“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.

Many of the men who had participated in the trade eventually took up residence in western Iowa, the first territory in descending the Missouri where they could legally acquire land.

In 1849, Theophile Bruguier traveled down the Missouri and claimed a parcel of land within the bottom at the mouth of the Big Sioux. This was the same bottom the Yankton Dakota had used as a campsite since the late eighteenth century. It’s likely that Bruguier’s Yankton wives and father-in-law (Chief War Eagle) encouraged him to settle at the location, since they had been long familiar with its natural advantages.

Bruguier’s homestead, the first occupied by a European-American on the Big Sioux, became the meeting place for a community of Yankton Dakota, French-Canadians, and those of mixed race. According to an early resident of Sioux City, the Yankton continued to camp at Bruguier’s homestead until the mid-1850s, when U.S. military operations and European-American racial hostility forced them to abandon the place.

Following Bruguier’s lead, other French-Canadians settled along the Big Sioux, including Paul Paquette, who acquired land along the river a mile upstream from Bruguier. Not long afterwards, a third French-Canadian, Gustave Pecaut, settled upstream from Paquette.[1]

While French-Canadians established homesteads on the eastern shore of the Big Sioux near its mouth, another group of European-Americans established a settlement on the tableland between the mouth of Willow Creek and the mouth of the Floyd River. This bottom, like the Big Sioux bottom, had also been a long-established Yankton temporary village site. The Yankton had preferred the location because it possessed timber along Willow Creek (later Perry Creek), fresh water from Willow Creek, and a steep bank line fronting the Missouri that protected the bottom from all but the highest of floods. In addition, the site contained a horse pasture enclosed by grass-covered hills on three sides, which made it difficult for thieves to approach a herd undetected. Plus, the imposing bluffs that fronted the river to the west and southeast offered the Yankton a distant view of the lands on the other side of the Missouri, which belonged to their enemies – the Omaha. By the end of 1855, this bottom had several crude settler cabins atop it. And at the close of 1856, the settlement, named Sioux City, had 400 residents and an operating sawmill.

Sioux City immediately became the primary jumping-off point for those settling the lower Big Sioux Valley. Immigrants traveled up the Missouri by steamboat, disembarked at the town’s waterfront, and then trekked overland to their claim along the river.

While a smattering of settlers entered the lower valley, others established homesteads along the middle and upper Big Sioux. The latter group of settlers came to the Big Sioux from a jumping-off point in the Minnesota River Valley.[2]

But just as settlement appeared to take off, it came to an abrupt end. In March 1857, a group of Dakota Indians under the leadership of Inkpaduta killed up to forty European-Americans in what settlers called the Spirit Lake Massacre. The next year, a band of Dakota torched the tiny settlement of Medary along the middle Big Sioux. Fearing further Indian attacks, new settlers stayed away from the Big Sioux Valley, while those who had recently arrived in the valley retreated to the relative safety of Sioux City. Not until 1859 did settlers return to the Big Sioux Valley, but their numbers remained low. That year, a group of Sioux City men established the first tiny settlement in what is now Sioux County, Iowa.

In the 1860s, two events brought settlement of the Big Sioux Valley to a complete standstill. The outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861 slowed the overall movement of agricultural settlers to the western frontier; and then the Dakota Uprising of 1862 cleared the Big Sioux Valley of the handful of settlers who had arrived during the preceding three years.

From the late 1850s to 1867, European-American settlers avoided the Big Sioux Valley for fear of the Dakota. Ironically, the Dakota avoided the valley as well. They did not want to come into contact with heavily-armed, vengeful European-American militias or U.S. Army units, both of which often killed Indians indiscriminately.

With Indian hunters, European-American trappers, and settlers absent from the valley for a decade, wildlife, previously driven out of the valley by the fur trade, returned to its bottomland forests.

The Big Sioux’s geographical position in relation to the line of settlement to the east and the Missouri Valley to the west also fostered an increase in wildlife during these years. The Big Sioux Valley sat squarely between the agricultural settlements in Minnesota and Iowa and the Missouri River trench in Dakota Territory. Because of hunting pressure from settlers on the settlement frontier, animals fled west into the Big Sioux basin. At the same time, the military posts, military personnel, and steamboat traffic along the Missouri pushed animals from the Missouri Valley toward the east.[3]

In consequence, the Big Sioux Valley became a wildlife refuge – full of animals that had been driven out of Minnesota and Iowa, as well as the Missouri Valley. R.F. Pettigrew, who surveyed land in the Big Sioux Valley in the 1870s, wrote of this phenomenon.  “…after the Minnesota Outbreak (1862) the whole Sioux Valley became neutral territory; that is, no Indian ever came into it for the reason that Minnesota offered a hundred dollars bounty for an Indian scalp and no [white] hunter or trapper dared come into the territory because of the hostile Indians surrounding it, and so the fur-bearing animals multiplied…there were now great numbers of them.”[4]

In the spring of 1867, settlement of the valley began anew. Two events opened the floodgates – the Government’s suppression of the Dakota east of the Missouri and the end of the Civil War. Between 1867 and 1870, the population of south-eastern Dakota Territory rose from a few hundred to approximately 10,000. Almost all of these settlers staked claims along the Big Sioux, Vermillion, James, and Missouri rivers.[5]

The 1870s witnessed an even larger increase in immigration to the Big Sioux basin. During that decade, so many settlers wanted land along the middle Big Sioux that the Government established a land office at Sioux Falls in 1873.

The bulk of the settlers continued to arrive in the valley from either Sioux City or the Minnesota Valley. However, some settlers did take a different route to their promised land. The Avery family of Wisconsin traveled across northern Iowa to the Big Sioux. On May 4, 1873, the Averys (Henry, Mom, unfortunately the mother’s name was not included in the archive, Ida, and Susie) left Wisconsin in a wagon drawn by oxen. Young Ida recalled, “…much of the way across northern Iowa was over roadless prairies and bridgeless rivers and streams.”[6] Ida remembered the springtime prairie “red with lilies.” On June 22, the family arrived at the mouth of Medary Creek on the Big Sioux, where the countryside was quickly filling with settlers. According to Ida, “…[it] seemed as though there were sod houses on every nearby 160 acres.”[7]

Across the prairies of northwestern Iowa and southeastern Dakota, the first settlers, like the Averys, were drawn toward the stream valleys because those valleys contained rich alluvial soils for growing crops, timber for fuel and housing construction, forest stands for the protection of livestock in inclement weather, and easy access to fresh water. Ida recalled that her family took water from Medary Creek, timber from the Big Sioux Valley, and built a sod house, which they lived in for two years, from “prairie grass ground.”[8]

As European-American settlers increasingly occupied the lands of the Big Sioux basin, the natural order maintained by indigenous peoples for centuries across the region came crashing down. The region’s large ungulates were the first to go.

It is no exaggeration to state that settlers shot or trapped every animal with a marketable pelt or hide. In addition, bison, elk, and white-tailed deer provided an important food source during the first months and years of settlement, when farmers were just getting started on the land, and before they had put much of their land into marketable crops.

The large herds of bison disappeared from the Big Sioux basin in the 1840s. Nonetheless, smaller herds, and individual animals, remained in the basin until the 1870s.

One of the last known herds of elk in the basin numbered about 200 animals. It lived in the headwaters of the Rock River, the Big Sioux’s largest tributary. In July 1871, settlers relentlessly pursued this herd, killing those animals within rifle range and forcing the survivors westward into Dakota Territory.[9] White-tailed deer met a similar fate. Farmers hunted them so intensively that they all but vanished from the Big Sioux basin by the end of the 1880s.

The muskrat was the most plentiful furbearer in Iowa at the time of agricultural settlement. By the end of the 1860s, impressive numbers of the animals inhabited the Big Sioux basin.[10] Beginning in the early 1870s, settlers, as well as the Yankton Dakota, killed the muskrat in droves. One reason for the rapid decline of the muskrat population had to do with the ease in which a hunter could kill it. In late fall or early winter, after the water in the region’s wetlands froze solid, hunters walked out on the ice to the animals’ lodges. Wielding an axe, hunters chopped a hole in the top of the lodge, then speared the surprised and exposed muskrats in their dens.

Fur trader Charles K. Howard, who had trading houses at Flandreau and Sioux Falls, bought pelts from men who trapped in the Big Sioux Valley.  “…in the spring of 1872, he had fifty thousand muskrat skins and vast numbers of skunk skins…and fox, and beaver, and mink in great quantities, the Indians having been busy all winter.”[11]

The Yankton Dakota may have gone on a hunting and trapping spree in the early 1870s because they recognized that if they did not hunt and trap the last remaining furbearers across the Big Sioux basin, white settlers would take the animals instead. Meanwhile, white settlers understood that if they did not kill every animal that came within rifle range, the Indians or their nearby neighbors would kill them. So wildlife suffered from a classic example of  the “Tragedy of the Commons.” No one had any incentive, financial or otherwise, to conserve wildlife.

The relentless hunting and trapping of furbearers continued into the winters of 1872-73 and 1873-74. Indian and white hunters, employing guns, steel traps, and spears, took a tremendous toll on the region’s last populations of river otters, mink, beaver, wolves, coyotes, and muskrats.[12]

The winter of 1873-74 was particularly bloody. According to eyewitness accounts, many settlers took up hunting and trapping because locusts had destroyed their crops during the previous summer. Confronted with financial ruin, the settlers hunted and trapped to put food on their tables and cash in their pockets. Big Sioux Valley settler Warren Pay remembered settlers pursuing every small furbearer still found along the river, including mink, foxes, wolves, and the increasingly rare muskrat.[13]

Even the prairie dog did not escape the slaughter. But the prairie dog was not killed for its fur or its meat. Rather, settlers killed the prairie dog because it threatened to consume their vulnerable crops. On May 14, 1874, the editor of a Sioux Falls newspaper encouraged his readers across the region to kill prairie dogs by lacing pumpkin and squash seeds with strychnine.[14]

By the fall and early winter of 1874, a large stock of recently taken furs sat in warehouses in Flandreau and Sioux Falls.[15]

And then it ended. By spring 1875, the furbearers were gone – settlers and Indians had hunted and trapped the animals to near extinction across the Big Sioux basin in just a few years.[16]

Other creatures hung on longer, such as prairie chickens, Canadian geese, and ducks; but their numbers declined in subsequent years because of unregulated hunting, the drainage of wetlands, and the conversion of prairie land to cropland.

By the mid-1870s, agricultural settlers had firmly established themselves along the lower and middle Big Sioux. The January 20, 1876, Sioux Falls Independent stated, “The Sioux Valley for sixty miles north of us is now well settled.” Five years later, the Yankton Press-Dakotan observed that eastern Dakota, including the valleys of the Big Sioux, Vermillion, and James rivers, had filled up with settlers.

The winter of 1880-81 delivered the coup de grace to many species in the Big Sioux basin. From October 1880 to April 1881, a succession of winter storms dumped several feet of snow across eastern Dakota and northwest Iowa. The storms were followed by bitter cold temperatures. The snow and cold forced the last remnant populations of ungulates and furbearers to seek safety in the wooded Big Sioux Valley and its tributary valleys. But rather than find sanctuary in those places, the creatures found settlers, who summarily shot them. And apparently the hunting was effortless. The deep snow made it impossible for the animals to quickly flee from the guns of the settlers.

This brief history of the agricultural settlement of the Big Sioux basin is revealing for several reasons.

First, the timing, scale, and success of agricultural settlement depended on regional and national events. Specifically, settlement did not progress smoothly and without interruptions. Rather, two Dakota uprisings and the Civil War put a stop to the movement of settlers into the basin. Only after the end of the Civil War, and the completion of national consolidation, did settlers finally succeed in colonizing the region.

Second, the marginal economic existence of settlers, (exacerbated by the delay in converting the prairie to cropland, extreme climatic conditions, and crop failures), forced many of them to become hunters and trappers. Killing ungulates and trapping furbearers provided them with both food and cash during their first years in the newly colonized territory.

Third, the final settlement of the basin occurred so rapidly and so broadly that many species had no time to adapt to the new human presence. The thousands of settlers pouring into the basin in the late 1860s and 1870s resembled a yeoman blitzkrieg, overwhelming any wildlife caught between its advancing pincers. Animals literally had no place to run and hide. And as a result, they perished in astronomical numbers.

Fourth, settlers had no incentive to conserve any wildlife. The dominant attitude amongst settlers toward wildlife could be expressed as this: I must take as many animals now or someone else will take them later. This explains why photographs from the era show hunters with outrageous numbers of ducks at their feet or fishermen with a shameless tally of fish hanging from stringers.

Finally, the settlers in the Big Sioux basin, like those elsewhere across the prairie-plains region, confronted a series of economic and environmental challenges when they first settled the land. They overcame those challenges through hard work, determination, and unfortunately for the area’s wildlife, extreme violence.


[1] Sioux City Journal, “First White Woman Here,” December 8, 1901; Albert M. Holman, Pioneering in the Northwest, Niobrara-Virginia City Wagon Road, (Sioux City: Deitch & Lamar Company, 1924), 97-100; Sioux City Journal, “Indians, Traders, and Soldiers Pass in Review as History of Big Sioux River Crossing is Related, May 13, 1923; South Dakota Historical Collections, Vol. IV, (Sioux Falls, Press of Mark D. Scott, 1908), 255, 259; John E. Sunder, The Fur Trade on the Upper Missouri, 1840-1865, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), 161; William Leach Clark, History of the Counties of Woodbury and Plymouth, Iowa, (Publishing House Unknown, 1890?), 52.

[2] William Leach Clark, History of the Counties of Woodbury and Plymouth, Iowa, 63, 411, 415.

[3] Ibid., 30-31.

[4] Donald Dean Parker, Pioneering in the Upper Big Sioux Valley, Medary, Sioux Falls, Dell Rapids, Flandreau, Brookings, Watertown, (Self-Published, 1967), 30-31, 58.

[5] Herbert S. Schell, History of South Dakota, Fourth Edition, Revised, ed., John E. Miller, (Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2004), 109.

[6] Pioneering in the Upper Big Sioux Valley, 1.

[7] Ibid., 13.

[8] Ibid., 4, 8-10.

[9] James Dinsmore, Country So Full of Game: The Story of Wildlife in Iowa, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994), 27.

[10] Ibid., 79.

[11] Pioneering in the Upper Big Sioux Valley, 58-59.

[12] Ibid., 22.

[13] Ibid., 182.

[14] Ibid., 95-96.

[15] Ibid., 103.

[16] Ibid., 182.

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