“Flowers Filling the Eye”: Remembering the Missouri River’s Forgotten Islands

MissouriRiverIslandNearVermillionSD

In the nineteenth century, the Missouri River below the mouth of the James River possessed a large number of sandbars but almost no islands. But north and west of the James, where the Missouri River trench narrowed and the river’s course became less erratic, luxuriant islands sprawled out in the river channel. Certain islands became popular among keelboat and steamboat passengers for their breathtaking beauty.

In 1833, German prince Maximilian of Wied provided a description of Little Cedar Island, near today’s Lake Andes, South Dakota: “On…the 16th of May, having passed a village of prairie dogs, we reached, at nine o’clock, the [Little] Cedar Island, which is said to be 1,075 miles from the mouth of the Missouri. On the steep banks of this long narrow island, which lies near the south-west bank, there were thickets of poplars, willows, and buffalo berry; the rest of the island is covered with a dark forest of red cedars…. The notes of numerous birds were heard in the gloom of this cedar forest, into which no ray of sun could penetrate. Here, too, we found everywhere traces of the elks and stags, and saw where they rubbed off the bark with their antlers.”

Steamers often stopped at Little Cedar Island to gather cedar wood, which steamboat crews preferred over the softer cottonwood. Cedar wood burned hotter than cottonwood. Thus, it generated a greater head of steam to thwart the Missouri’s onrushing currents. Little Cedar Island is now snug inside the bowels of Lake Francis Case.

In 1811, John Bradbury described an island that sat directly opposite present-day Chamberlain, South Dakota: “The island is about three quarters of a mile in length, and five hundred yards in width. The middle part is covered with the finest cedar, round which there is a border from sixty to eighty yards in width, in which were innumerable clumps of rose and currant bushes, mixed with grape vines, all in flower, and extremely fragrant…. Betwixt the clumps and amongst the cedars, the buffaloes, elks, and antelopes had made paths, which were covered with grass and flowers. I have never seen a place, however embellished by art, equal to this in beauty.” The island, which would later be named American Island, was drowned by the Corps of Engineers dam at Fort Randall.

A few days later, Bradbury’s keelboat sailed up to Great Cedar Island, once located thirty miles below Pierre but now deep beneath the waters of Lake Sharpe. Bradbury wrote, “This island is about two miles in length, and chiefly covered with very fine cedar, and some rose and currant bushes, considerably overrun with vines, on which some of the grapes were already changing color.”

Steamboat traveler Daniel Weston described Blue Blanket Island situated in the vicinity of the Cannonball River’s juncture with the Missouri. “Yesterday we lay all day at Blue Blanket Island – read a good deal and walked far and long upon the charming island. Birds of rare song flocked the trees and flowers filling the eye with beauty and the air with perfume shone in great beds over the grassy knolls.” In the 1960s, this island, like the others, disappeared forever beneath a massive Missouri River reservoir.

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