Smithsonian Institution Logo Gavins Point Dam—Lewis & Clark Lake
Geology, Paleontology, Archeology, History
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The fur traders, explorers, and pioneer settlers of our West were not the first to make use of the area that is now the Lewis and Clark Lake. The true pioneers were the American Indian for whom the river valley was a highway and a home, providing shelter, wild game and garden plots of fertile soil. Prehistoric remains in or adjacent to the reservoir are not present in large numbers, but the scattered "camp" sites and burial areas attest a long occupation. The first inhabitants who left any archeological record were the Woodland peoples who lived along the small tributary streams that flow into the valley. Today their camp or village sites are marked by hearths, broken bones, potsherds and stone tools, deeply buried in the earthfill of streamcut terraces. The Woodland people of the Gavins Point Reservoir have not been well studied, but it seems probable that they are related to the Woodland culture found elsewhere in Nebraska and South Dakota, dating from the first thousand years after Christ.

Evidences of later village-dwelling farmers are lacking within the boundaries of the reservoir, probably because suitable locations providing larger village areas and farm plots are absent. The St. Helena Focus, somewhat divergent representatives of the Upper Republican peoples of the Central Plains, is localized to the east of the reservoir. At the time of first White contact in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Siouan Ponca were living on the Niobrara River to the west, but they also claimed much of the reservoir area. It is probable that the territory was also visited by Oto, Omaha, and Pawnee. The Lewis and Clark accounts refer to Yankton Sioux on the northern bank of the river.

Later, several years after the Sioux uprising of 1862, a reservation was established here for the offending Minnesota Santee (Sioux). Today, only a subagency is active.

Gavins Point Dam, Lewis and Clark Lake. (click on image for a PDF version)

The region including the Gavins Point Reservoir was reached by fur traders some years before the memorable Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. Juan Munier claimed to have discovered the Ponca living on the Niobrara in the year 1789 and obtained a Spanish permit for exclusive trade with the tribe. In 1794, Jean Baptiste Truteau, en route to the Mandan villages in modern North Dakota, spent the winter of 1794-95 upstream from the reservoir, near Fort Randall. Other traders are known to have journeyed through the area before the close of the century; still others probably left us no record of their passing. Several fur posts or trading "forts" were established adjacent to the reservoir, but they never achieved great importance; they remain obscure, and their history, and even exact locations, are largely unknown.

In the 1850's, the lands on both sides of the river were opened to White settlement, but even earlier, parties of Mormons had wintered near the mouths of the Niobrara and Vermillion Rivers. Towns, such as Ponca, Ionia, St. Helena, Niobrara, and Frankfort, appeared, but settlement was restricted to the Nebraska side of the Missouri. The Yankton held the northern shore until 1859. Only then were Vermillion, Bon Homme, Yankton, and other towns established on the north bank.

Prior to the coming of the railroads, the Missouri River formed the principal highway to the Northern Plains. First by keelboat and bateau, and soon by steamboat, the river formed the most practical route to the opening Northwest. The most intensive period of navigation came in the late 1860's and early 70's, reaching a climax in 1873 with the completion of the railroad to Bismarck. For a short period, the city of Yankton was a major transshipment point on the river. River traffic retained a degree of importance, but with additional railroad construction and a growing highway system, steamboat commerce shrank to disappearance by the 1920's.

This rich agricultural region was little disrupted by the Indian alarms that loomed so large in other parts of the West. Although the settlers were fearful of Indian attack during the Minnesota uprising of 1862, the Yankton remained friendly. Under mission influence, Indians established in the vicinity of Gavins Point made steady progress in the adoption of White Man's ways, and the reservations were eventually opened to White settlement.

Today the Gavins Point area, with its major center at Yankton, South Dakota, reflects its untroubled past. It remains an agriculturally productive and commercially active segment of our Near West.

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Last Updated: 08-Sep-2008