The magnitude and rapidity of the changes of the river channel were remarkable. Many times there would be a shifting of two or three hundred yards in a few weeks into the bottom lands. Suddenly, land that was on one side of river was on the opposite shore.
Over one hundred and seventy-seven miles above the mouth of the Big Sioux River was “Martha’s Island.” It was named by Captain Joseph La Barge, an early Missouri steamboat captain for his wife. Mrs. La Barge is reported to be the first white woman to visit the new territory. She, with her husband, came to Fort Pierre in 1847.
It is doubtful if more than a handful of South Dakotans ever realized the importance and significance of having an island in the Missouri named for the wife of Joseph La Barge. Today, fewer folks know or realize the honor, dignity, and importance of that name. It is something which we should all be proud of as we try to make sense out of earlier events and conditions in the middle of America during the 1800’s.
Martha’s Island was located at the mouth of Scalp Creek in Gregory County. The Gregory County 1912 South Dakota Historical Atlas shows about one section of the island being owned by Peter Peterson. W. F. Sproul, a farmer owned about a quarter section of land at the south end of the island. He settled in Gregory County in 1890 and served as Sheriff for two years. The north part of the island was government land. Attached to the north end of the island was a sand bar of close to three hundred acres.
The Lewis and Clark crew stopped for dinner at 1:00 P.M. on September 9, 1804, at the mouth of Scalp Creek in Gregory County. They saw large herds of buffalo on the hills to the west.
It seems as though the name Martha’s Island, was mistakenly applied by a number of steamboat captains to “Hiram Wood Island” which is located twenty-five miles farther upstream. You can imagine the confusion and disastrous results when passengers and cargo were left at the wrong location? The history of the captain of a steamboat and his ethics were extremely important for the owner of the boat and the customers.
Fortunately, the Missouri River was blessed to have Captain La Barge and his wife make many trips up and down the river from St. Louis to the Rockies of Western Montana. He was one of the best known of the old-time river men. He spent his entire life on either the Missouri or Mississippi rivers, which he navigated from their source to their mouth. He was the first to ascend the Missouri as high as Sioux City.
The Daily Press and Dakotaian (Yankton) on April 4, 1878, reported: “Captain Joseph La Barge . . . made his first visit to the mountains in 1832, forty-six years ago. He is still strong and vigorous, and one of the best preserved men in the country for his age.”
“Pease Island” is shown on the Charles Mix County 1906 map as being located below Pease Creek. It was named for F. D. Pease, a Frenchman who settled on the island in 1857 and remained there for seven or eight years. He was the first representative of Charles Mix County in the Territorial Legislature. He provided cordwood to the passing steamboats. The General Meade was forced into winter quarters at Pease Island about ten miles southwest of Geddes, and thirteen miles above Fort Randall by the extraordinary early freezing in the fall of 1880. The crew went down to Yankton for the winter leaving the boat in care of S. M. Richardson and a young boy. During the long winter evenings this boy was regularly instructed in the mysteries of navigation, particularly that portion that relates to the spring smash up. On Saturday, March 27th the break-up came with a heavy flood and the Meade was torn from her fastenings and carried off in the raging torrent in a field of floating ice.
The boy was alone on the boat as it was racing downstream and when he reached Fort Randall he made himself heard on shore telling of his helpless situation. He asked that points below be notified so that a rescue plan could be devised.
From Randall all the lower points were notified and guards were kept out at Niobrara, Springfield, and Yankton throughout the night; however, the vessel did not appear. In the meantime, Mr. Richardson who was on the Charles Mix County shore finally overtook the boat eight miles below the fort. Even though the river was flooding outside its banks, he was somehow able to get aboard the boat. He succeeded in landing the boat over a quarter of mile from the river bank, back on the prairie. The Meade was uninjured.
According to the Charles Mix County 1906 Atlas, Pease Island was not surveyed by the government as it was considered a part of the mainland. The land between the island and mainland only contained water when the river was high. It had been filled with sand and seldom contained water. Much of the island had been washed away.
In February of 1912, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Durham were drowned while driving across the Missouri River ice on a cold winter night. They were returning after darkness had set in to their home on Pease Island, four miles down the river from Wheeler, when they drove into an air hole. A party of searchers was organized when their prolonged absence in the community created alarm. Neighbors found their platform spring buggy in an air hole, and the drowned horses were still attached to the buggy.
Mr. W. H. Menzie of Geddes, S.D., father of Mrs. Durham offered a reward of $200 if the bodies were found by April 1. It was believed that both bodies had been swept a considerable distance down the river and that their bodies would be washed up on either the Nebraska or Iowa shores. No records show that their bodies were ever recovered.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on July 21, 2021