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]

The next day, while moving up the Missouri along the western boundary of the Hupan Kutey, two elk swam in front of the bow of the expedition’s keelboat. Several of the men quickly grabbed their rifles and shot at the startled animals, killing both of them.[3] Later that same day, the explorers saw another elk standing on a sandbar. On the following day, August 24, while still in the vicinity of the Hupan Kutey, Clark and two companions killed another four elk and wounded two others.[4]

Joseph Whitehouse, one of the few enlisted men of the expedition who kept a journal, confirmed not only the existence of the large prairie between the lower Big Sioux and Missouri rivers, but also noted that the prairie contained superb pasturage for wild grazers. He wrote, “The Country here is very Rich Priari land, having very high Grass on it…& affords a pleasant view.”[5]

Almost forty years after Lewis and Clark first viewed the Hupan Kutey, Edward Harris traveled up the Missouri with John James Audubon aboard the steamboat Omega. As soon as the Omega passed the mouth of the Big Sioux, Harris noted in his diary that along the east bank of the Missouri, “Elk tracks have been seen at every landing place, and today more numerous than ever.”[6]

Harris’s traveling companion observed the same thing in the same area. Audubon wrote, “We saw abundance of tracks of Elk, Deer, Wolf, and Bear, and had it been anything like tolerably dry ground, we should have had a good deal of sport.”[7] Audubon had wanted to bag one of the prairie’s elk, but he never got a chance. Riverside swamps had kept him from entering the Hupan Kutey.

When the Omega later stopped at the trading post located at the mouth of the Vermillion River, which sat on the northwestern edge of the Hupan Kutey, the agent there informed Audubon that near the fort “game was abundant, such as Elk, Deer, and Bear….”[8]

On his downriver trip in the fall of 1843, Audubon decided to try his luck again. This time he hoped to kill a large bull elk during the height of the rut. On September 28, he disembarked from his boat on the east bank of the Missouri about midway between Fort Vermillion and the mouth of the Big Sioux. Once inside the Hupan Kutey, he saw three elk cows, but didn’t shoot any of them. Later, he spotted a massive bull with a huge rack and a neck as thick as “a flour-barrel.” But before he could get off a shot, the animal ran toward the Missouri, jumped into the water, and swam to safety. Audubon departed the prairie the next day without having taken a trophy elk.[9]

Elk continued to inhabit the lands in and around the Hupan Kutey until at least 1850. In the spring of that year, Thaddeus A. Culbertson, who was traveling overland along the Missouri Valley to Fort Pierre, stopped for a night at Theophile Bruguier’s cabin on the Iowa side of the Big Sioux near its mouth. That evening, Bruguier and his two Yankton wives prepared Culbertson “a most excellent dinner of good wheat bread, Elk meat, potatoes and coffee.”[10] The dinner’s elk meat almost certainly came from a nearby area, quite possibly the Hupan Kutey.

The Yankton Dakota name for the prairie and the journal accounts of Clark, Whitehouse, Harris, Audubon, and Culbertson indicate that the land immediately northwest of the Big Sioux-Missouri River confluence had been prime elk habitat during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The historical record points to two likely reasons this area attracted so many elk.

First, grass grew thick and tall across the Hupan Kutey. But it wasn’t just any grass. It was big bluestem. And big bluestem is an exceptional forage plant, rich in nutrients and protein, and one that elk grazed heavily upon during the summer months.[11]

The second reason for the abundance of elk in the area had to do with water. The prairie’s low elevation in relation to the Missouri and Big Sioux rivers, its pancake flat topography, and its heavy mat of grass and roots meant that it acted as a sort of prairie sponge, pulling in water from the uplands and from the Big Sioux and Missouri rivers and collecting it in wetlands, shallow streams, riverside bogs, oxbow lakes, and porous soils.

In 1811, keelboat passenger Henry Brackenridge commented on the prairie’s watery character. “The banks [here] are very low, and must be inundated every season…It was with difficulty that we could obtain dry land this evening, the water in most places, flows into the woods.”[12]

In April 1850, Thaddeus Culbertson witnessed the Missouri spilling its floodwaters out across the Hupan Kutey. While in the prairie’s northwestern corner near today’s Burbank, South Dakota, he wrote, “…we came on to the water which filled the low part of the prairie from the high stage of the Missouri; here we were completely at a stand for a time, for this water passes down the prairie into the Big Sioux so that there was no possibility of going around it, and there might be 10 feet of water in some parts.”[13]

The water that flowed into the prairie not only promoted the growth of big bluestem, it also provided drinking water to the area’s grazers during the driest months of the year. But most importantly, the bogs and spongy interior lands protected elk against wolves and hunters.

Wolves had a hard time pursuing the long-legged elk into the area’s swamps, across its miles of sodden grassland, and along the inundated, timbered banks of its rivers. European-American hunters, especially those on foot, avoided the prairie for a similar set of reasons. They became disoriented in the midst of its tall grasses, bogged down by its mud and tangle of plants, and numbed by the cold water found in its wetlands. Audubon acknowledged that the Hupan Kutey’s saturated landscape made it a difficult place to hunt elk on foot.

Thus, the prairie served as an elk sanctuary until the middle of the nineteenth century. A place where the elk population remained high, even while their numbers crashed elsewhere along the Missouri Valley because of European-American overhunting and changes in habitat.

In June 1862, W.H.H. Fate trekked across northern Iowa to settle in southeast Dakota Territory. He wrote a brief description of the Hupan Kutey a few years before its radical environmental transformation, “…on the ridge bordering the Big Sioux, we looked over and first saw the great valley between the Big Sioux and the Missouri rivers. It was pretty; the wide expanse of green grass waving in the sunlight between the hills of the converging rivers.”[14]

Fate was one of thousands of homesteaders who settled southeast Dakota Territory in the 1860s and 1870s. Those settlers shot the last of the region’s elk, drained many of its wetlands, felled it forests, plowed under its tallgrass prairie, and planted wheat and corn in its rich soils. They did keep one reminder of the past. They named one of their towns “Elk Point.”


[1] State Department of History, South Dakota Historical Collections, Vol. XI, (Pierre, South Dakota: Hipple Printing Company, 1922), 64.

[2] Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 2, August 30, 1803 – August 24, 1804, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 496-504.

[3] Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 11, The Journals of Joseph Whitehouse, May 14, 1804 – April 2, 1806, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 60.

[4] Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 2, 496-504.

[5] Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Volume 11, 59.

[6] Edward Harris, Up the Missouri with Audubon: The Journal of Edward Harris, ed., John Francis McDermott, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), 65.

[7] Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and His Journals, Vol. I, ed., Elliot Coues, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960), 493.

[8] Ibid., 494.

[9] Maria R. Audubon, Audubon and His Journals, Vol. II, ed., Elliot Coues, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1960), 169.

[10] Thaddeus A. Culbertson, Journal of an Expedition to the Mauvaises Terres and the Upper Missouri in 1850, ed., John Francis McDermott, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 147, (Washington: GPO, 1952), 34.

[11] Adrian P. Wyderen and Robert B. Dahlgren, Food Habits of Elk in the Northern Great Plains, The Journal of Wildlife Management, Vol. 47, No.4, (Oct., 1983), pp.916-923, 919.

[12] Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, Vol. 6, Brackenridge’s Journal up the Missouri, 1811, (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 86.

[13] Culbertson, Journal of an Expedition, 40.

[14] W.H.H. Fate, Historical Glimpse of the Early Settlement of Union County, South Dakota, (Sioux City: Perkins Bros., Co., 1924), 19.

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