Navigation Menu+

Jim River / James River

The James River, also known as the Jim River or Dakota River, is a tributary of the Missouri River, running approximately 710 miles from Wells County, North Dakota to join the Missouri River in Yankton County, South Dakota.

The information comes from a pretty reliable source that the Tracy branch of the Winona & St. Peter railroad, which is now under contract to be built to the James river, will be extended next year two hundred miles further… — Brookings Co. D.T. Press, August 28, 1879.

noteThe James or Dakota River, or as it is locally known, the “Jim” river, which drains the country lying between the Red River and its tributaries of the north and the Sioux and Vermillion rivers of the south, on the east, and the Missouri River on the west, is not navigable. It has its source in the central part of North Dakota, and flows in a southerly course to its junction with the Missouri, on the extreme southern boundary of the territory. From source to mouth it has a length, counting numerous bends and curves, of over 500 miles, and is the longest stream wholly in Dakota Territory, and the longest stream in the United States solely within one commonwealth. The valley of the James river is of great width, and may be described as one vast prairie extending a distance north and south of nearly 400 miles. The fame of the fertility of its soil has had much to do with the rapid settlement of central Dakota. The valley of the James river is the greatest artesian well district known. Artesian wells are found in all parts of Dakota, but those in this valley are notable for having the heaviest pressure and greatest volume of any in the world. — Frank H. Hagerty, The Territory of Dakota (Aberdeen: Daily News Print, 1889), 47.

noteCharles Ingalls wrote that during the winter spent in the Surveyors’ House (see By the Shores of Silver Lake), the Ingallses’ closest neighbors were either on the Jim River (34 miles to the west) or in Brookings (42 miles to the east). Of course this wasn’t true; there were other settlers here and there between the Big Sioux and the Jim, but it made a good story. The railroad had stopped work on its line west that winter, with rumors abounding that De Smet was to be the location of the crossroads, prompting many more people to file on claims in the area. The division went to Huron, laid out just west of the Jim, however. The 1882 railroad map above right shows part of Beadle County with the James River (Dakota River on this map) colored in blue, Kingsbury County, and Brookings County.

As you drive from De Smet west on Highway 14, you will cross the James River just outside of Huron. Turn south on Jersey Avenue, N.E. and crossing 3rd Street, S.E., you will find Riverside Park, a popular tourist destination located adjacent to the James River — much safer than trying to snap a photo from busy Highway 14 as I did one winter.

During his time as Superintendent of the Home Missionary Society in the Dakotas, Reverend Stewart Sheldon sent regular reports back east. Below is part of a report about his time in Beadle County and Kingsbury County during the winter of 1879-1880. He writes about the Jim River, his report sounding vaguely familiar to readers of the Little House books. In it, he describes an early worship service in a settler’s home. Could Rev. Sheldon have been writing about the February 1880 service at the Surveyors’ House with the Ingalls family and others?

In the James river valley, as one would naturally say in New England — in the Jim, as they would say out here — fifteen hundred miles of railroad are projected, and nine hundred miles of it completed, in a single year, and this through regions comparatively unknown twelve months before. It is marvelous to see how the work goes forward. Great, mammoth machines are used, to each of which are attached twelve span of mules or horses, these machines tearing into the ground and throwing up an embankment for a railroad bed for more than a hundred miles in length, while in other places squads of men work with their plows and scrapers. Once in about a dozen miles a town site is projected. Depots, hotels, stores, saloons, blacksmith shops, carpenter shops, dwelling houses and the like go up like magic.

For the time being, great railroad kings seem to rule in these new regions, and everybody cheerfully submits to the new order of things. At a point similar to scores of places, the sanctuary for the Sabbath is a little rough structure of one room, containing a bed, a cooking stove and a family of six persons, while it serves as a public house also, where no less than thirty or forty people take their meals, and eight or ten men crowd up to their bunks for the night in a little attic so low that they can not begin to stand up straight, and where railroad magnates, homesteaders, bricklayers, carpenters, well diggers, and missionary pack themselves away for sleep and rest, all good natured, and all glad to get as good quarters as this, even.

It is a wonderful departure in the settling up of a new country. The most gigantic railroad building, with nothing but the right of way, which sometimes has to be purchased, goes in advance of civilization, and challenges the world to come and select free farms where a market is furnished before there is time to raise a crop, and where facilities for a speedy transit to the great centers of the East are provided at once.

Then suddenly does the engine whistle wake the prairies where hitherto the Indian war whoop and the crack of the red man’s rifle have been the principal music.

Surely a nation is born in a day. The wild prairies quickly blossom like the rose.

The ground strewn with the bleaching bones of the buffalo soon exhibits fruitful fields of wheat and corn; and the antelope and deer give way to herds of cattle and flocks of sheep.

Thousands of farms are everywhere taken, as a gift from Uncle Sam.

— Rev. Stewart Sheldon, Report of the Home Missionary Society, Missionary Congregational Churches in Dakota, in Gleanings by the Way (Topeka: George W. Crane & Co., 1890), 215-216.


Jim River (SSL 7, 15, 23; TLW 28; PG)