Along the Pathways of Exploration: Fort Pierre, South Dakota
October 31, 2019
South Dakota may be sparsely populated but the landscape is grand. I passed miles and miles of fertile fields getting here, saw many herds of cattle and free antelope. The photos above and below this paragraph show the wide Missouri River in the central part of the state as taken from a hill above the old trading post of Fort Pierre.
Clinging to the west bank of the Missouri River, Fort Pierre was founded in 1832 as Fort Pierre Chouteau, a fur-trading post. Pierre Chouteau, Jr. was a prominent fur trader from St. Louis, and his name can be found on towns and streets as far west as Montana. But Chouteau wasn’t the first white man to arrive in this area.
Not even Captains Lewis and Clark can make that claim.
Two French explorers, Francois and Louis-Joseph Verendrye arrived here on March 30, 1743 during an expedition from French-held Quebec. Claiming the region for the King of France, the Verendrye brothers left a lead plate buried in a hill above the river to mark their claim. The Verendryes are thought to be the first Europeans to have crossed the Great Plains to see the Rocky Mountains. In 1803 the United States would purchase this claim from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
170 years later on February 16, 1913, two boys discovered the Verendrye’s lead plate, which had since been forgotten. The historical marker below provides further details. The grand landscape photos shown above were taken from this natural vantage point.
Down the hill from the Verendrye site lies the old town of Fort Pierre. It’s small — only 2,000 inhabitants today — but can still brag that it’s grown exponentially from its days as a fur trading post. Here are some photos around town. Most of these buildings can be found along Deadwood Street:
I remained very quiet while taking this next photo of a sleeping dog and a juicy bone. I was careful not to wake the dog nor approach the bone.
Fort Pierre is also the county seat of Stanley County, South Dakota. Their courthouse was built in 1976 and looks new and well-kept. The buffalo statue is appropriate for the region.
There’s more history to this place than just the Verendryes though. Just two blocks south of the Verendrye Museum is a small city park at the junction of the Bad River and the Missouri. It was at this spot in late September, 1804, 61 years after the Verendryes, that American explorers Captains Lewis and Clark had their famous confrontation with the Teton Sioux.
For details of the confrontation I can recommend Stephen Ambrose’s fine “Undaunted Courage,” page 170, but in short here’s what happened. The Sioux sought a test of wills with the white explorers and demanded additional presents from Lewis and Clark — a tribute of sorts — in order to allow them to continue up the Missouri. The Americans refused. Guns were drawn, bows were strung and aimed, and even the American’s cannon mounted on their keelboat was aimed at the Indians on shore. But no shots were fired. The Sioux backed down, and Lewis and Clark continued on their way.
The settlement around old Fort Pierre grew slowly after its founding. By the 1840s the fur trade had declined precipitously. In 1880 the town of Pierre, South Dakota was founded on the east bank of the Missouri across from Fort Pierre. Because the railroad reached the east side of the river before the west, Pierre grew quickly and was eventually designated state capital of South Dakota.
Although Pierre has the state’s capitol, Fort Pierre has the better history.
All photos taken by the author on October 7th and 8th, 2010.
A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.