Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
Pierre and Fort Pierre, South Dakota
Early Development of Pierre and Fort Pierre
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another 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 helped prevent floods from 1952 until 2011, when a large flood again impacted Pierre and Fort Pierre. The floods of 1881, 1952, 2011, 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.