs would be $17,157,127.
Steamboat traffic on the Missouri had little influence on the industrial development of South Dakota, partly because of certain characteristics of the river. It was filled with silt and sand, swift, crooked, shifting, subject to fluctuations in volume and often very shallow at many points, obstructed by sandbars, and frozen over for a portion of the year. The muddy water of the Missouri, of necessity used by the steamers, caused many boilers to explode. Snags were numerous and severely damaged many boats.
Randall Island was two miles in length in the Missouri River near White Swan above the site of Fort Randall, from which it took its name. Throughout the years, it was also known as White Swan Island, Handy Island, and Three Sister Island. When Lewis and Clark came through the area on September 8, 1804, there were three islands instead of one which appeared on the Warren Maps of 1855-57. The 1909 Gregory County Township Map shows that Randall Island was then owned by three members of the Beebe family.
Strehlow Island was one and one-half miles long about two miles upstream from Randall Island. It is partly evident but not named in the Missouri River Survey Maps of 1892 and the Missouri River Commission Maps of 1892-1895. It was 172.5 miles above the mouth of the Big Sioux River.
Big Cedar Island, also referred to as Chicot Island, was located in the Missouri River directly south of Geddes. It was also identified as Joe Ellis Island, Barber Island, Boat Island, and Great Cedar Island. It was especially important that those who traveled up and down the river understood that there were no less than four large islands historically known as “Cedar Island,” with many variations thereof, between Fort Randall and Fort Pierre. This made it all very confusing to historians and topographers. Merrill Mates wrote: “For our purposes, this will be known as ‘Big Cedar Island,’ as distinct from ‘Little Cedar Island’ and ‘Cedar Island’ farther upstream.”
On Saturday, September 8, 1804, Captain Clark, one of the leaders of the “Corps of Discovery” wrote in his journal: “Came on to the lower point of an Island in the Middle of the river (Boat Island, Chicot Island) and incamped.” Sargent Ordway, in his diary on the same day wrote: “. . . we proceeded on about 1 ½ miles and camped on the lower point of a handsome Timbered Island on which we saw a large group of buffalo.”
Captain Clark, on Sunday, September 9, 1804, wrote: “Set out at Sunrise and proceeded on passed the head of the island on which we camped, passed three Sand & willow Islands, the sand bars so numerous, it is not worth mentioning them, the river shallow.”
The noted naturalist James Audubon camped on Great Cedar Island in 1843. He wrote in his journal: “. . . to camp at the lower end of Great Cedar Island. We cut some timber for oars.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on July 14, 2021