A Note from Cottonwood Corners

South Dakota is one of the most misunderstood states in the United States.  A large part of this misunderstanding is a result of the American people’s lack of geographic knowledge and understanding.  However, one must not blame a lack of geographic knowledge just on outsiders.  There is even a lack of knowledge about South Dakota among the people living within the state and neighboring states.

Some South Dakota residents who move from the state like to impress their new neighbors with tales of blizzards and their hardy “pioneer roots.”  These tales, which are sometimes exaggerated and embellished, perpetuate fantasy, obliterate fact, and result in geographic foolishness in the minds of many folks.

South Dakota is the sixteenth-largest state in America.  It extends over an area of 77,047 square miles.  Its areal extent is greater than all of the New England States combined.  The state extends approximately 370 miles from east to west, and 210 miles from south to north.

The highest point in the state is Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills at 7,243 feet.  The lowest point in South Dakota is in the far northeastern corner of the state between Minnesota and South Dakota.  At that point, the land is only 965 feet above sea level.

Many believe that the lowest elevation in South Dakota is at the mouth of the Big Sioux River where the Missouri River forms the border between Iowa and Nebraska.  This is probably because the Missouri River enters the state north of Mobridge and has an average fall of .82 of a foot per mile.  However this varies, with the fall of the central portion of the state being steeper than either the upper or lower stretches of the river.  The variation across the state ranges from .76 to .92 of a foot per mile.

The most notable portion of the river in South Dakota is Big Bend.  The earliest explorers into the region all wrote about this site.  Lewis and Clark, on September 20, 1804 wrote:  “While the main party made its way around the Big Bend, or Grand Detour, of the Missouri, Drouillard and Shields went overland with the party’s horse to hunt and await the main group’s arrival.  Clark measured the narrowest strip of land across the bend as one and one-quarter miles and the distance by water around the bend as thirty miles.”

They described it practically as we know it today.  Two hundred and seventeen years have in no appreciable way changed the contour or width of the gorge.  We can all be thankful that the politicians and Corps of Engineers did not inundate this priceless portion of the river.

The Missouri River Basin occupies approximately one-sixth (almost 17%) of the land surface of the continental United States; however, it comprises less than one-twentieth (5%) of the population.  It is the heartland of the traditional frontier American West

This seemingly unending prairie land (the Great Plains) was the last major region in the United States to settle down to a peaceful routine.  Long after territories east of the Mississippi had been well populated and methodically “civilized,” the homeland of the American Indian and the wild empire of the buffalo attracted only the most rugged citizens — traders, trappers, soldiers, freighters, prospectors, and missionaries.

According to Doane Robinson, Radisson and Grosilliers were the first Europeans to penetrate deep into the forests of Canada, to negotiate trading agreements with the Cree Indians, to explore the upper reaches of the Mississippi and Missouri, and to establish the durable trading pattern which would lead to the founding of Hudson’s Bay Company.

In 1659, Grosilliers, along with his brother-in-law set out to explore the Great Lakes.

Robinson, in his Encyclopedia of South Dakota, writes:  “Historically Radisson and Grosilliers, before 1660 seem to have known of the stream (Missouri River) and learned of some of its features, mentioning a tribe of Indians living upon it who grew vegetables, evidently referring to the Arickara, and also giving a vague reference to the ‘little devils’ of Spirit Mound (north of Vermillion on Highway 19).”

It is a mystery how these two Frenchmen in their travels learned about the Missouri River, Arikaras, and the “little devils” at Spirit Mound.

The first white men known to have been on South Dakota soil were Francois and Louis Verendrye.  They visited the Arickara at their fortified post near the present site of Fort Pierre in 1743.  This was the “tribe of Indians” that Radisson and Grosilliers mentioned more than eighty-four years earlier.

The Verendrye brothers continued their travels westward, eventually reaching the Black Hills.  Their journey west ended when the Indians they were with refused to go any further.  The first white men to see the Black Hills were probably the Verendrye Brothers.

The Black Hills was not shown on any map prior to that of Lewis and Clark.  They are mentioned and identified in the Journal of Lewis and Clark for October 17, 1804.  At that time they were just north of the Cannonball River in North Dakota.  They were told by the Arikara chief that they had “observed numerous pronghorns crossing the Missouri headed toward their wintering spot in the Black Hills.”

Lewis and Clark (1804 – 1806) were the first to ascend the Missouri to its uppermost reaches, cross the Continental Divide, reach the Pacific Ocean, and return to St. Louis. However, there were many who preceded them in the exploration of the Great Plains.

 

Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on December 8, 2021

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