A Note from Cottonwood Corners

With the construction of Fort Randall in Dakota Territory, on the west bank of the Missouri River just above the current Nebraska-South Dakota state line in 1856, the military occupation of the Upper Missouri had begun.  By 1860 two military posts had been established in the present state of Wyoming, one in Nebraska, and one in South Dakota.

The fort was established on June 26, 1856 on a plateau about one-quarter mile from the river.  It was soon discovered that the location was not adequate and the post was re-built in 1870-1872, about one-quarter of a mile farther from the river and slightly downstream from the original site.

It began as a prominent outpost on what was then the American frontier.  Its mission was to keep the peace among the various Indian tribes and the Indians and the settlers who moved into Dakota Territory.  It also provided for an established route between Fort Laramie, 300 miles to the west, and Fort Ridgely, 100 miles to the east.

The fort served as a supply base for future operations and forts farther up the river.  Steamboats from St. Louis regularly docked at the post to unload supplies, equipment, and personnel.

The Fort Randall Military Reservation was established by Executive Order on June 14, 1860.  It was reduced in size on September 8, 1867, and restored to its original limits on October 25 1870.  The establishment of homesteads and residences would not be permitted in this area.

Shortly after being established, it was determined that an area surrounding the fort needed to be provided as a buffer to prohibit the presence of squatters nearby.  Security around the fort became a serious issue and this resulted in the establishment of the Military Reservation on both sides of the river.

From the very beginning, squatters ignored the restriction of settling on the Military Reservation.  This problem would continue for thirty-seven years until the land south and west of the river became part of Nebraska and South Dakota in 1897.

The size of the reservation is difficult to determine.  One map shows an area ten miles wide and twenty-three miles long with about one-third lying east of the river.  The remainder is on the west side of the river.  A portion of that area on the east side of the river was included in the Yankton Indian Reservation which was established in 1852.

The southeastern border of the military reserve passed near the “Tower Butte” in Nebraska.  This is the site where Lewis and Clark camped and first encountered the prairie dog which had been reported earlier by the French fur traders.  Here, the “Corps of Discovery” spent considerable time and energy to capture one of the little critters.

The military reservation was surveyed by a member of the Fourth Artillery in the latter part of 1860.  To mark the reservation, permanent cast iron monuments six inches square and six feet tall marked “U.S. MIL. RES’N” were erected at each corner.  The two iron markers along the boundary in Nebraska were both stolen sometime around 1979.

In 2000, a bizarre twist of events occurred when a lawyer drove into the town of Lynch with the two monuments.  He had specific instructions in settling the estate of a client of his who had passed away several years earlier.  Apparently, his client had kept the monuments hidden, but indicated in his will that they be erected in the towns of Gross and Lynch after his death.

Today, visitors to Gross and Lynch in Boyd County can view the monuments which are now on display as a reminder of the past.  They have been permanently embedded and firmly fixed in concrete!

In the spring of 1884, a bill was introduced in the U. S. Senate calling for the abandonment of the Fort Randall and the surrounding Military Reservation.   The plan was to sell the buildings and open the military land to settlement.   However — “the citizens in the area rose up in vehement protest over the measure.  As a result of their concerns and those of voters in other areas, the Senators changed their mind.”

It appears that their arguments were well founded.  Post records show that from the late 1880s, troops from Fort Randall were dispatched to deal with a multitude of annoyances and problems.  In October of 1887, records show that two companies spent six weeks of detached duty at the Yankton Agency and ten soldiers were sent to the Pipestone Indian Reservation to remove some squatters.  Army personnel were also sent to the Lower Brule Agency to investigate some problems at that location.

Finally, the post was abandoned on October 29, 1893 and an executive order placed the reservation under control of the Interior Department for disposal.  The buildings were the first to be offered for sale at the appraised value.  The Fort Randall Military Reservation now contained 100,318 acres, 64,680 in South Dakota and 35,638 in Nebraska.  Within a year they were opened for settlement and once again “the rush was on.”

Jerome Greene, in his Fort Randall on the Missouri, suggests that the abandonment of the fort illustrates a fitting reflection on the changing times in the late 1800s.

A fort that had been established to keep the peace between the various Indian tribes and the settlers now witnessed the departure of its final army command composed entirely of Native Americans.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on March 9, 2022

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