Big Bend Dam

I am curvilinear, efficient, and graceful in my lines.

I am an American engineering marvel.

But you believe my beauty only lies as deep as the lawn grass protecting my flanks.

You suppose my innards reek of dead river.

You think I hum an ugly song. Continue Reading »

The Swamp Pheasant

The rooster lived in a swamp full of slough grass, cattails, and stunted trees. As soon as I entered his home, I came upon a patch of matted grass and a small pile of dung pellets, a sign that a deer had recently bedded down at that spot. Moments later, a doe stood up less than twenty yards away, gave me a glance, let out a snort, turned her head, lifted her tail, and bounded off toward a thicket that grew along the margins of the bog. Continue Reading »

The Big Sioux: A Brief Environmental History

A view of the Big Sioux River north of Sioux City, Iowa, circa 1900. The excursion boat “Minnehaha” in the foreground. Photograph courtesy of the Sioux City Public Museum.

On Saturday, May 13, 1843, the steamboat Omega glided along the eastern edge of the Missouri River near today’s Sioux City, Iowa. As the sun set behind the bluffs to the west, the boat’s passengers and crew gazed apprehensively from the ship’s decks at an approaching thunderstorm.

On the wide Missouri a thunderstorm accompanied by high winds could pummel a steamboat, tossing it against snags, slamming it up against a cut bank, or pushing it atop a sandbar. Fearing for his vessel and its passengers, the Omega’s pilot guided the steamer into the mouth of the Big Sioux River. Once there, the boat’s roustabouts hurriedly roped the ship to the shore. Not long afterwards, the thunderstorm broke over the Omega, but thanks to the actions of the pilot and crew members, and the sanctuary offered by the Big Sioux, the storm did not damage the ship.

A famous passenger on board the Omega provided posterity with one of the few early descriptions of the Big Sioux River. Ornithologist John James Audubon wrote, “…[we] have entered the mouth of the Big Sioux River, where we are fastened for the night. This is a clear stream and abounds in fish….”[1] Audubon then listed a few of the animals found in the vicinity of the river, including geese, deer, and elk. Continue Reading »

“Sod Houses on Every Nearby 160 Acres”: The Agricultural Settlement of the Big Sioux Basin

The bottom at Sioux City, Iowa, circa 1864, view toward the west. Perry Creek flows along the tree line behind the houses. The Missouri and Big Sioux rivers are beyond the bluff (known as Prospect Hill) in the upper left corner of the photo.

The European-American settlement of the Big Sioux basin occurred in fits and starts. And like so much of the Big Sioux’s history, the settlement of the lands within its watershed was closely linked to events along the Missouri River.

In the late 1840s, the Upper Missouri bison robe trade began to collapse – a victim of its own unsustainable success.

The decline of the robe trade, and the loss of jobs that accompanied it, led to an exodus of European-Americans from the Upper Missouri Country. Continue Reading »

Catfishing Along the Missouri River

The Missouri has always been a catfishing river, but it was especially so in the nineteenth century, before the Army Corps of Engineers channelized and dammed it.

Ample habitat and a super abundance of food explain not only why there were so many catfish in the river, but also why some reached such impressive sizes. Continue Reading »

Pauper’s Grave

The land coughs black bile.

The soil shits oily sewage.

The prairie that once flickered with excitement is now listless and gray.

The only sounds are monotones.

Everyone here stares at someplace else. Continue Reading »

Wide Open

Accept your vitality, passion, and power.

Your energy is unbounded.

You are huge.

Think big thoughts.

Seek a horizontal perspective. Continue Reading »

A Great Deel of Elk Sign: A Dakota Tallgrass Prairie and Its Role as a 19th Century Elk Sanctuary

An extensive tallgrass prairie once covered what is today the southeasternmost corner of South Dakota. This prairie extended from the lower Big Sioux River on the east to the Missouri River on the west, and from the mouth of the Big Sioux in the southeast to the first line of low bluffs to the northwest.

This prairie was notable for its lush grasses and its abundance of elk.

The Yankton Dakota, who in the first half of the nineteenth century lived along the lower reaches of the Floyd, Big Sioux, Vermillion, and James rivers, referred to this prairie as the “Hupan Kutey” – or “the place where they shot elk.”[1]

Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition likely wrote the first English language descriptions of the Hupan Kutey. On August 22, 1804, explorer William Clark observed “a butiful large Prarie” northwest of the mouth of the Big Sioux River. That same night, the expedition camped on the western edge of the prairie in what is now Union County, South Dakota. Clark wrote in his journal that in the vicinity of the campsite there was “a Great Deel of Elk Sign fresh.”[2] Continue Reading »

Ten Interesting Facts About Life in the Upper Missouri Country in the Nineteenth Century

1. In the winter months, the Indians traveled across the frozen surface of the Missouri on dogsleds.

2. None of the Upper Missouri tribes navigated the Missouri in canoes. Rather, they employed bullboats for short trips and dugouts for longer journeys.

3. Both Indian and European-American hunters preferred bison cows over bison bulls. They considered the meat of the cows more flavorful and more tender than that of the bulls.

4. During the occasional epidemics that struck the region, the Indians practiced an extreme form of social distancing. They departed their villages along the Missouri and dispersed across the plains.

5. European-Americans referred to dried bison dung, which they used in heating and cooking fires, as “prairie wood.”

Continue Reading »

Indian Fishing Along the Upper Missouri

Historians and the general public think of the Indians who lived across the Upper Missouri Country in the 1800s as predominantly bison hunters. This isn’t entirely true. Many of the tribes actually practiced a mixed form of subsistence that included not only the pursuit of bison, but also the cultivation of crops, the gathering of wild fruits and vegetables, and fishing.

The Upper Missouri River once teemed with fish. Bigmouth buffalo, black bass, northern pike, perch, bluegill, and mooneye swam in the river’s clearer, calmer waters; while channel catfish, shovelnose sturgeon, pallid sturgeon, and spoonbill inhabited the river’s darker places.

Continue Reading »

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