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Yankton, Dakota Territory

First capital of Dakota Territory, located on the Missouri River north of Nebraska.

So here we are in South Dakota. Yankton certainly bids us hail and farewell. – Laura Ingalls Wilder, June 10, 1931.

Yankton was part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1804. A year later, President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark up the Missouri River from St. Louis to explore the northern reaches of the new territory.

Led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the expedition, known as the Corps of Discovery, moved up the river and reached the area now known as Yankton in late August 1804. They signed a peace treaty with the Yankton Sioux Indians, formalizing the deal on what is now called Calumet Bluff on the south side of the river about five miles west of the present-day site of Yankton.

According to legend, Lewis and Clark made a token gesture of peace by wrapping a newborn Indian baby in an American flag. That baby grew up to become the Sioux chief Struck-By-The-Ree, who was one of the moving forces behind the Treaty of 1858 which opened up much of what would become Dakota Territory for settlement.

The treaty set the stage for the founding of Yankton. The first settlements were built along a stream then known as Rhine Creek (it was changed to Marne Creek during World War I, honoring America’s French ally and snubbing the Germanic heritage of the original moniker). The early settlement was often referred to as Old Strike’s Camp of Charlie’s Town, so named after early settler Charles Picotte.

The city was a thriving river town in its early days and was designated as the first capital of Dakota Territory.

Yankton faced its first real frontier threat with the Scare of 1862. When the Santee Sioux of Minnesota instigated an uprising against the surge of white settlers, and the hostility sent shockwaves into neighboring Dakota. Although no war ever developed in the Yankton area, some violence was reported east of the village near Mission Hill. The Yankton stockade was built to house all area white settlers. Fortunately, it was never needed and the stockade was dismantled.

America’s will to move west made Yankton an important crossroads. In 1873, Lt. Col. George Custer brought his Seventh Calvary to Yankton on its way west to the Black Hills — a mysterious and alluring bank of mountains where the discovery of gold would soon change the territory forever. Custer, his wife Libbie and his soldiers were in Yankton for three weeks in the spring of 1873, enjoying the booming city’s hospitality and surviving a ferocious April blizzard. Also, Custer battled pneumonia at this time and was gravely ill at one point. Although Custer’s stay in Yankton was brief, his impact on its history still remains.

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, it had a ripple effect throughout Dakota Territory. Yankton also felt this effect with the arrival of thousands of prospectors and dreamers. The town’s weekly newspaper, the Press and Dakotoian, began publishing daily editions of a section called the Yankton Black Hiller to meet the hungry information needs of the gold-miners. This led to the Press and Dakotoian becoming a daily in April 1875.

The gold rush brought people of all types and characters west. On Aug. 2, 1876, the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, sheriff of the booming Black Hills town of Deadwood, was gunned down while playing cards in the Number 10 Saloon. His accused murderer, Jack McCall, was apprehended — exact whereabouts are in dispute — and his trial was held in the territorial capital of Yankton. McCall was convicted and hung on March 1, 1877.

The Missouri River, the giver of life for so many frontier towns in the 19th century, was also one of Yankton’s chief tormentors. Periodic floods were destructive and deadly, and simply crossing the river was a precarious task.

In 1873, the arrival of the Dakota Southern Railroad ushered out the riverboat era. Riverboat trading boomed until the floods wiped it out. Yankton became known as the “Fountain City” because of the artesian well development.

In 1882, Bismarck (in current North Dakota) replaced Yankton as the capital of Dakota Territory. Pierre has been the capital since statehood in 1889.

In 1891, Little House character Reverend Edward Brown left his home in De Smet and moved to Yankton, South Dakota.

In 1894, the Wilder and Cooley families crossed the Missouri River at Yankton (see On the Way Home). The map above is from that same year.

When Laura and Almanzo Wilder traveled to De Smet by car in 1931, they were in Yankton on June 10 (see A Little House Traveler). Wilder didn’t describe the car crossing of the Missouri, but their crossing would have been over the bridge shown in the period postcard. Wilder did report that the traffic was bad in Yankton!


Yankton, Dakota Territory (SSL 22; OTWH)
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     travel through (TRB)