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Pierre and Fort Pierre, South Dakota 

Early Development of Pierre and Fort Pierre

View of Fort Pierre Postcard
View of Fort Pierre Postcard
State Archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society
Located along the west bank of the Missouri River in central South Dakota, the Fort Pierre plain is the oldest continuous area of white settlement in the State. The plain’s level terrain provided easy access to the Missouri River and the rolling hills formed a natural border to the west, which made the plain an ideal site for settlement. Artist George Catlin, who visited Fort Pierre Chouteau in 1832, said of the plain, “No site could have been selected more pleasing or advantageous than this; the Fort is in the center of one of the Missouri’s most beautiful plains.”

American Indian tribes were the first to recognize the advantages of the Fort Pierre plain. The Arikara and bands of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota were among the tribes that settled, traded, or passed through the plain. European exploration into the area began with the Verendrye brothers in 1743. Lewis and Clark followed in 1804 and 1806, and trader Manuel Lisa visited the Fort Pierre plain in 1811, noting, “There is a handsome plain, with a row of trees along the margin of the river, and a handsome wood along the border of a little rivulet [Bad River] which flows across the plain.”

European explorers and fur traders realized the natural benefits the area had to offer and soon established fur trading forts across the plain. They built Fort La Framboise in 1817 near the mouth of the Bad River. The Columbia Fur Company constructed Fort Tecumseh in 1822 about one mile north of the mouth of the Bad River and Fort Teton in 1828 about one mile south of Fort Tecumseh, the earlier site of Fort LaFramboise, and the two merged in 1830.  Built in 1832 by Pierre Chouteau, Jr., head of the Western Department of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, Fort Pierre Chouteau lies two miles north of Fort Tecumseh.  Located halfway between the headquarters at St. Louis and the northern-most posts in North Dakota and Montana, Fort Pierre Chouteau was the logical place for company officials to gather and discuss their business. The United States Army purchased Fort Pierre Chouteau in 1855, and it served as a military post until the army abandoned it in 1857.

Ft. Pierre Chouteau Watercolor by Frederick Behman 1854
Ft. Pierre Chouteau Watercolor by Frederick Behman 1854
National Archives

When General George Custer and the Seventh Cavalry discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874, the City of Fort Pierre began to grow because of the gold rush. The shortest route to the Black Hills for eastern gold seekers was by steamboat up the Missouri River to Fort Pierre and then overland across the Great Sioux Reservation, which was still only open to the American Indians. An act of Congress in 1877 opened the Black Hills to settlement and provided for three wagon roads to the Black Hills from the east, one of which was a 200 mile trail from Fort Pierre to Deadwood. The trail followed an old buffalo trail once used by fur traders and American Indians.  The Fort Pierre to Deadwood trail was an important factor in the settlement of the Pierre and Fort Pierre area. The trail, the fur trade, military posts, and the location along the river established the growing community. What was once a small settlement that existed merely for the support of the fur trade soon became an important component of the Black Hills gold rush. 

Steamboats on the Missouri contributed greatly to the economy of Fort Pierre by bringing people and supplies to the area. In 1876, newspapers reported that the “road from Fort Pierre was lined solid with freight wagons for 30 miles. At Deadwood, the streets were packed with wagons, bulls and mules.” Many new business opportunities developed that year to support the increasing freight business. Fort Pierre boasted a tavern, two hotels, post office, several stores and saloons. By 1880, Fort Pierre had a population of 300 but was still not platted or recognized as an organized town because of its technically illegal location on the Great Sioux Reservation.

In 1877, gold seekers on their way to the Black Hills camped across the river from Fort Pierre and became some of the first settlers in present-day Pierre who were not American Indians. At that time, Pierre had only one log cabin where travelers could stop for food and rest. Fort Pierre remained the primary settlement until the Chicago and North Western Railroad ended its track in Pierre in 1880. After 1880, the majority of the freight destined for Deadwood arrived in Pierre by rail rather than in Fort Pierre by steamboat. Many Fort Pierre businesses moved to Pierre, and Fort Pierre’s population dropped to fewer than 200. For several more years, freight continued to be ferried across the river to Fort Pierre for transport along the trail to Deadwood. The golden era of the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail ended, however, when the Chicago and North Western Railroad reached Deadwood from Nebraska in 1886, bypassing Pierre and Fort Pierre altogether.

Chicago & Northwestern Railroad Bridge
Chicago & North Western Railroad Bridge
Photo by Rick W. Mills, 2007

Platted in 1880 once the railroad arrived, Pierre did not have an organized government until 1883 or incorporate until 1887. Once Hughes County organized in 1880, the commissioners held a meeting to locate the county seat at Pierre and ordered a county seal. By the end of 1880, Pierre had 100 buildings and the population grew from a few dozen in January to nearly 500 by fall. By 1883, business growth was booming in Pierre by Dakota Territory standards. Both West Pierre (the current downtown area) and East Pierre vied for the major business district. East Pierre grew rapidly and was the site of the Wells House Hotel, Pierre University, Presbyterian Church, 48 other business buildings, and 80 houses. In 1884, William S. Wells, the owner of most of East Pierre, offered Henry Karcher $6,000 not to erect his new brick building in West Pierre. Karcher rejected this offer and moved forward with his building. With the construction of 10 more brick buildings on Pierre Street in 1884, West Pierre became the center of business in Pierre. In 1885, Pierre continued expansion with a new water works system that included water lines to all homes and businesses, a horse-drawn street railway between East and West Pierre, construction of Pierre University in East Pierre, a new hose house for the fire department, board sidewalks, and other street improvements.

In 1889, Congress enacted legislation that divided a portion of the Great Sioux Reservation into several reservations and opened the remaining land to homesteaders.  With the opening of the reservation, people flooded into Pierre and Fort Pierre in hopes of filing claims on the newly available land further west. 

Also in 1889, Congress passed the Enabling Act that divided Dakota Territory into two separate States. Several towns immediately contended to become the new State capital. Pierre emerged successful, and soon thereafter Pierre residents constructed a temporary wooden capitol. The election victory also sparked a building boom in Pierre that resulted in construction of the Locke Hotel, Pierre National Bank, and three new schools during this time. Pierre went through two more capital elections in 1890 and 1904. Pierre was successful on both occasions and became the permanent State capital. Following the 1904 election, South Dakota residents agreed to build a new permanent State capitol building. Construction of the new South Dakota State Capitol began in 1905 and was complete by 1910.

The building boom in Pierre continued once the issue of the State capital location was finally settled. Charles L. Hyde, who owned many lots along Capitol Avenue, began developing the hill district northwest of the capitol by building the Hyde Block in 1906. He went on to construct most of the Upper Pierre Street District and the St. Charles Hotel over the next five years. Construction of a railroad bridge across the Missouri River at Pierre and completion of track from Pierre to Rapid City by the Chicago and North Western Railroad in 1907 also spurred the building boom. The addition of around 200 more houses and many more businesses helped boost Pierre’s population to 3,656. 

South Dakota State Capitol
South Dakota State Capitol
Photo by South Dakota Tourism
With its incorporation in 1890, Fort Pierre organized a Board of Trade to advance the community. The board and the opening of the Great Sioux Reservation fueled business growth, but Fort Pierre did not really boom until the early 1900s. In 1903, Fort Pierre had 26 businesses along Deadwood Street and 18 along Main Avenue. The Stockgrowers Bank and F.S. Rowe & Company also constructed new buildings. 

In 1906, the Hamm Brewing Company of Minneapolis built a two-story brick building on the corner of Deadwood Street and Second Avenue. The Fort Pierre Bank also opened in 1906, later becoming Fort Pierre National Bank. The Fort Pierre Brickyard opened in 1907 and employed 30 people. The brickyard produced 50,000 bricks a day and provided the brick for several buildings in Pierre and Fort Pierre as well as the State Capitol in Pierre. The next year, an 18-bed hospital and the three-story brick F.B. Davis and Co. Hardware Store opened. By 1910, a growing Fort Pierre had 81 businesses, new utility services, a sewer system, graded streets, sidewalks, and fire protection. 

The Missouri River was vital to the start up and economic development of both Pierre and Fort Pierre. The river was the highway on which early travelers passed by the future site of the two towns and steamboats carried supplies and people to the area. The river also created a barrier until the completion of a railroad bridge in 1907. Until then, ferryboats transported people and goods across the river, or during the winter, they moved over the ice. The railroad bridge was important to the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail, because after 1880, most of the freight came by rail rather than steamboat. 

Fort Pierre 1952 Flood
Fort Pierre 1952 Flood
State Archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society
The river also caused considerable damage to Pierre and Fort Pierre. Before construction of the Oahe Dam three miles north of Fort Pierre in 1962, floods were extremely destructive to both communities. In 1881, the snow built up for five months beginning in October, and four feet of ice covered the river. When the snow began to melt in March, the fast rising river broke up the ice and created an ice dam at Farm Island four miles southeast of Pierre. The backed-up river quickly flooded the lower reaches of Pierre and Fort Pierre, and large chunks of ice crashed into buildings. During the flood, the river was estimated to be more than two miles wide. 

The last great flood overtook the area in April of 1952, reportedly flooding the same area as the 1881 flood. A warm spring rapidly melted the snow after heavy snowfalls all winter. The flood stage reached over 25 feet leaving two feet of water on the first floor of businesses and homes on the Pierre and Fort Pierre flats. The water measured 10 feet over the 15 foot flood stage set at the old 1926 highway bridge. The Oahe Dam helps prevent any more floods from occurring and supplies electricity to much of South Dakota. The floods of 1881 and 1952, and many smaller floods throughout the years, destroyed much of Pierre and Fort Pierre. After each disaster, the residents were determined to clean up, rebuild, and expand their cities.