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The upper Missouri valley was first made known to the world by French colonials who entered it from present-day Canada during the mid-18th century and, a few years later, by French-speaking subjects of Spain, coming up the Missouri River from the southeast. For more than a century, travel into the northern Plains was chiefly by water—at first in dugout and bark canoes, and later in steamboats. By the 1850's, the steamboats had reached the head of navigation, the trading post of Ft. Benton, at the very gates of the rockies and more than 2,000 miles from the mouth of the Missouri.

Many explorers and travelers were to pass up the Missouri into the northern Plains, among them the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806. Traders soon established themselves along the river, intent on profits to be made through supplying factory-made goods in exchange for fine furs, buffalo robes, hides, and other native products gathered by the Indians. Traders were followed by soldiers and later by ranchers, farmers and townsmen; before the end of the 19th century, the old life of the Indians had vanished.

The first White persons known to have visited this part of the Missouri valley were exploring parties from the western Great Lakes, led by la Verendrye and his sons, members of a noteworthy family of old Quebec. In 1738, seeking routes that would lead even farther west, they visited a people called the Mandan, who lived in earth-lodge villages near present Bismarck, capital of North Dakota. In 1743 they met other village peoples, probably the Arikara or Ree, in the vicinity of Ft. Pierre, South Dakota. Near the latter place they even buried a lead plate in token of their claim of the west for their king, Louis XV of France. The plate was rediscovered long afterward, and is now exhibited at the South Dakota State Historical Society Museum in Pierre.

Following these first know contacts with the Indians, more than half a century elapsed before trade into the region was reestablished, now chiefly from St. Louis, which had been founded in 1764. Such trade goods as had reached the Indians in the interval—and numerous trade objects have been found in excavations at native village sites—had probably passed from hand to hand between various tribes. This physical evidence of contact proves how attractive were the White men's goods.

By the year 1803, when the vast Louisiana Territory was purchased by the United States, several traders had established regular commerce in the region, operating from houses they had built at strategic points along the river. Lewis and Clark's party, ascending the Missouri in 1804, met several of these veteran traders. Knowing the region at first hand, these all but forgotten pioneers provided useful information of the sort that could be learned only by living among the Indians. None of the traders was more helpful than Pierre-Antoine Tabeau, who had lived with the Arikara, and whose entertaining recollections of his experiences have been preserved.

Another early journey through this part of the valley was that of the Wilson P. Hunt party sent out by John Jacob Astor. In 1811 they ascended the Missouri as for as the Grand River, from which point they boldly struck westward, marching overland to reach the famous Pacific Fur Company post of Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River, early the next year.

Though these early explorers and travelers seldom tarried long in the Oahe area, their passage and repassage through it helped to make the region known. Further attempts were now made by traders to exploit its rich natural resources of furs and hides. An important early venture of the kind was that of the Missouri Fur Company, organized in 1809 by William Clark and other prominent citizens of St. Louis. In the fall of 1812, under the direction of a vigorous partner, Manuel Lisa, a post for trade with the Arikara was built near the present northern boundary of South Dakota. Fort Manuel, as the post was called, was probably established to keep the Indians from dealing with British traders to the north. The hope of keeping the Indians of the valley favorable to American interests failed, however, and the post was abandoned the following spring, after only one winter of use. The dislocations of the war of 1812-14 prevented successful trade in the region for several years.

At Fort Manuel, during the evening of December 20, 1812, according to the post journal, the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, "a 'Snake' Indian woman died of a fever, aged about 25 years, leaving a 'fine infant girl'." Many historians believe that this was the famous Sakakawea (or Sacajawea), the "Bind Woman," who with her husband had been of great usefulness as a guide to the "Corps of Discovery" of Lewis and Clark. A monument commemorating Sakakawea's services stands today opposite the city of Mobridge, overlooking the broad Missouri valley.

View of Fort Sully as it appeared about 1890. A major military post, Fort Sully was used from 1866 until 1894, supplying troops for Indian campaigns until the frontier was pacified. Photo: Courtesy of the U. S. National Park Service

Trade prospects on the upper Missouri appeared more favorable during the 1820's. Andrew Henry of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, a new St. Louis firm, attempted to reopen the trade with a post at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, but with scant success. The following year, probably as a result of a misunderstanding, Henry's associate, William H. Ashley, and his party—which included the famous Hugh Glass and Jedidiah Smith—were attacked near the Arikara villages above the Grand River, with a loss of several men. This in turn led to an assault upon the Arikara by a combined force of soldiers, trappers and Sioux allies, but the action was indecisive.

During the decade following, control of the Indian trade in this region rapidly came into the hands of still another prominent St. Louis firm, that of Pierre Chouteau, Jr. and Company, which had acquired the western trading interests formerly controlled by Astor. In 1831 the Chouteau firm had two chief trading centers—Ft. Union, at the mouth of the Yellowstone, and Ft. Pierre Chouteau, at the mouth of the Bad River—in addition to many lesser posts. From these bases the firm was usually able to outwit the various combinations of other traders who attempted from time to time to oppose it. The hey-day of the Indian trade in this areas was reached in the late 1830's and early 1840's. During these years various noteworthy visitors began systematic, serious studies of the Indians. Among the best known of these were George Catlin and Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuweid.

In 1862, after some years of relative quiet, troubles with the Eastern (Santee) Sioux of Minnesota spread westward to the more numerous Teton tribes of the great Sioux nation. In 1863 Gen. Alfred Sully was sent to punish these tribes, in the first of several years of campaigns through the region. Several miles below present Pierre, opposite Farm Island, he established a post called Ft. Sully, which in 1866 was removed some 25 miles upstream, to a more satisfactory location. During the 1870's and 1880's, the new post grew to be one of the largest in the area. It provided troops for campaign and guard duties and was commanded for a number of years by Gen. David S. Stanley, whose name was given to the modern Stanley County, South Dakota. The site of the second Fort Sully will ultimately be flooded by the reservoir.

Fort Yates (Standing Rock Indian Reservation), North Dakota, as it appeared in 1952. Established in 1873 as a military post, it became one of the most important in the Dakotas during the 1880's. For several years, it was the home of the famous Sitting Bull, who was killed nearby in 1890. No longer needed for military purposes, the post was transferred to the Office of Indian Affairs in 1903. Photo: Courtesy of the U. S. National Park Service

Fort Rice, another early military post, was also established by Sully in 1864. The site is now a State Park and two of the log blockhouses have been reconstructed on their original locations. Soon afterward, near present Mandan, Ft. McKeen was added, shortly to be enlarged and renamed Ft. A. Lincoln, a post well remembered because of one of its commanders, Gen. George A. Custer. It was from here that Custer marched to defeat at the battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana.

The building of forts in the region, for both infantry and cavalry, coincided with the establishment of Indian reservations and agencies for the various divisions of the Sioux nation. The Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota and the Standing Rock Reservation in South and North Dakota, both west of the river, are the two that are still maintained. The military bases were abandoned long ago.

Religious missions were also established in the area by several Christian denominations. The first of these was the Oahe Mission itself, established in 1874 by Rev. Thomas L. Riggs for the American Board of Foreign Missions. The Oahe mission chapel, built in 1877, has been removed from its original location in the flooded area of the Peoria Bottoms just upstream from the Oahe Dam. It is to be relocated in the east overlook area of the dam and will be landscaped and made available for church services in the near future. It will be under the administration of the South Dakota State Historical Society and the relocation is a cooperative project of the Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, and the Historical Society.

Ranchers at the town of Evarts, about 1906. Built in 1900 as a railhead on the Missouri, Evarts soon claimed to be "the largest stock shipping point in the great northwest." With the construction of the Milwaukee Railroad bridge across the Missouri, and the growth of Mobridge, Evarts lost its importance and eventually became a ghost town. Photo: Courtesy of the U. S. National Park Service

Permanent White settlement, which had become a strong current in the 1870's, rose to a flood of immigration during the next decade, as large parts of the Sioux Indian Reservations were opened for legal settlement. The modern history of the region can be said to have begun in the year 1889 when, on November 2, the two parts of the former Territory of Dakota were simultaneously admitted to the Union as North and South Dakota.

During the era of steamboat transportation, which lasted until the 1880's, millions of pounds of freight were carried to and from the numerous tiny river towns and landings that had sprung up along the Missouri River. In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Bismarck, and in 1882 continued beyond the Missouri toward the Pacific Northwest. In 1880 the Dakota Central, now the Northwestern Railroad, reached Pierre, and in 1906 was extended westward to the Black Hills. These rail lines soon replaced the steamboat and as a consequence, many thriving villages which had been dependent on river transportation rapidly declined, some of them to become ghost towns.

In 1906, a third railroad, the Milwaukee, crossed the Missouri, and the city of Mobridge, named for the crossing, came into being. These rail facilities were in time to be supplemented by truck-freight lines, using modern hard-surface, year-round highways. Busses and airplanes came later, supplementing the ever-increasing number of private motor vehicles. In less than a century, the region was thus permanently settled, quickly passing from the era of the horse to that of the jet plane.

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Last Updated: 08-Sep-2008